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To save the coast

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

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The tsunami has brought to the fore the need for the strict implementation of the Coastal Regulation Zone stipulations.

LYLA BAVADAM in Mumbai

WHEN fisherman Poysha Tandel throws a few grains of rice overboard before having his meal, it is an acknowledgment of the symbiotic relationship that exists between him and the environment. "When you get something from nature, you must also give back," says this practical environmentalist.

Fishermen the world over make similar thanksgiving gestures to the sea, which provides them livelihood. But with the coastal environment changing, the fishing community's natural understanding of the interdependence of their livelihood and the health of the environment may not be easily passed on to the next generation. For instance, Tandel's stories of hunting for shrimps and sea urchins as a child in the thick mangrove forest of south Mumbai make little impact on his grandson who only knows the area as a concrete jungle. The practical initiation into the profession that Tandel's generation received is lost to the present generation. "We learnt to fish the hard way, and our love for fishing came from that. What do the children of today know? They take the boat out, cast the net and sell the catch to the dalal (middleman) waiting on the beach," he says.

The vast sandy beach that Tandel knew is today littered with rubbish. The sea glistens with oil and where once a mangrove forest existed there is mush. Tandel's son does not share his father's concerns or reverence for his surroundings. Protests against land reclamation, the cutting of mangroves or the pollution of the coast are not his concern. Assured of an income from deep-sea fishing, he dismisses his father's holistic views.

But apparently the tsunami has had an impact on the attitude. The younger generation of fishermen now feel impelled to look at the connection between their livelihood and a healthy coastal environment. Earlier attempts by environmentalists to enlist the help of fishermen to demand the implementation of environmental laws, particularly those relating to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), were met with hostility. The Chennai-based International Collective for Fish Workers wants "the CRZ to be strictly implemented and monitored". Much of the initial opposition to the CRZ by fishermen was initiated by developers. Pushing their own agenda, developers would fire from the shoulder of the fishing community, peddling the idea that the CRZ would take away their livelihoods. It was misinformation at its worst since traditional coastal villages are allowed under the CRZ.

India has a 7,516 km-long coast and its 4,198 islands are spread across the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep archipelagos. The coastal zone means the coastal waters, wetland and shore land strongly influenced by marine water. This is the area of interaction between land and sea.

The CRZ protects natural coastal barriers like reefs, dunes, mangroves, beaches and terrestrial vegetation. It also protects areas likely to be inundated by rising sea levels following global warming. Although it prohibits construction up to 500 metres from the high tide line, the existence of four categories of CRZ permits a variety of uses. It forbids activities that involve mining and dumping of waste on or polluting the waterfront. In essence, its mandate is to protect the natural habitat, ensure species proliferation, and thus support sustainable livelihoods of traditional coastal communities. In effect, the CRZ and the interests of fishermen dovetail perfectly since they are of mutual benefit.

The greatest impediment to the CRZ is that it is viewed as anti-development. Dr. Janaki Andharia, Head of the Department of Urban and Rural Community Development at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and a member of the committee headed by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan to review the 1991 CRZ norms, puts the controversy in perspective when she says, "I am convinced of two things. One is the need for ecologically sensitive thinking. We need to understand the fragility of the coast. I am also convinced that we need to look at the livelihood concerns and food security of local communities and ensure that commercial interests do not ride piggyback on the livelihood argument."

All the nine coastal States of the country have attempted to dilute the CRZ arguing that it hampers development. In most cases development refers to vast infrastructure projects that include the sort of examples that Andharia classifies as "commercial interests", which would often destroy the existing sustainable livelihoods of local communities.

DEVELOPERS argue that the CRZ hampers progress. They promote the dream of expressways, trans-harbour bridges, housing and slum redevelopment schemes. They bypass arguments that support the CRZ. The dream is sold as the ultimate solution to Mumbai's problems, but with the rider `if only the CRZ is scrapped'. Demographic statistics that show that the population influx is so high that these can only be temporary answers. According to the Washington-based Population Institute, the next two decades will see Mumbai's population shoot up from the present 18 million to 28.5 million. The calculation closely tallies with demographic projections from the 2001 Census of India.

Clearly, the city's problems will not be solved by scrapping the CRZ. Take the case of Mumbai's slum redevelopment project. Much of this is planned along the shoreline. Since the CRZ prohibits reclamation and construction within a certain zone, it has frequently been called anti-people. At a conference of Mumbai's builders, Debi Goenka of the Bombay Environmental Action Group set the record straight. "I told them that in another 30 years or so Mumbai will be affected by rising sea levels. Add to this the factors of sea erosion and monsoon flooding. What we are effectively doing by housing the poor on reclaimed land is exposing the most vulnerable section of society to potential tragedy."

This perspective on reclamation puts a question mark on a zone that Mumbai's builders have viewed as a gold mine. While Goenka's statement is unlikely to change their opposition to the CRZ, he has added a new and entirely probable dimension to the CRZ debate. "To be suddenly told that their investments would be under water was not a very pleasing thought," he says.

Goenka says: "The biggest problem of the CRZ is non-implementation since the State is not interested in it." Government opposition to the CRZ is so great that it has been "diluted" 17 times since its notification in 1991. After the 2000 version, there is no official version of the CRZ even though there have been amendments. Goenka says, "In its existing state it is such a confusing document that it may very well end up contradicting itself".

There are numerous living examples that argue for the implementation of the CRZ. Even before the mangroves of Pichavaram in Tamil Nadu became big news, there was the example of Bangladesh where mangrove barriers ensured that no lives were lost in the 1960 tsunami. The Pichavaram mangrove forest is a living answer to the question why CRZ should be implemented. The thick forest slowed down the tidal waves, protecting around 1,700 people living in fishing hamlets located 100 to 1,000 metres from it. Similar observations of the benefits of vegetation were made in Muthupet, in the Andamans, in Penang (Malaysia) and in Sri Lanka. By contrast, in Kerala, several places in Alappuzha and Kollam districts were devastated partly because the shore was stripped by illegal sand mining, leaving no natural barrier. Three-fourths of fish species spend some part of their life cycle in mangroves. For each acre of cut mangrove there is a loss of approximately 275 kg of marine harvest.

Logical guidelines for rebuilding devastated areas exist in the CRZ. But will the CRZ be overruled in the process of rebuilding coastal areas? Past examples of disaster management in Orissa and Gujarat are not encouraging. Neither were lessons learnt from the1999 super cyclone that tore up the `bald' areas of the Orissa coast but left the Bhitarkanika sanctuary unaffected because of its blanket of mangrove forest. Although the benefits of natural formations in protecting people and the land are acknowledged, no action that would serve a long-term purpose has been initiated.

Small self-sufficient groups along the coast bore the brunt of the tsunami. The disaster was magnified because of `naked' coastlines. If effective rehabilitation has to be put into practice, it has to be realised that harsh economic practices will also have to change. The marginalisation of small fishing communities in favour of shrimp farms, large industries or tourist resorts has a cascading effect on livelihoods, human management of habitat, and ecosystems, leaving the coast `bald' and open to destruction by nature.

This is what the CRZ seeks to prevent, but it continues to be defied. Constructions have come up in the No Development Zone in every coastal State. Debris has been dumped, sand has been mined, and coral reefs have been dredged indiscriminately. Shrimp farming, practised at the cost of mangroves, has developed so rapidly and caused such havoc that the Food and Agricultural Organisation has dubbed it the `rape-and-run' industry.

The battle for good coastal management goes back to1981 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi issued a directive in the form of a letter. It was not until 1991 that the CRZ was notified, although its norms have not been implemented. The "artificial development" that Indira Gandhi warned against is rampant. It is ironical that the very agency that initiated the CRZ is determined to dilute its strength.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 11, 2005.)

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