- A effective safety net to the sanctuary is vital to the protection of Chandigarh’s iconic Sukhna Lake and its catchment apart from overall ecology of India’s first planned city.
- But the rapid urbanisation around the sanctuary remains unregulated in the absence of a declaration of eco-sensitive zone despite the orders of the Supreme Court and the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
- Most of the area around the sanctuary falls in Punjab and Haryana but Punjab is adamant about keeping not more than a 100-metre ESZ around the sanctuary, Haryana too has not prioritised the issue.
The Sukhna Wildlife sanctuary, home to unique flora and fauna, on the outskirts of Chandigarh, remains unprotected as Punjab and Haryana, in which part of the sanctuary lies, delay the declaring a suitable eco sensitive zone (ESZ) around the sanctuary. This is despite directions from the Supreme Court and the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
The Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary came into existence in March 1998 under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, with the aim of guarding Chandigarh’s iconic Sukhna Lake and its catchment area that is home to dense forest and wide variety of flora and fauna. The sanctuary, spread over 2600 hectares on the foothills of eco fragile Shivalik hills, has a large number of water bodies and natural rainwater slopes that help fill Sukhna lake every year. The lake’s water level heavily drops during summer and then slowly limps back to life post monsoon. These water bodies also support wildlife and migratory birds that seasonally flock to this sanctuary.
But preserving the sanctuary, which is vital to the overall ecology of India’s first planned city, continues to be a huge challenge due to rapid urbanisation and lack of protection around the sanctuary.
The centre, in 2002, came up with a concept of an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around wildlife sanctuaries in order to provide them with a cushion or buffer from the areas outside.
As per Chandigarh Master Plan-2031, approximately 10% of the perimeter of the sanctuary abuts Chandigarh, the major part (90%) being along the states of Punjab and Haryana.
The Chandigarh administration was first to declare a buffer zone around the sanctuary area falling in its jurisdiction when centre notified 2.75 km of ESZ for Chandigarh through a notification in 2017.
But Punjab is adamant about not declaring more than 100 meters of ESZ around the sanctuary area in their jurisdiction even as the central ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MOEFCC), which is the nodal agency to notify ESZ, has already rejected Punjab’s ESZ proposal.
Punjab chief wildlife warden R.K. Mishra told Mongabay-India that Punjab is not in position to declare more than 100 metres of ESZ due to the presence of human habitation around Sukhna wildlife sanctuary falling under the state.
But it is more than what meets the eye. Punjab’s Kansal area that is adjacent to the sanctuary is a real estate hotbed. Several VIPs own properties in Kansal area. The declaration of ESZ beyond 100 meters will put heavy restriction on construction activities and increase the regulation.
SC judgement on sanctuary protection remains on paper
It is here in Kansal area that Tata Housing Development Company launched its Rs. 2000 crore real estate housing project in 2007 in partnership with Punjab MLAs who owned 21 acres of cooperative society land in the area and other two private entities owning 31 acres.
But the Supreme Court (SC) scrapped the project in November 2019 citing the project land was in close vicinity of the Sukhna Wildlife sanctuary. In its judgement, SC stated that considering the project in question is at a distance of 123 metres from wildlife sanctuary, the project cannot be allowed.
Advocate Aalok Jagga, main petitioner in the case against Tata project, told Mongabay-India that SC in its judgement mentioned that no new commercial or residential construction of any kind shall be permitted within 0.5 kilometre (zone) from the boundary of the protected area.
From 0.5 kilometre to 1.25 kilometre from the boundary of Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary, construction of low density (ground coverage less than half of the plot size) and low rise building (height up to 15 feet) can be allowed if permissible under the prescribed land use plan of the area. Beyond 1.25 kilometres construction of new buildings and houses shall be regulated as per existing laws, informed Jagga.
“But SC judgement is not properly implemented so far. Punjab and other stakeholders must implement the SC judgement in its letter and spirit and work on the model of sustainable development where ecological concerns of the wildlife sanctuary are not compromised, yet people can coexist with nature,” said Jagga.
Apart from the SC order, the Punjab and Haryana High court in its March 2, 2020 order declared Sukhna Lake a living entity and directed the environment ministry to notify at least 1 km area from the boundary of Sukhna WLS ESZ falling in Punjab and Haryana within three months that is still awaited. The order triggered fears of widespread demolitions in Nayagaon and Kansal areas, where even some upscale residential pockets too came up.
Later, in December 2020, another bench of the high court stayed the said orders after a body of affected residents had told the court that the March order was passed without making them a party in the case.
Ministry pulled up Haryana in January this year
Meanwhile, there is no clarity on the Haryana government’s stand on ESZ. Last year the Haryana Forest and Wildlife department sought comments from different departments in keeping the ESZ ranging from 100 metres to 1.5 km in its part of the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary.
But earlier this year, in January, the environment ministry lambasted Haryana state authorities for inordinate delay in submitting the ESZ proposal for the sanctuary when its expert committee for declaration of Eco-Sensitive Zone around protected areas met on January 18, 2021.
The ministry expert panel recorded in its minutes of the meeting that the stipulated time period for the submission of a proposal by the state government was three months as per the directions of the Punjab & Haryana High Court issued last year.
“The Ministry flagged this issue time and again but no credible action seems to have been taken up by the state government,” it further stated.
Debendra Dalai, head of Chandigarh Forest and Wildlife department, told Mongabay-India, “I presume a fresh proposal (regarding sanctuary ESZ) is yet to be submitted by Punjab and Haryana to the ministry. Had it been the case, we would have got their proposal from the centre for our feedback.”
Sukhna sanctuary needs adequate protection: UT
Dalai told Mongabay-India that ESZs are envisaged as a cushion or shock absorbers for protected areas. Its adequate demarcation too reduces human-nature conflict besides keeping the inner world of the sanctuaries safe.
As far as Sukhna Wildlife sanctuary is concerned, its area was acquired in 1963 for the purpose of checking soil erosion to Sukhna Lake.
Dalai said in order to protect the lake, the programme was started to protect its catchment. As a result, forests grew thick and lot of flora and fauna settled there. In that process, a lot of water bodies too came up. Considering its ecological value both for the city as well as for the lake, the area around Lake Catchment declared as wildlife sanctuary in 1998.
“Therefore, this sanctuary is of immense importance to the city’s overall ecology. We want both Punjab and Haryana to give it adequate protection, given that Chandigarh has already declared ESZ in its part of the jurisdiction and regularly making supervision to protect the area,” said Dalai.
He said the UT’s stand is very clear that they are against keeping 100-metre ESZ around sanctuary area falling in Punjab and Haryana “as we believe that it is grossly inadequate.”
“How much it should be is up to the states to decide,” said Dalai.
As reported Mongabay-India last August, it has become a general tendency for many states to declare bare minimum under ESZ around wildlife sanctuaries owing to the pressures of human habitation and infrastructure development projects.
The ESZs of the protected areas are finalised by an expert committee of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change wherein the ESZ proposals presented by state governments are discussed and fine-tuned. (Till June 2020 end), final notifications for 385 PAs and draft notifications for 161 PA have been issued.
Banner image: Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo by special arrangement.