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New Delhi: The Supreme Court has expressed surprise over the Centre's decision to reduce the radius of eco-sensitive zones from 10 kilometres to 100 metres, saying it appeared to be a "complete arbitrary exercise of powers" capable of destroying national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

The court's remarks came in a case challenging the environmental clearance given to an industrial unit located within the 10-kilometre radius of Dadar and Nagar Haveli Wildlife Sanctuary.

"It is extremely surprising that the 10-kms eco-sensitive zone has been reduced by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) to 100 metres. Since an order of this nature is capable of destroying national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the country, we would like to examine the validity of this reduction," a bench of justices M B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said.

"Prima facie, it appears to us a complete arbitrary exercise of power by the Ministry of Environment and Forest," it said.

The bench tagged the case with another pending matter related to environmental issues which is listed for hearing on Monday.

It questioned Additional Solicitor General A N S Nandkarni, appearing for the Centre, as to whether the government wants to destroy wildlife, reserved forests, rivers and sanctuaries in the country.

"You (Centre) have to satisfy us on the point as to how you\ intend to protect the wildlife, environment. Has the concept of 'protected areas' become irrelevant now?" the bench asked.

The Wildlife Board of India had in 2002 adopted the Wildlife Conservation Strategy under which it was stated that land falling within a 10-km radius of the boundaries of the National Parks/Wildlife Sanctuaries should be notified as Eco-Fragile Zone under provisions of the Environmental Protection Act.

The apex court had endorsed the stand of the Centre earmarking a 10 kilometre radius as buffer zone around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

However, since 2015, the MoEF by several notifications has reduced the buffer zone radius from 10 kilometres to upto 100 metres.

The National Green Tribunal in 2013 had banned construction and halted 49 residential projects being built within a 10-kilometre radius of Okhla Bird Sanctuary.

It had also pulled up the Noida Authority and the MoEF for failure to take action against the violators.

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