‘Eco-Sensitive Zones’ (“ESZ”) or ‘Ecologically Fragile Areas’ are notified by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (“MoEF”) under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 around the boundary of a ‘protected area’ (i.e. national park, sanctuary, conservation reserve or community reserve) (“Protected Area(s)”) to create a “shock absorber/ transition zone” in the Protected Areas and to preserve the areas outside such areas, which are often considered as vital ecological corridor links, by regulating and managing the activities around such Protected Areas.
The Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests (Wildlife Division) on February 9, 2011, had issued Guidelines for Declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries (“ESZ Guidelines”). The ESZ Guidelines were enacted to regulate activities around Protected Areas to protect the fragile ecosystem encompassing the Protected Areas and to enable States/ Union Territories to develop specific guidelines applicable to such areas within their states for declaration of ESZ. While specifying the extent of eco-sensitive zones in the ESZ Guidelines, MoEF noted that many of the existing Protected Areas have already witnessed tremendous development near the boundaries, hence defining the extent of ESZ around Protected Areas will have to kept flexible and Protected Area specific. The width of ESZ and type of regulations will differ from one Protected Area to another. However, as a general principle, the width of the ESZ could go upto 10 kms around a Protected Area, as provided in the Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2002.
In the matter of T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors. before the Supreme Court of India, which, inter-alia, involved prohibition of mining activities in and around Jamwa Ramgarh Wildlife Sanctuary and prescribing ESZs surrounding wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, the Supreme Court vide its order dated June 3, 2022 (“SC Order of 2022”) issued directions, inter-alia, (i) mandating each protected forests (i.e. national park or wildlife sanctuary) to have an ESZ of minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary of such protected forest; (ii) prohibiting mining withinnational parks and wildlife sanctuaries; (iii) with respect to the activities that were already being undertaken within the one kilometre or extended ESZ (and which was not prohibited under the ESZ Guidelines), the Supreme Court allowed the same to continue with the permission of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of each State or Union Territory (to be obtained within six months); and (iv) prohibited the construction of new permanent structures within the ESZ for whatsoever purposes.
Aggrieved by the SC Order of 2022 as various State Governments did not have an opportunity to address the Supreme Court, Union of India & Ors. filed I. A. No. 131377 of 2022 in the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 202 of 1995 (T. N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors) (“said IA Application”) and sought for modification/ clarification of the aforesaid directions contained in the SC Order of 2022.
Contentions of the Applicant
The Applicant, inter-alia, contended:
- There cannot be a uniform boundary for all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. There also cannot be a uniform boundary for a particular national park or wildlife sanctuary. At times, it may be longer on one side and shorter on the other, depending on various circumstances.
- The ESZ Guidelines provide a detailed procedure for submitting a proposal for declaration of areas around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries as ESZ and contain various activities which have been classified as prohibited, regulated, and permitted.
- Rights of the citizens residing in Protected Areas are settled under the provisions of the Wildlife Act. However, there is no settlement of rights of citizens residing in ESZs. The citizens therein continue to reside and are also continuing with their daily avocation like farming, etc. The procedure for obtaining permission from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests is tedious.
- Various developmental activities such as construction of schools, dispensaries, anganwadis, public health centres, etc., are required to be undertaken in such areas. There are also certain projects of national importance such as construction of National Highways, Railways, Defense related infrastructure, etc. The effect of the SC Order of 2022 is that all such activities will be permanently prohibited. If the direction prohibiting construction is continued, the persons residing therein would not be able to construct or reconstruct houses on their own land.
After considering the contentions of the Applicant, the Supreme Court, vide its Order dated April 26, 2023 allowed the said IA Application and modified its directions issued in the SC Order of 2022, inter-alia, to state that (i) the same would not be applicable to: (a)ESZs in respect of which a draft and final notification has been issued by the MoEF and in respect of which proposals have been received by the Ministry; (b) national parks and sanctuaries located on inter-state borders and/ or sharing common boundaries; (ii) mining within the national park and wildlife sanctuary and within an area of one kilometre from the boundary of the national park and wildlife sanctuary shall not be permissible; and (iii) directions requiring the permission of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests for carrying out permitted/ regulated activities in the ESZ shall be modified and replaced to state that: (a) MoEF shall strictly follow the provisions in the ESZ Guidelines and the respective ESZ notifications with regard to prohibited, regulated and permissible activities; and (b) while granting environmental and forest clearances to project activities in ESZ and other areas outside the Protected Areas, the Union of India as well as various State/ Union Territory Governments shall strictly follow the provisions contained in the Office Memorandum dated May 17, 2022, issued by MoEF.
The Supreme Court’s verdict in the instant case has been lauded as a welcome relief for hundreds of dwellers/ residents residing and carrying out activities within the ESZ. This order has further paved the way for the authorities to carry out unhindered developmental activities and undertake projects of national importance within the ESZ, provided the same falls within the permitted or regulated activities as per the ESZ Guidelines and the related notifications.
 Protected areas are notified under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972
 Guidelines for Declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries dated February 9, 2011 bearing reference no. F. No. 1-9/2007 WL-I (pt)
 F. No. 1-9/2007 WL-I (pt)
 I. A. No. 1000 of 2003 in the Writ Petition (Civil) No. 202 of 1995
 (2022) 10 SCC 544