Western Ghats: 57,000 sq km notified as ecologically sensitive

Western Ghats has the largest tiger population outside SunderbansWestern Ghats has the largest tiger population outside Sunderbans

After several years of discussions, the government has finally notified nearly 57,000 square km area in the Western Ghats region of India as ecologically sensitive area (ESA) where all kinds of mining activities, large constructions, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries would no longer be allowed. The 56,825 square km of land is spread over six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

The notification covers an area that is slightly less than the 59,940 square km of area identified by a committee headed by ex-Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief K Kasturirangan in 2013.

The Kasturirangan panel, called the High-Level Working Group, had recommended 13,108 square km of area in Kerala to be included in the ESA but the state government had objected to that. The Kerala government came up with its own assessment in which it identified only 9,993.7 square km that needed to be put in the ESA. The notification by the Environment Ministry includes only those areas in Kerala that were identified by the state government.

“There shall be a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in ecologically sensitive area and all existing mines shall be phased out within five years from the date of issue of final notification or on the expiry of the existing mining lease, whichever is earlier,” the Environment Ministry notification said.

“No new thermal power projects and expansion of existing plants shall be allowed… All new ‘Red’ category industries… and the expansion of such existing industries shall be banned… All new and expansion projects of building and construction with built-up area of 20,000 square meters and above and all new and expansion of townships… with an area of 50 hectares and above… shall be prohibited,” the notification said.

Other kinds of projects and activities, like operation of hydropower plants, and ‘orange’ category of industries, will be strictly regulated in the ESA.

Concerned state governments and other stakeholders have 60 days’ time to raise objections or make suggestions on the decision to notify the area as ESA. If no changes have to be made, the notification will become final.

Western Ghats is a 1,500-km biodiversity-rich geological formation along the western Indian coast, which is also rich in minerals. Demarcation of an ESA is an effort to protect the fragile eco-system from indiscriminate industrialisation, mining and unregulated development. Two committees were appointed in the last eight years to identify the areas that needed to be kept out from such activities. The first of these, called the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, headed by noted environmentalist Madhav Gadgil had recommended that the entire region should be made out of bounds for new industrial activities. The other one, headed by Kasturirangan, had suggested that only about 37 per cent of the entire region needed be demarcated into an ESA. State governments and local populations at many of the identified places had resisted the formation of ESA fearing loss of livelihood and a ban on developmental activities. (The Indian Express)

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