National Green Tribunal quashes petition challenging reduction of ESZ around Protected areas

Gangtok, 24 Aug:

The National Green Tribunal has quashed the petition filed by founding member of Affected Citizens of Teesta [ACT], Tseten Lepcha, challenging the Notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests reducing the Eco-Sensitive Zone around Protected areas. The judgment was delivered by a Jury comprising of Justice Sonam Wangdi [Judicial Member] and Professor [Dr] PC Mishra [Expert Member of the NGT, Eastern zone, Kolkata] on 21 Aug.

It may be recalled that the petition was necessitated when the Government of Sikkim, through the Forest, Environment & Wildlife Management Department, in the process of declaring the ESZ in Sikkim, had reduced the Supreme Court mandated 10 kms as a crow flies distance of ESZ to 25 meters in the State of Sikkim.

Mr Lepcha had maintained in the petition that reducing this distance has serious implications in conservation of the ecosystem which is the most important natural resource for development of the State. In order to protect the biodiversity, the catchment area for continuous water resources for water-based industries, the luxuriant forest cover to mitigate the threat of climate change & global warming and to protect the National Parks and Sanctuaries, NGT had been approached.

The State of Sikkim through the Chief Secretary along with the Chief Wildlife Warden-Forest Secretariat [Government of Sikkim] as respondents have stated that the State Government has been conscious of its responsibility towards protection of the environment and has taken various steps from time to time to preserve and protect the forests and environment of the State while necessitating the Notification.

They further contended that in terms of Government of India Guidelines 2011 for identification of ESZs, there is an outer limit of 10 km with no fixed minimum boundary of an ESZ. The parameters laid down in the said guidelines put emphasis on regulation of activities around the National Park and Sanctuaries and not prohibition as such.

The respondents further stated that the applicant of the petition had not raised any grievance on deterioration of the environment pertaining to the National Park and Sanctuaries in the State over a period of time. The State has undertaken proactive steps in protecting and preserving the forest and wildlife by expanding the area of Kanchendzonga National Park, Fambonglho Wildlife Sanctuary, Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary and Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary. As such, there has been no violation of the order of the Apex Court, the EP Act, the Biological Diversity Act 2001, the Precautionary Principle, the principle of Sustainable Development, Intergenerational Equity, the Principle of Eco-centrism and any legislative policy as alleged by the petitioner.

The State Government had further constituted a Committee with members from the Forest Department, Land Revenue Department, Rural Management & Development Department, experts from GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development in terms of 2011 Guidelines for the purpose of studying ESZs around the eight protected areas namely Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, Fambonglho Wildlife Sanctuary, Kitam Bird Sanctuary, Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary, Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary, Kanchendzonga National Park, Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary and Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary and making deliberations which were forwarded to the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change for issuance of the final notification with due consideration of the opinions of 59 people.

In the judgment made by the NGT Jury, it is stated that “the allegation made by the petitioner that a distance of 50m will not serve the purpose of acting as Shock Absorber to protect and preserve the protected areas from outer interference may not be applicable to the situation prevailing in Sikkim as in most of the cases the adjoining areas are reserve forests and there are restrictions for use of such forest for non-forests purposes, in terms of the Forest [Conservation] Act, 1927, in reserved forests.”

“The sole objective of identifying and notifying the ESZs have been dealt in the 2011 Guidelines and keeping the local conditions/situations and ecological factors in view, the areas are identified by an expert committee and we do not find the allegations of the applicant to be true,” the Jury clarified.

The Jury further stated, “it becomes clear that adequate exercise was undertaken both by the State and the Union Government to follow 2011 Guidelines to the extent possible and there has been no violation of the order of the Hon’ble Apex Court nor any procedural lapses and violation of the existing Acts and Rules…Therefore, we are not inclined to allow the application and quash the notification as we do not find any illegality or infirmity in issuance of these eight Notifications.”

Expressing respect toward the NGT judgment and Jury, ACT has thanked the legal team, ‘LIFE’, led by advocates Ritwick Dutta, Rahul Choudhary and Sreeja Chakraborty, Civil Society Environmentalist from Kalpravriksh, Neeraj Vagolikar, and all other well wishers.