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Supreme Court says it is willing to relax restrictions in eco-sensitive zones around forests, SFI had vandalised Rahul Gandhi’s office over the issue

According to an earlier order of the Supreme Court, no construction and mining activity is permitted in the one kilometer buffer zone around protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries.

On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the Supreme Court implied that it may relax the restrictions in the eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) around protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries. Currently, there are restrictions on the construction of permanent structures and mining in the one-kilometre buffer zone around protected forests according to an order that the Supreme Court gave on 3rd June 2022. Justices BR Gavai, Vikram Nath, and Sanjay Karol were on the bench that heard this case. The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change and various state governments filed this case which sought relaxations to the buffer zone rulling.

Justice BR Gavai observed, “Prima facie, we are inclined to allow this modification application.” He also clarified that even if the order is modified, the restrictions on mining in the ESZ areas will remain unchanged. Justice BR Gavai essentially reaffirmed his remarks in the earlier hearing in this case on Wednesday in which he had said, “Whatever is prohibited, will remain prohibited, and whatever is regulated, will have to be regulated. But there can not be a complete ban on construction. Otherwise, it will again lead to the man-animal conflict.”

Additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati appeared for the Union Government. He submitted that stringent rules on the buffer zones around the protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries have caused certain practical difficulties. He urged that the zones be divided into three categories – one where ESZ notifications have been issued, second where a draft notification has been promoted, and third where proposals have been received.

K Parameshwar appeared in this case as an amicus curiae. He highlighted the issue of the conflict with the scheme under the Forests Rights Act 2006. He cited the case of the Sulthan Bathery municipality in Kerala, a predominantly tribal area that was entirely within the buffer zone around a protected forest, resulting in the prohibition of any new construction in that area. The locals residing in this area are forced to seek permission from a competent authority to continue ongoing projects. K Parameshwar said, “However, there should not be a carte blanche exemptions from all notifications. I do not know whether it would be possible to have little or no buffer zone at all.”

Advocate Jaideep Gupta appearing for the state of Kerala argued that the state has special circumstances as it has forest cover on more than 30% area of the state’s geography and high population density in the rest of the areas.

The Sulthan Bathery municipality and some residents also sought relaxation in the ESZ rules. The states of Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh were among the others seeking relaxation. Besides, he submitted that the medium and small towns of the state overlap with the forest areas, and human settlements in the immediate vicinity of the jungles share a common border with the protected forests. This affects the livelihoods of the residents of these areas if a blanket ban is imposed on the construction and developmental projects in these areas.

On 3rd June 2022, the Supreme Court mandated that each protected forest should have an eco-sensitive buffer zone of one kilometre around them. The court also directed in this order that no permanent structure can be built and no mining operation can be undertaken in this ESZ area.

This decision triggered protests in Kerala, as it was feared that thousands of people will lose their livelihoods due to this. Farmers in several areas in the state including Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, and Wayanad protested against the order, as they use the edges of the protected forests for farming. The state govt and the church supported them.

The office of Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad Kerala was vandalized by SFI workers on 24th June 2022 over the issue. The SFI workers were reportedly angry over Rahul Gandhi’s alleged silence over the Supreme Court order over maintaining an eco-sensitive zone. But Congress workers claimed that SFI was angry because Rahul Gandhi had already written a letter to Kerala CM over the issue.

Rahul Gandhi had said that the court order allows for some dilutions of the provision in the overwhelming public interest, and the state govt should take advantage of the same. However, the ruling LDF had termed the act of Rahul Gandhi writing to the CM over the issue as childish and immature. The left parties had said that the state govt has no role in this matter as it was a Supreme Court order, and only the central govt can intervene in it.

Apart from Kerala, several other states had also sought relaxations to the buffer zone order, including Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It is notable that the apex court has already exempted Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Flamingo Thane Creek and Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary near Mumbai from the order.

In the original order itself, the court had noted that a uniform ESZ rule may not be feasible in all cases and there could be specific instances of sanctuaries situated near metro regions where urban activities have come up over the years.

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OpIndia Staff
OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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