A Supreme Court Bench of Justice BR Gavai, Justice Vikram Nath, and Justice Sanjay Karol has observed that the purpose of an extended buffer zone is not to hamper day-to-day activities of the citizens but to protect forests. In that context, the Court has modified its 2022 order mandating a 1-kilometre eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around protected forests, to hold that it would not be applicable in cases where a draft or final notification for development has already been issued.

ASG Aishwarya Bhati appeared for the applicant, while Senior Counsel K Parameshwar appeared for the State Governments.

In this case, an IA was filed by the Union of India, praying for the modification of an order passed by the Apex Court in June 2022. In the order, it was held that each protected forest must have must have an extended buffer zone of minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary. It was also held that if any activity is already being undertaken within the one kilometre or ESZ, such activities may continue with permission of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of each State or Union Territory and the person responsible for such activities in such a situation shall obtain necessary permission within a period of six months.

It had also been held that that mining should not be allowed in wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

On hearing the submissions and perusing the background, the Court noted that "hundreds of villages are situated within the ESZs in the country. If no permanent construction is to be permitted for any purpose, a villager who is desirous to reconstruct his house would not be permitted. Similarly, if there is an extension in their family and some additional construction is required for accommodating the enlarged family, the same would also not be permitted. Similarly, if the Government decides to construct schools, dispensaries, anganwadis, village stores, water tanks and other basic structures for improvement of the life of the villagers, the same would also not be permitted. The effect of the order will be to prevent the State or the Central Government from constructing roads and provide other facilities to the villagers".

In a similar vein, it was noted that "there will be hundreds of villages wherein millions of people would be residing, the PCCF would be left with no other job except to consider such applications for permission to continue such activities. Even a farmer desirous to continue farming activities would be required to seek such permission. We find that such a direction is impossible to be implemented."

In that context, it was observed that "As stated in the said Guidelines, the purpose of declaring ESZs is not to hamper the day to day activities of the citizens. If the direction as issued is continued, it would certainly hamper the day to day activities of the citizens residing in ESZs. As such, we find that the said direction needs to be modified".

In light of the same, the directions in the 2022 order were modified in the following manner:

(i) The MoEF & CC and all the State/Union Territory Governments shall strictly follow the provisions in the said Guidelines dated 9th February 2011 and so also the provisions contained in the ESZs notifications pertaining to the respective Protected Areas with regard to prohibited activities, regulated activities and permissible activities;

(ii)We further direct that while granting Environmental and Forest Clearances for 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 17th May 2022 issued by MoEF & CC.

No orders were passed as to costs.

Cause Title: In Re: TN Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India & Ors.

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