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The coast looks clear

The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2018, has diluted India’s only protection system for fragile coasts, making it vulnerable to realtors and large-scale development projects

As 2018 was drawing to a close, the Union Cabinet quietly cleared the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, highly debated for its impact on coastal ecology. Before it was made public, swarms of real estate agents had started visiting the shanties of South Mumbai where the country's commercial capital tapers into the Arabian Sea. Valli Sengena, a ragpicker from Sundar Nagari, is highly sought after by the developers and their agents. Every day, as they visit the colony to cajole hundreds of fisherfolk, cleaners and domestic helps to obtain their written consent for acquiring the land, Sengena helps them make a deal. "I'll sell my jhuggi only when I get a lucrative offer. It is located bang on the coast and offers a beautiful view of the Gateway of India," Sengena says.

A few kilometres away, decades-old housing societies have begun holding urgent general body meetings to redevelop property for more floor area. "The notification allows taller buildings in developed areas and construction along the shoreline," explains reality consultant Tarun Chandiramani. But such activities will spell doom for South Mumbai, a region vulnerable to erosion, cyclones and storms.

The government statement is clear: "The proposed CRZ notification 2018 will lead to enhanced activities in the coastal regions thereby promoting economic growth while also respecting the conservation principles of coastal regions." But environmentalists say the notification favours limited interests. By opening up 6,068 km of the mainland coastline for more commercial activities, it has put at risk the ecology and communities vulnerable to extreme weather events and sea-level rise.

Regularising population and commercial pressure on the active play zone of sea waves was at the heart of the notification when it was first issued in 1991 under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986. It demarcated an area up to 500 m from the high tide line (HTL) all along the coast as CRZ, classified into four categories depending on their land use or sensitivity and regulated developmental activities in the areas. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, which killed 10,000 people along the eastern coast, CRZ Notification 2011 was brought in to beef up coastal zone. But CRZ has been more violated than protected. In fact, over the last 27 years, the notification has been iterated twice and modified 34 times, making it the most amended law in India's history.

For instance, as per the 2011 notification CRZ-1 includes the most ecologically sensitive areas like mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes, and intertidal zones. It was off-limits for tourism and infrastructure development, except for defence, strategic and rare public utility projects. The latest notification further categorises CRZ-1. It allows "eco-tourism activities such as mangrove walks, tree huts, nature trails, etc." in eco-sensitive areas, demarcated as CRZ-IA. The controversial land reclamation, in which new land is created from oceans or lake beds and is known to have strong impacts on coastal ecology, has been allowed in intertidal or CRZ-IB areas.

In CRZ-II, a large part of South Mumbai, project developers can now increase the floor area ratio and build tourism facilities. Under earlier notifications, hotels and beach resorts were allowed in CRZ-III, or relatively undisturbed areas that do not fall under CRZ-I or II. But their construction was prohibited in no development zone (NDZ) of CRZ-III, which extends landwards up to 200 m from HTL. The latest notification drastically shrinks NDZ to 50 m in densely-populated areas. "Providing housing facilities just 50 m from the coastline would expose inhabitants to severe weather events," says V Vivekanandan of Fisheries Management Resource Centre, a non-profit in Chennai.

CRZ-IV, which includes the shallow belt of coastal waters extending up to 12 nautical miles, is a crucial fishing zone for small fishers and also bears the maximum brunt of waste from offshore activities. The 2011 notification had thus laid importance on regulation of pollution from such offshore activities. Instead of strengthening the regulation, the 2018 notification allows land reclamation for setting up ports, harbours and roads; facilities for discharging treated effluents; transfer of hazardous substances; and construction of memorials or monuments.

Industry lobbies

The notification comes at a time when India's coastal zone is teeming with activities. The most ambitious of all is the Sagarmala programme. Launched in 2015, it "aims to promote port-led development". The government has identified about 550 projects worth Rs 8 lakh crore to be implemented by 2035. So far, 14 have been completed and 69 are under construction.

Experts say the notification has been drafted to facilitate these flagship projects of the government. The government has declared Sagarmala, Bharatmala and CEZs as "strategic projects" which have blanket exemption from CRZ provisions. The sea, tidal wetlands, virtually any geography can be legally obliterated for such projects.

Initial experience shows that ports under Sagarmala are barely benefitting the communities. In Valiyathura, a fishing village in Kerala's Thiruvananthapuram district, the sea gobbled up over 200 houses between June and July 2018. Residents blame it on Vizhinjam Port. "At least 15 km of the coast and 30,000 people will be affected when Vizhinjam project is completed," says Joseph Vijayan, who has been fighting to protect the livelihood of fisherfolk in Kerala.

The fishing community in West Bengal's Haldia narrates a similar tale. Eight jetties are being planned under Sagarmala in the river port. "Effluents from the Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation Plant have already poisoned the Hooghly river," says Saibul Ali, a fisherman at Rupnarayan bank in Haldia.

Though development of coastal communities is one of the four pillars of Sagarmala, so far, Rs 1,415 crore has been allocated towards communities against a massive outlay of Rs 3,91,987 crore towards port modernisation and new port development; port connectivity enhancement and port-led industrialisation. Explaining the futility of the programme, Debi Goenka, executive trustee, Conservation Action Trust, says, Indian ports are neither on the major international shipping routes nor do they have the capacity to handle large ships. Data available with the Ministry of Shipping shows that while the capacity of major ports was increased from 965 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) to 1,451 MTPA between 2015-16 and 2017-18, their capacity utilisation has plummeted to 46 from 62 per cent during the period.

In Climate Change

From severe cyclonic storm Ockhi and the freak monsoon in Kerala to the devastating cyclone Gaja, the sea remains a harbinger of bad news. Studies by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services predict that the frequency and intensity of unseasonal and extreme weather events will increase in the coming decades. According to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, natural disasters along the Indian coast cost the country $80 billion between 1998 and 2017.

Worse, according to the Central Water Commission's Shoreline Change Atlas, India has lost 3,829 km, or 45 per cent of its coastline, in just 17 years till 2006. While coastal erosion is a natural phenomenon carried out by waves, tidal and littoral currents and deflation, the report says that these factors are exacerbated by activities like land reclamation, dredging of harbours, construction of jetties and other structures on the coast.

The National Centre for Coastal Research in its Status Report Seawater Quality Monitoring (1990-2015) found pollution levels rising in coastal waters. It found ammonia and phosphate levels to be high in all 24 locations that were monitored, which it attributes to dumping of untreated sewage into the ocean. CRZ notifications have stressed on the planned phase out of untreated sewage and waste disposal in the water. But this provision is rarely implemented. Under these circumstances, it is imperative to bring in a stringent coastal policy, to conserve both the ecology and communities.


Ishan Kukreti

Ishan Kukreti

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