Sustainable development is an organising principle for meeting human development goals while also sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide natural resources and preserve the ecosystem services on which the economy and society depend. It is the duty of the State to implement a coherent and coordinated program in which economic development should not be allowed to take place at the expense of our natural resources.
With the principle of sustainable development in mind, the Hon’ble Supreme Court (“Hon’ble SC”) issued a decision on 03.06.2022 in the case In Re: T.N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. UOI & Others to categorically lay down the extent of Eco-Sensitive Zones (“ESZ”) that surround protected forest lands. Strict rules have been laid down with the intention of ensuring that development and preservation of the environment go hand in hand.
What is Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ)?
Fragile areas surrounding protected forest lands are known as eco-sensitive-zones (“ESZ”), otherwise known as “shock-absorber” or “transition zones,” and the extent of the ESZ for each protected forest land is declared by the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change (“MoEF&CC”). The ESZ for each protected forest is a vital element for preserving and protecting the environment from hazardous activities.
In the year 2002, a ‘Wildlife Conservation Strategy-2002’ was adopted in the meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, wherein lands falling within 10 kms of the boundary of each protected forest land were to be declared ESZ and the Chief Wildlife Wardens of every State were requested to list out areas that fall within 10 kms of the boundaries of the protected forest lands. However, in response, several State Governments raised issues over the applicability of the 10 km rule as certain protected forest lands were located in urban areas, which had an uninterrupted flow of development.
Guidelines For Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ)
Taking into account the concerns raised by the state governments, the MoEF and CC issued a guideline on February 9, 2011 to ensure that development does not come at the expense of the environment and vice versa.
In a nutshell, the rules laid down in the Guidelines specifying the extent of each ESZ are as follows:
- As provided in the Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2002, the extent of an ESZ can go up to 10 kms.
- In areas with delicate ecosystems and connecting habitats that suit the needs of a full suite of native animals and plants and are beyond 10 km in width, these shall be included in the ESZ.
- In the context of a particular Protected Area that is specifically designated by the State Government, the area of the ESZ could be of variable width and extent.
Irrespective of the above guidelines, issues were still being raised before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, seeking modification of the restrictions pertinent to ESZ.
Observations of Hon’ble Supreme Court
To put the question of ESZ to rest once and for all, the Hon’ble SC in the case In Re: T. N. Godavaraman Thirumulpad vs. UOI & Other, passed an order (“June Order”) that extensively dealt with ESZ and the activities permitted therein. The relevant directions that were laid down in the June Order are as follows:
- Each protected forest land must have an ESZ of at least 1 km measured from the protected forest land’s demarcated boundary.
- When the ESZ that is already prescribed by law goes beyond 1 km, the wider margin of the ESZ shall prevail.
- The minimum width of the ESZ may be diluted with the approval of the Central Empowered Committee, MoEFF & CC, and the Hon’ble SC.
- A 10 km buffer zone (ESZ) is to be implemented for any sanctuary or national park for which no proposal has been submitted.
It is noteworthy to mention that the Hon’ble Supreme Court had also observed that the above-mentioned directions may not be feasible for all sites, such as Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai (“SGNP”), Gandhi National Park in Mumbai (“GNP Mumbai”), and Gandhi National Park in Chennai (“GNP Chennai”), as these sites have gone through tremendous development in close vicinity and are located in urban areas.
However, because the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s observations on special cases were left vague, causing uncertainty, the aforementioned order had a disastrous effect on the Mumbai real estate industry, halting construction in areas surrounding the SGNP and directing local authorities to cancel Commencement Certificates issued to builders.
Subsequently, the CREDAI-Maharashtra of the Housing Industry had filed an Interim Application before the Hon’ble SC, seeking clarification on the applicability of the 1 km rule in special cases such as SGNP. The Hon’ble SC had clearly set forth in the Interim Order that the directions laid down in the June Order are not applicable to special cases as a 1 km wide “no development zone” may not be feasible in all cases. Further, the Hon’ble SC mentioned that specific exceptions with regard to SGNP and GNP Mumbai had already been made in the June Order.
Present Situation of Guindy National Park, Chennai
GNP, Chennai, is a habitat for faunal species and the city’s vital lung, with a land area of 270.57 hectares (ha) and was designated as a Forest Reserve land in 1978, when it was known as the “Guindy Deer Park.” Right from the begining, GNP has been a tourism attraction point surrounded by numerous buildings such as the Gandhi Mandapam, IIT, Cancer Institute, Rajaji Memorial Historical Monument, etc. All of this being a source of pride, GNP has recently become a source of contention in discussions about sustainable development.
On application of the aforementioned Interim Order of the Hon’ble SC, it can be presumed that the ‘1km rule’ laid down in the June Order is inapplicable to GNP Chennai as it has been carved out as a “Special Case”. The relevant portion of the June Order is extracted hereinbelow, for ease of reference.
“We have considered CEC’s recommendation that the ESZ should be relatable to the area covered by a protected forest but the Standing Committee’s view that the area of a protected forest may not always be a reasonable criterion also merits consideration. It was argued before us that the 1 km wide “no development zone” may not be feasible in all cases and specific instances were given for Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Guindy National Park in Mumbai and Chennai metropolis respectively which have urban activities in very close proximity. These sanctuaries shall form special cases.”
However, in pursuance of the June Order, a PIL has been filed by a Social Activist before the Hon’ble High Court, Madras seeking to demolish the headquarters of the Tamil Nadu Forest Department that has been constructed close to GNP Chennai with the alleged intention to protect and preserve the habitat.
An affirmation of the June Order by the Hon’ble High Court, Madras, would therefore dispel all ambiguity with regards to the rules applicable to GNP Chennai and provide the necessary clarification on what path the real estate industry in Chennai could embark on.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court’s observations on special cases were left vague, causing uncertainty and it had a disastrous effect on the Mumbai real estate industry, halting construction in areas surrounding the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai (“SGNP”) and directing local authorities to cancel Commencement Certificates issued to builders.