Who's responsible for buffer zones? UDF, LDF engage in Assembly duel

Saseendran, Sunny and Satheeshan
A K Saseendran, Sunny Joseph and V D Satheeshan. File Photo.

The aggressive blame game that erupted right after the Supreme Court notification on June 3, which made mandatory a buffer zone of one kilometre around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, spilled over into the Assembly on Thursday.

The Opposition UDF said it was the first Pinarayi Vijayan ministry's policy decision in March 2019 to sanction a buffer zone of 0-1 km around protected areas that had informed the Supreme Court's June 3 order. The government, on the other hand, said the UDF government in 2013 had allowed a buffer zone (ecologically sensitive zone) of 0-12 km around protected areas. "Should I tell you which is bigger, one km or 12 kms," forest minister A K Saseendran said, while responding to an adjournment motion in the Assembly.

He also said that the apex court had insisted on a uniform one-km buffer zone while the government's proposal in 2019 had said the buffer zones, considering both ecological fragility and livelihood issues, should be in the 0-1 km range. Further, the minister said the LDF government had revised it's 2019 proposal and gave a new recommendation to the Centre asking that the ESZ should be fully done away with for Kerala.

Marayur forest. File Photo.

The UDF argument, articulated by Opposition Leader V D Satheesan, was that the UDF's 2013 proposal had asked that all human habitations close to protected areas should be exempted from the ESZ norms. The LDF proposal in 2019, on the other hand, approved of 0-1 km buffer zone for all areas around protected areas, including human habitations.

The forest minister countered this saying that the Opposition had conveniently forgotten the fact that they had countenanced a buffer zone of 0-12 km around protected areas.

Satheesan and Congress MLA Sunny Joseph said such a norm was fixed for uninhabited areas around protected areas, not for human habitations. "The LDF proposal wanted an ESZ of 0-1 km around all protected areas, including in human habitations," Sunny Joseph, who moved the adjournment motion, said.

Sunny Joseph said the Kerala government had also failed to present it's case before the Supreme Court. "Many protected areas in other parts of the country have been exempted from the Supreme Court's ESZ notification. If other states had managed to secure such relief, why was Kerala unable to," Joseph said.

Wayanad sanctuary
A signboard that warns motorists about elephant crossing in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo - TA Ameerudheen

Opposition Leader V D Satheesan, while making his walkout speech in protest against the Speaker's decision to reject the UDF motion, said that the LDF government had failed to provide the details the union Ministry of Environment and Forests had asked after it had issued a preliminary notification on the demarcation of ESZs in 2014. "The MoEF extended the deadline to provide the details four times but the government did not respond. The preliminary notification lapsed in 2018 with the LDF government failing to furnish the information sought for by the MoEF," Satheesan said.

The forest minister said the government had initiated measures to move the Supreme Court. The apex court itself had offered a way out of the ESZ conundrum to states.

In its June 3 order, the Court had said that if states wanted to dilute the ESZ requirement in the light of "overwhelming public interest" they could approach it through the Central Empowered Committee and the MoEF.

The Congress leaders said that the government should highlight Kerala's high population density and large forest cover to seek exemption from the ESZ norm. The forest minister had no difference of opinion.

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