The coasts need science-based policy action

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 By S. Gopikrishna Warrier

  • The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has posted for public comments the draft Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2018. This notification is set to replace the present one from 2011.
  • As has been the trend with the previous CRZ notifications, the present draft makes it easier for business interests and dilutes conservation interests.
  • The coasts have been an area of dispute for more than two decades. The coasts were never ‘no take’ zones. But with each amendment of the CRZ Notification, the State and commercial interests have taken an upper hand over local community interests.
  • Even as research is still unraveling many of the mysteries of the coastal and marine environment, they will face further environmental stress with climate change. Only a science-based policy action can help conserve this sensitive ecosystem.

The coasts are in turmoil again. It is neither storms nor monsoonal winds that are affecting the coast at present. The turbulence is because the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is planning to rewrite the coastal rules once again, and the Draft Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2018 (DCRZ-2018) has been put out for public comments. As in the past, this is raising controversies across the country.

This story of coastal turmoil began in 1991. Two significant developments happened in this year, the consequences of which continue even today. The first was a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) under the Environment Protection Act of 1986 (EPA-1986) to conserve the environment of India’s 7,500-km-long coastline. It was called the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991 (CRZ-1991) and divided the coasts of the country into four zones – CRZ 1 to 4. The second was the launch of the economic reforms process, which focussed on liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation of the Indian economy.


Tidal creeks, mangroves and high-rise buildings are located cheek by jowl in Mumbai. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

The CRZ Notification draws its origin from a letter that the then prime minister of the country, Indira Gandhi, wrote in 1981 to the chief ministers of the various states, reminding them to conserve the coastal environment and biodiversity. It was only after the Bhopal Gas Disaster in 1984 did the country get its omnibus EPA-1986, which gave powers to the environment ministry to take executive action to protect the environment.

The CRZ Notification was one such instance where the MoEFCC used its powers under the EPA-1986. The CRZ-1991 Notification classified the coasts into four categories – CRZ 1 to 4. Of this, CRZ-4 was unique – it dealt with the coasts of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Lakshwadeep Islands and accorded them protection.

The CRZ-1 areas were ecologically sensitive areas that required maximum protection, CRZ-2 covered urban beaches and CRZ-3 covered rural coasts. While the CRZ-1 areas were accorded the highest protection due to their sensitive nature, in the CRZ-2 areas new development was not permitted in the seaward side of existing ones.


Fishing boats anchored off Mumbai coast. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

It is the CRZ-3, into which category much of the coasts of the country belonged, that raised disputes and controversies. Here development activities were regulated up to a distance of 500 metres from the high tide line on the coast and 100 m from the banks of rivers, creeks and estuaries that had tidal action. There was a no development zone (NDZ) stretching from the HTL to 200 m on the landward side and in the remaining 300 m there were regulations.

A simple idea that ran into multiple complexities

It was a simple idea of conservation that continues to run into multiple complexities. There weren’t too many controversies till around the mid-1990s and then the Pandora’s box opened. It was at this time that the economic reforms process had suddenly thrown the coasts into the national consciousness. Till then the focus was on rivers, mountains, forests and lakes.

The economic reforms had a two-pronged thrust. The initial focus was to kick-start the economy with export-led growth. This was then to be followed up with production and marketing of goods and services for the domestic consumer. Business newspapers – printed either on white or pink newsprint – exhorted Indian industry to look at the middle-class consumer, which was estimated to be at least 250 million strong.

For exports there was a need for new and improved ports. For increasing domestic consumption there was a need to produce more and for that, increased power generation was a must. While nuclear energy and renewable energy were too nascent to even count, hydroelectric power generation had problems with reliability. Thermal power generation was seen as the quick, reliable way to meet the demand.

Power plants, refineries and tourism

Thermal power plants needed water and fuel connectivity. Sitting them on the coast was an easy option to access both. The country started to look at its coasts seriously. Among the earliest environmental and economic controversies in the 1990s was the one related to the thermal power plant at Dabhol in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. The Dabhol power plant had additional elements that contributed to the controversy – it was among the earliest private power plants that had foreign investment.

Economic growth also meant more refineries, petrochemical complexes and downstream industries. The promise of aquaculture exports led to the development of thousands of hectares of shrimp farms that mixed saline water from the sea with fresh water from rivers and streams. In the process they moved the saltwater-freshwater interface into the land, turning the coastal aquifer saline at many places. For the first time in Indian history, the coast was growing as an industrial corridor.


The appropriate interface of seawater and freshwater is essential for mangroves to grow. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Coastal tourism was also growing. In 1996, the state of Kerala was at a crossroad in terms of its economic development goals. Should it industrialise and thereby face the risk of pollution to its environment or should it grow its tourism industry, was Kerala’s to be or not to be question. It opted for the latter, and focussed on getting the middle- to high-income foreign tourists to come to the state, instead of backpackers, so that the state got more income from fewer footfalls. The ‘God’s own country’ campaign was launched.

Kerala’s tourism took another trajectory in the coming years, with more domestic tourists travelling than compared to the foreign ones. Even though other coastal states were not as savvy as Kerala in marketing their coastal destinations, it was not as if they were averse to developing coastal tourism.


Beaches have become travel destinations for the foreign as well as domestic tourists. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

The CRZ Notification was an impediment to growth

It was when the country was warming up to the idea of using the coasts as an economic destination did it realise that there was an impediment – the CRZ-1991 Notification. The mid-1990s saw some of the bitterest controversies in relation to the CRZ Notification. When the Supreme Court judge, Justice Kuldip Singh, cleared a clutch of environmental cases before his retirement in December 1996, many of them dealt with the coasts. Singh adjudicated on the case on industrial aquaculture within the CRZ and another related to reclamation in Kochi, among others.

As was expected, the CRZ-1991 Notification went through amendments. It currently exists in the form of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011 (CRZ-2011). In this avatar, the Andaman and Nicobar, and Lakshwadeep islands were taken away from the purview of the CRZ Notification and a new Islands Protection Zone 2011 Notification(IPZ-2011) was issued. The CRZ-4, which was for these islands in CRZ-1991 Notification, was assigned for the water and seabed area between the low tide line (LTL) and the edge of India’s territorial water at 12 nautical miles from the coast.

More exemptions and permissions

The 2018 draft notification makes changes to the CRZ-2011. As with the thrust of all policies in the recent years, the new draft makes it easier to do business. The coastal regulation zone covers the area that starts from 500 m away from the high tide line (HTL) on the landward side, to the edge of India’s territorial waters 12 km into the sea.


Fishermen setting off to the sea in Kerala. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

In creeks and rivers with tidal action the regulation zone has been reduced to 50 m or the width of the creek, whichever is lesser. In the CRZ-2011 this distance is 100 m or the width of the river. This reduction immediately throws open for development thousands of square km of land adjacent to estuaries. This is the land that protects the biodiversity-rich environment of the estuaries that could be supporting mangroves, mudflats and serving as nurseries for coastal and marine fisheries.

The draft divides CRZ-1 into CRZ-1A for ecologically sensitive areas and CRZ-1B for the intertidal area between the LTL and HTL. Ironically, considering that in the original CRZ Notification of 1991, the CRZ-1 area was demarcated for ecologically sensitive areas, the list of activities that are permissible is long.

In the CRZ-1A this includes ecotourism activities such as mangrove walks and nature trails; laying of pipelines, transmission lines and construction of roads on silts in mangrove buffer areas; and construction of roads on stilts for defence and strategic purposes.

In the intertidal zone of the CRZ-1B the permissible/regulated activity list is even longer. It includes reclamation and bunding for foreshore facilities such as harbours, jetties and wharves; defence projects; roads on stilts; public transit facilities; erosion control measures; and renewable energy generating structures. Further, pipelines can be laid for transfer of material from ships to ports, refineries and terminals and vice versa. The area is also open for manual mining of atomic minerals; extraction of oil and natural gas and all associated activities and facilities; salt mining; and establishment of desalination plants.

In short, all activities that can be expected in the coast seem to be permissible in the ecologically sensitive CRZ-1 region.


Across the country millions of small fishermen earn their livelihoods by fishing in estuaries and tidal creeks. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

In the rural areas of CRZ-3 all these and more are in the permissible list. This includes agriculture, horticultural gardens, parks and forestry; construction of schools, dispensaries and community toilets; construction of facilities auxillary to sewage treatment facilities; and fish drying yards and auction halls. If there is a highway passing through the NDZ then temporary structures can be built on the seaward side and resorts and hotels on the landward side. Temporary tourism structures are also permitted within the NDZ.

In addition to the permissibility of similar activities in the CRZ-4 area stretching from LTL to 12 nautical miles into the sea, there is also a special mention of memorials and monuments. There are politically powerful memorials and monuments that are planned under this exemption.

What is sacrosanct about these numbers?

What is sacrosanct about 200 m or 500 m? This has been a critique of the sanctity of distances in the concept of the CRZ. Initially, when the CRZ was notified in 1991, it helped to draw some temporary boundaries for conservation. However, more recently, organisations such as the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management(NCSCM) are trying to look at what should be the boundary for conservation in different locations. Obviously, there needs to be a scientific basis for conservation. The conservation zones need to be drawn on the basis of sensitivity of the ecosystem that it covers. It could be less in some locations and more in others.


The sea even swallows the protective wall along the coast in many locations in Kerala. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

As that discussion continues, the draft CRZ Notification divides the CRZ-3 into two zones based on another parameter – population density. The CRZ-3A is delineated as areas with population density more than 2161 people per square km. The NDZ in such areas is only 50 m from the HTL. In CRZ-3B areas, which have less than 2161 people per square km the NDZ remains 200 m.

This again could be coming after representation from states such as Kerala, which has high population density in its coastal stretches. However, ecological sensitivity of a location is not related to the number of people living on the coast. Using population as a parameter for deciding conservation strategy is like putting the cart before the horse.

By reducing the NDZ from 200 m to 50 m the new draft is increasing the vulnerability of some of the most crowded coasts in the country to erosion, tidal surges and sea level rise. As per NCSCM studies, more than half of Kerala’s coastal length is covered with some artificial structure to prevent the sea eating more of the land. Permitting development up to 50 m of the coast in such areas will make the bad situation worse.


Some parts of coastal Kerala pack high population density. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Coasts need scientific understanding and legislative protection

The draft CRZ Notification 2018 again adds whimsicality to coastal conservation, which in fact deserves action based on scientific understanding. If national consciousness focused on the coasts only since the 1990s, the scientific understanding of the coastal ecosystem also has been lesser when compared to mountains, forests, rivers and lakes.

Even while science struggles to understand the current environmental complexities in the coast, climate change can add an entirely new dimension. The lines drawn on maps may continue to change over the coming decades as human activities exacerbates sea level rise.

Most of the coastal states are only starting to do regional modelling studies to understand the implications of climate change on their territories. For instance, the Tamil Nadu State Action Plan on Climate Change has a chapter on the coasts, which takes a long-shot view of what could happen when the climate changes. Obviously, more detailed and nuanced studies are needed.

The coasts are not ‘no take’ zones. They never were. In fact communities living on the coast have always been taking natural resources from the coastal and marine environment. The problem usually is with the scale. Fishermen working the estuarine waters were happy with the quantity of shrimp they could catch. But when industrial aquaculture created an artificial environment to grow more than what the carrying capacity could generate there were problems – salinisation of the aquifer, disease attack on shrimps and antibiotic resistance. There are other such examples.

With every amendment of the CRZ Notification, the thrust is moving towards ‘big take’ by State and commercial interests. Consistently, the communities that live off the resources feel neglected. Fishworkers from West Bengal have already submitted their objections to the MoEFCC on the new draft. The National Fishworkers Forum have always been at loggerheads with the government on the implementation and dilution of the CRZ rules.

Just as the national government is updating a forest policy and trying to develop a national river policy, the coasts need a science-based policy for research, conservation and management. In addition, to protect coastal management rules from executive whim there is a need for an Act of Parliament to oversee action on the coast.


The sea provides enough for everybody’s needs. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.

Source: Mong

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