A sparsely built coastline is our best insurance against an angry sea
Ever since the year began, the Centre has touched one raw nerve after the other in Tamil Nadu. As if the hydrocarbon controversy in the Cauvery delta and Tarun Vijay’s remarks on ‘black’ south Indians were not enough, the Union environment ministry is now reportedly working to replace existing coastal protection rules with a permissive law that will allow reclamation of seas and coastal wetlands. Branding the proposal as a government-facilitated land grab to privatise coastal commons, fisherfolk from five districts of Tamil Nadu have declared they will team up with other coastal states to give a fitting reply if the government refuses to abandon the move. The environment ministry’s proposal will open up coastal poromboke areas (land that belongs to the government) such as the seashore and intertidal wetlands reserved for ecological or communal use, for tourism and commercial exploitation.
The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification through its various avatars has been seen as a hindrance to “development” as it restricts a number of activities on the coast. Curiously, the law applies only to a 500-metre strip of land and intertidal area along India’s 7,500 km coastline, leaving the entire hinterland open for business-as-usual.
Even three decades ago, the shoreline was seen as a hostile place where fishing villages had to cry for attention and basic infrastructure. But now everyone wants a piece of the coast, and fisherfolk are finding themselves squeezed between a seaward moving urban-industrial monster and a landward moving sea. To the fisher, an unbuilt coastline represents livelihood security, long-term housing security and safety from extreme weather events particularly in a climate-changing scenario. The growth-wallahs in Delhi see such coastlines as wasted real estate, and the sea and tidal water bodies as real estate that somehow got covered by water.
The current CRZ Notification, though flawed and merrily violated, has elements that can protect coastal environment and fisher livelihoods. It prohibits the reclamation of sea or intertidal wetlands. It mandates the identification of and action against violations. It requires states to prepare management plans that earmark areas for long-term fisher housing. It is a different matter that in the six years that the law has been in force, none of these provisions has been implemented.
Rather than undo this executive legislation, the government should strengthen it and make it an act of Parliament.
In seeing the coast as real estate to be developed, the environment ministry is exposing a dangerous naiveté about what the sea is capable of. The coast is the buffer that protects the hinterland from the sea. A healthy, sparsely built coastline is our best insurance against an angry sea. With atmospheric carbon dioxide levels spiralling out of control, dangerous sea level rise and frequent and more intense extreme weather events are a certainty in the years to come.
Smarter people would be reducing disaster risk by un-building the coastline and moving away from the sea. But in India, before we get to disaster risk reduction, we have to figure out what to do about the disaster that our environment ministry has become.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.
The views expressed are personal