On August 25, 2021 the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change notified the eco-sensitive part of the Deepar Beel Wildlife Sanctuary on the south-western edge of Guwahati, Assam.
Deepar Beel is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Assam and the State’s only Ramsar site besides being an Important Bird Area. The wetland has for decades been threatened by a railway track — set to be doubled and electrified — on its southern rim, a garbage dump, and encroachment from human habitation and commercial units.
The notification specified an area “to an extent varying from 294 metres to 16.32 km” as the eco-sensitive zone, with the total area being 148.9767 sq. km. But being adjacent to “fast-developing Guwahati”, the sanctuary is “facing immense biotic pressure by way of human settlements and ever-increasing development activities”, the notification said.
The wetland expands up to 30 sq. km in summer and reduces to about 10 sq. km in the winter. The wildlife sanctuary measures 4.1 sq. km within this wetland. “No new commercial hotels and resorts shall be permitted within 1 km of the boundary of the protected area or up to the extent of the eco-sensitive zone, whichever is nearer, except for small temporary structures for eco-tourism activities,” the notification said.
Among activities prohibited in the eco-sensitive zone are hydroelectric projects, brick kilns, and commercial use of firewood and discharge of untreated effluents in natural water bodies or land areas.
“The wetland of Deepar Beel constitutes a unique habitat for aquatic flora and avian fauna. About 150 species of birds have been recorded in the sanctuary, out of which two are critically endangered, one endangered, five vulnerable and four near-threatened,” the notification said.
Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) or Ecologically Fragile Areas (EFAs) are areas notified by the MoEFCC around Protected Areas, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. The purpose of declaring ESZs is to create some kind of “shock absorbers” to the protected areas by regulating and managing the activities around such areas. They also act as a transition zone from areas of high protection to areas involving lesser protection. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 does not mention the word “Eco-Sensitive Zones”.