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Taken to a lower ebb

Civil society representatives who negotiated with environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh for the last two years on coastal issues are screaming blue murder. KumKum Dasgupta writes.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2011 12:45 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

Civil society representatives who negotiated with environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh for the last two years on coastal issues are screaming blue murder.

The ministry, they allege, has passed a “shoddy” Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification that will make the country’s 7,500 km-long coastline and communities dependent on the seas more vulnerable. “It’s a breach of faith,” said an indignant

V Vivekanandan, convenor of the National Coastal Protection Campaign and a member of the negotiating team that held discussions with the ministry. “We participated in the public hearing processes that were done with Ramesh’s blessings. But despite his assurances, our concerns don’t reflect in the final notification.”

Before the new notification was released on January 7, the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991 governed India’s coastline. But the old law was not comprehensive enough. It did not take into account the diversity of the coastline and was amended 25 times (mostly in favour of developers). There was no clear-cut procedure, timeline and format for obtaining clearances; no post-clearance monitoring mechanism or an enforcement mechanism to check violations. Given the current political thrust — at least on paper — on community-sensitive policy-making, the green lobby thought that here was a real chance to address the problems with the old law. But what has been released by the ministry (“safeguarded liberalisation” in Ramesh’s words) has dashed their hopes.

In a letter on January 10, the activists declined to accept the 2011 notification. The changes that were made, they alleged, have been “sprung” on them as a fait accompli. Other than the major disagreements, such as allowing nuclear projects in the CRZ, three issues irk the environmentalists.

First, the floor-space index (FSI) — the ratio between the built-up area allowed and the plot area available — concessions for slum rehabilitation and renovation of old buildings in Mumbai. The 2011 norms allow an FSI of 2.5 times in the CRZ areas, in line with the rest of the city. Till now it was only 1.33 times. “The extra FSI in CRZ area will allow the construction lobby to grab more area, build extra flats and rake in huge profits,” argues Vivekanandan. While Ramesh feels that it will solve Mumbai’s housing problem, environmentalists are calling this a total sell-out to the builders’ lobby.

If Mumbai’s housing problem has been looked at and Ramesh has assured no more ‘Adarsh-type’ violations, the next major point of disagreement is over what has been given to those who depend on the sea for their livelihood. Since they are poorly represented in public debates, it might seem that there aren’t many who depend on fishing for a livelihood. Yet government figures show that there are 3,202 marine fishing villages, 1,332 landing centres and 3.52 million fisherfolk in India.

So the dilution and distortion of the concession given to fishing communities for expanding housing into the 100 to 200 metre zone of CRZ 3 is inexplicable. In fact, the new rules have added a new category by giving the expanding rights to “traditional coastal communities including fishing communities”. But who are the “traditional coastal communities? It has not been made clear. This, green lobby feels, will increase the density of construction and put pressure on the coasts.

Then comes the debate over the building of roads on stilts in CRZ areas. “If there are two cities that put disproportionate amount on pressure on CRZ, it is Mumbai (builders’ lobby) and Goa (tourism industry). The permit for elevated roads over mangroves will lead to destruction of green areas.” Another point of discord is over representation in the National Coastal Zone Management Authority and the State Coastal Zone Management Authority. Ramesh had promised to have three representatives of fishermen community organisations. None is incorporated.

Sudarshan Rodriguez of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, says we are only moving backwards because structurally, the new rules don’t meet environmental and social objectives and there’s no emphasis on monitoring or resources for implementation. “What is the role of the implementing states? It’s a centrally-driven plan and even more regressive than the old one,” adds Rodriguez.

Despite a new law, the future doesn’t look all that happy. The green lobby is waiting to hear from the minister and if they don’t, they will take their fight forward. Which is a pity. After so many years India revises its laws and what we get is the threat of another round of trouble.

n kumkum.dasgupta@hindustantimes.com