Buffering the Buffer Zone

By Prabhakar Timble
29 November 2011 11:19 IST

Buffer zone is a cushion area in which specified activities are either prohibited or regulated or permitted. However, it has become a convention to describe buffer zone as a ‘no- development’ zone. This is because we have equated development with mega real estate projects, construction works and excavation. There can be development initiatives even within eco-sensitive areas and also within the areas covered under forests and wild life sanctuaries respecting the end-objectives of such zones.

People want development

To my mind, there cannot be such thing as a no-development area provided we understand the concept of multiple and sustainable development. The issue is not of environment versus development. It is not of conservation versus growth. It is environment protection and conservation for development of economy and people for the present and future.

It is easy to say what should be prohibited or regulated. Along with this, there should be a mandatory chapter on what needs to be done for development of eco-sensitive areas to provide gainful opportunities and improve the quality of life of the people. A research and intelligence failure to scout appropriate alternative and gaps in competency to farm green models of development are keeping eco-sensitive zones under the ‘no development’ tag. There are possibilities to facilitate economic activities including tourism related avenues as enterprise for local population, mini production centres for art, handicrafts, and horticulture/ floriculture estates. If forest, wild life sanctuary, river and coastline is our capital asset and wealth, we need to preserve. At the same time, we should also harness these assets for development rather than keeping the same idle and unutilised. However, beach/coastal tourism in Goa are an example of rape and massacre of the rich natural endowment.

Who says 10 kms?

The present hotly debated issue is with reference to the notification of a buffer zone for the six sanctuaries in Goa located at Chorao, Bondla, Cotigao, Netravali, Mollem and Madei. The roots are in a meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife (January, 2002) where a decision was taken to notify area within 10 kms of the boundaries of national parks and sanctuaries as eco-sensitive areas. Attention was drawn of the Supreme Court of India to this decision in a PIL filed by Goa Foundation (WP 460/2004). An opportunity was provided to the States to initiate measures for identification of suitable areas and submit detailed proposals. Accordingly, the Government of Goa adopted and submitted the Yaduvanshi Committee report in 2007.

Goa being tiny has an area of 3702 sq.km and 648 sq. km i.e. 18% is covered by the six wild life sanctuaries. The committee recommendation was almost for a zero boundary as eco-sensitive zone and regulatory conditions upto 500 meters from the wild life boundary. This approach has not found acceptance with the Ministry of Environment & Forests. The MoEF has instructed all States to form a small committee consisting of Wild Life Warden, an Ecologist, an official from the local self-government and an official from the Revenue department of the concerned area and issued fresh guidelines for delineation of eco-sensitive zone around wildlife. The Government of Goa has constituted committees for each of the sanctuaries in November, 2011.

In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court acting on its own wisdom issued an interim order in the WP of Goa Foundation and instructed the MoEF to refer to the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, the cases where environment clearance has already been granted where activities are within 10 km zone. This overreach was uncalled for since the area under buffer zone was and is still not a policy announced by the Central Government. It may be a good intention of the Indian Board for Wildlife, but the same has not been notified. The figure of 10 kms without a policy frame, aims and objectives sought to be achieved, the nexus between the buffer zone and the mischief sought to be remedied, the ground workability of the buffer zone are critical issues. It is an enigma how the highest court of the land acts arbitrarily. Another issue of serious concern is of the Supreme Court giving direct approvals to projects even before they are approved by statutory bodies. A well-known case is the mining proposal of Orissa Mining Corporation and Sterlite Industries wherein Supreme Court granted forest clearance for diversion of 600 hectares of forest land for the purpose of bauxite mining even before the proposal was considered by the statutory organs of the MoEF. Though we cannot deny that the judiciary has played a pivotal role in preservation of environment and wild life, that’s should not be a licence for judicial adventurism. Recently, we find courts speedily ordering on matters on which they should not decide. Where speedy decisions are needed because matters are in their exclusive purview, there is delay which appears to be endless. This is what makes us to dread the judiciary.

Uniform buffer impractical

The National Board for Wildlife has definitely duty and full powers to promote the conservation and development of Wildlife within the Wildlife areas and corridors. When it comes to delineation of eco-sensitive areas/buffer zones, they need to move forward in consultation with other stakeholders. A uniform buffer zone for all the States in India is neither advisable not practicable. The coat has to be stitched depending on the dimensions of the cloth. Similarly, there cannot be a uniform list of activities prohibited, regulated and permissible. This will also depend on people and natural endowments. In the buffer zone area there may be settlers conducting their life and livelihood activities for over 40-50 years. They pose no threat to environment and ecology. They have mingled and dissolved in these eco-sensitive areas and are inseparable like milk, sugar and tea.

Undoubtedly, Goa is small. But, a case for a zero buffer zone cannot stand even for a small State. The same is also not in the economic and business interests of Goa for the future.  Goa has ecologically sensitive areas and certain activities which will cause ecological imbalance should not be permitted in surrounding area. But, they are not definitely “no- development” and untouchable areas.  Environmental fundamentalists may press for 10 km buffer zones simply because of a decision of the Indian Board for Wild Life. This may look attractive for an activist, but may be disastrous for the people.

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Prabhakar Timble

Mr Prabhakar Timble is an educationist and a legal expert. He has served several educational institutions, especially as the Principal of Government College at Quepem, Kare College of Law in Madgao as well as couple of Management Institutes. He was also the State Election Commissioner of Goa.

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