By Sruthisagar Yamunan
The Big Story: Coastline under threat
The Indian coastline measures 7,516 km and the coastal states alone are home to about 560 million people, according to the Census 2011 data. Along the coast live a number of vulnerable communities who depend on the sea and the shore for their livelihood. The law also recognises their traditional rights over the coast. Backed by Supreme Court orders, environmentalists have managed, over the years, to force the government to regulate the coastline and come up with rules that could, when implemented in spirit, protect this sensitive ecosystem from rampant development and damage.
But despite years of activism and judicial pronouncements, governments continue to act in a highly opaque manner when it comes to coastal regulations. Both the Centre and the state governments have resisted sharing information on important regulatory mechanisms and the changes they make to them periodically. Many of these changes are made in direct contradiction to the original laws and are in the form of condoning rampant construction and industrial violations through retrospective clearances. In some cases, as in Tamil Nadu, the government goes to the extent of hiding crucial coastal plans from public scrutiny to facilitate encroachments on creeks and estuaries. Such encroachments were a reason for the floods that ravaged Chennai in December 2015.
The effects of such non-transparent functioning could cause immeasurable damage to the coast, as we have seen in the case of Puducherry. A port project that was initiated despite opposition in the 1980s resulted in severe coastal erosion, with the famed Puducherry beach completely disappearing in a matter of years. Today, what was once a beautiful sandy beach has been replaced with groynes to contain the erosion.
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests is no better, if not worse, than state governments. The Centre has drafted a new legal framework to protect the coast. Called the Marine Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2017, it will replace the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011. Its contents have not been made publicly available. The drafting has been done with close to zero public consultation though it involves the lives of about 560 million people. Activists are still struggling to obtain coordinates of the High Tide Line, a key element in implementing the Coastal Regulation Zone.
While the government seems to believe that denying transparency might help gain short-term benefits on the economic front through exploitation of coastal resources, it would only lead to irreversible long-term damage to India’s environment interests. It is for this reason the Supreme Court in 1995 said:
“Tolerating infringement of [environment] laws is worse than not enacting a law at all. … Continued tolerance of such violations of law not only renders legal provisions nugatory but such tolerance by the enforcement authorities encourages lawlessness and adoption of means which cannot, or ought not to, be tolerated in any civilized society.”
The Big Scroll
- India’s new coastal rules have been enacted in complete secrecy and facilitate more commercialisation.
- The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests will not reveal the coordinates of the India’s High Tide Line, treating this important information as a commercial asset.
- Vinita Govindarajan reports on how Tamil Nadu hid a crucial coastal plan to allow encroachments of a creek near Chennai.