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Towards sustainable rehabilitation

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005 T+T-


Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

With relief measures almost over in the tsunami affected districts of Tamil Nadu, the State government is now in the process of formulating a "long-term rehabilitation and restoration policy".

Announcing that Rs.396 crores will be set aside for the purpose, the government has said that it is "in the process of consulting all the stakeholders" to arrive at a comprehensive rehabilitation policy.

In the past three years, the State has witnessed a series of disasters in the form of droughts, cyclones and floods. Close to 80 per cent of the affected are fisherfolk. Also, since Chennai, Coimbatore and the Nilgiris were recently declared as being in the "moderate risk zone" or "zone-3", there is a need for the government to focus on preparedness, concentrating on lasting solutions and not on ad hoc, fire-fighting approaches.

Realising this, the Union and State governments have begun work on a package of comprehensive and sustainable measures aimed not only at post-tsunami rehabilitation, but also at permanent benefits.

Inputs for the rehabilitation package range from the technological and scientific to the social and economic. The focus is on stakeholders including fisherfolk, farmers and salt-pan workers, who are dependent on the sea for their livelihood.

Suggestions cover an impressive range, from the development of bio-shields to aquarian reforms, and address myriad issues, as rehabilitation needs a multi-pronged approach.

A major contributor of inputs for evolving a national coastal rehabilitation policy is the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) which, over the past two decades, has done extensive research and extension work on strengthening coastal systems management from the scientific, technological, economic and social perspectives.

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman, National Commission on Farmers, and Chairman of the national committee set up to review the implementation of the Coastal Zone Regulation Act, spoke to Asha Krishnakmar on the various aspects of rehabilitation and restoration.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is your assessment of the relief efforts for the tsunami-affected?

The immediate phase of surprise and shock is over. The damage was handled with an enormous magnitude of relief operations. Thanks to modern information and communications technology - television, newspapers and so on - people from all walks of life rushed to provide help. One cannot compensate for lost lives, but property and livelihood loss can be restored to a considerable extent.

Now that we have entered the rehabilitation phase, how should it be done?

I have given a five-point agenda on rehabilitation. The first two are short-term ones and three are long-term.

The first is psychological rehabilitation. The affected people - orphaned children, destitute women, fisherpeople and so on - should be integrated into society well. Psychological wounds take time to heal. Some of the effort must come from within the family. Teams of counsellors can help.

The second important issue is rehabilitation of the immediate livelihoods. Fisherpeople need to be given boats, catamarans and so on. But some fisherpeople do not own the craft, which may be owned by those in the city who do not belong to the community. In Tamil Nadu, many own small canoes or catamarans, their only means of livelihood. Therefore their rehabilitation is important.

I suggest that the government provide about 300,000 tonnes of foodgrains to be used for "food for rehabilitation". This will lead to both ecological and livelihood rehabilitation. This is different from other food-for-work programmes. For example, the national food-for-work programme says one must create community assets. Here you are not doing that but rehabilitating your own life. When one is rebuilding craft or houses, one needs nutritional support. It is that support that this food-for-work programme will give. But the work here is rehabilitating oneself within his/her own family and society. To do this, one needs innovative programmes of support for the next year or so, until people come back to their normal lives.

Next come the three long-term rehabilitation programmes, which, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, should use the calamity as an opportunity.

Under these, the first is ecological restoration and rehabilitation. This can be divided into three parts: One, areas where you can cultivate mangroves. This needs places where you can get seawater and fresh water; for example, an estuary as in the case of Pichavaram or Coleroon, where the Cauvery enters the sea.

But there are areas where you cannot get this. So, in the second type of areas, halophytes, which can withstand salt, can be grown. In these areas even casuarina and certain varieties of bamboos, palms and so on can be grown. And when they are coming up you can have inter-cropping - some kind of an agro-forestry system - as immediately people may need some grain. For example, in Veatakaranyavirupu, near Nagapattinam, one of the worst affected areas, we started a bio-shield programme in 1990, where we grew bamboo interspersed with red gram, which has a deep root system. The hybrid red gram did very well there.

Eco-restoration has multiple benefits. It is not only to protect the coast from storms and tidal waves. As we found in the case of the supercyclone in Orissa and the big tidal waves in Andhra Pradesh, they were not affected badly because of the mangroves [the Krishna and Godavari mangroves]. Though total protection is not possible, mangroves give some protection, like a speed-breaker.

The other advantage of a coastal bio-shield is the fixing of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and so on - carbon sequestration, as it is called. Mangroves are very efficient in sequestering carbon. This will also be very useful in addressing global warming. It could help us in carbon trading and so on. Thus, one can have many programmes of this kind.

So the bio-shield programme can be started even in areas where there is no particular threat immediately of any coastal storm. If you see data for the last 125 years or so, we find that the Nagapattinam and the Sunderbans areas have always been more prone to cyclonic storms in November-December. It may be very useful in such areas.

Also, bio-shields have an advantage that they release nutrients into water. As a result, wherever there are mangroves, fishermen are very happy, as their fish catch is very high because of the nutrient recycling.

The other advantage is in the methods of mangrove cultivation, as the MSSRF has demonstrated in Pichavaram. The raised beds and canals, which were not on a flat surface, sort of got split. The methodology of cultivation in such areas itself has some safety. For instance, our programme, called coastal area prosperity, includes the cultivation of mangroves, and in between the canals one can take a crop of fish.

So, eco-restoration has economic, environmental and larger global benefits as it helps in sequestering carbon. Thus bio-shielding has local, national and international advantages.

The second long-term rehabilitation effort is in the field of agriculture. Because after the tsunami seawater has intruded inland and stayed there, there is some degree of salinisation and salt deposits in those areas. Thus we need agronomic rehabilitation. First, a proper survey needs to be done. Some just recommend gypsum and so on. But that will not work. One has to understand the quantity and quality of salinisation. It is important that we know not only the extent but also the nature of salinisation - whether it is sodium salt, what the problem in the soil is, how it will affect crops, and so on. Some kind of a soil analysis - even a rapid one - needs to be done in different areas. And carefully, like a doctor, we need to restore soil health to its previous state. This may take a year or so. In some cases, depending on the problem, the soil may not be able to be restored.

In the coming kharif season (May-June), one can grow some salt-tolerant varieties of crops. There are some rice varieties that are salt-tolerant and there are some other crops that are much more salt tolerant. So, as part of agricultural rehabilitation, we must have a land-use planning for this year [2005] to grow salt-tolerant varieties of crops, fruits and vegetables. Also, planning needs to be done to see how soil can be restored to its previous state.

The third long-term rehabilitation, and the most important one, is of livelihood. I would say that we should not only rehabilitate the affected people to their original level but go a step forward and try to bring them above the poverty line, below which most of them are. I would say, not only restoration of livelihood but its enrichment with more technology-based activities, both on- and off-farm. This is where our coastal bio-village model, which we tried in three Pondicherry villages in 1992, is useful. This involves simultaneous attention to natural resources conservation and enhancement, and a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work in both on- and off-farm livelihoods. This can be done through self-help groups, micro-credit, and micro enterprises.

Our coastal bio-villages are part of the coastal systems research that looks at land and water - landward and seaward. In this context, I think even in the rehabilitation of housing we should now look at new patterns of housing in the landward side and not in the seaward side. Coastal bio-villages will also get all benefits from government programmes. That is, what we call household entitlements passbooks, which we give them. Under this programme, the MSSRF has built three tool-kits for coastal bio-villages, coastal bio-shields and knowledge information centres. The last one helped two Pondicherry villages escape the tsunami. One of our former staff members from Singapore, taking advantage of the one-hour gap before the tsunami struck Pondicherry, warned the two bio-villages, which then, through the public address system, informed all the villagers, who escaped to safety. The neighbouring villages suffered immensely, losing 13 people.

I believe forewarned is forearmed. But not always, if you do not have the capacity to arm yourself. That is, the information should not only spread to those who have not been reached, but people should be able to act on it. This is why in places like the United States, even if the storms are massive, lives are not lost because they not only get information, they also have the capacity to act on the warning.

Thus, we plan to establish a series of coastal knowledge centres with a hub each in Nagapattinam and Kanyakumari as these are the most badly affected areas. We have the tool-kit to develop a hub-and-spoke model, where knowledge is created by adding value to information. That is, converting generic information into that which can be interpreted and converted into location-specific information. Knowledge thus created can then become wisdom.

Thus, there is a great opportunity here. We must strengthen the ecological foundation of coastal security. We must utilise this opportunity to build new value-added livelihoods, change from unskilled to skilled work. And for all that we need to support them with timely information of markets, entitlements and so on.

This whole thing should be part of an integrated coastal zone management programme, in which the ecological security of the coastal areas and the livelihood security of the coastal communities are not antagonistic but are mutually reinforced. That is, ecological security strengthens livelihood security and sustainable livelihoods create an economic stake in conservation.

What, according to you, is a good coastal management programme?

A good integrated coastal zone management should involve three components - regulation, education and social mobilisation.

Regulation started in 1981 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrote to the Chief Ministers asking them not to allow any construction within 500 metres of the high tide line. There was a lot of objection, particularly from those who had constructed before 1981. I know all this, as I was then in charge of environment in the Planning Commission and we prepared the draft. But at that time it was not an Act but an advisory. Most [State] governments at that time were Congress-run, so they respected her [Indira Gandhi's] views. Thus, in some sense, that was the starting point of some effort in the regulation of coastal zone management.

In 1989, there was the Coastal Zone Regulation Act. But now, four months ago, the government [the Ministry of Environment and Forests] appointed a committee under my chairmanship to look at all coastal zone litigations. In Mumbai, for instance, they want to modify the original Act as with expansion, slum colonies have gone right up to the sea and they want more and more reclamation. We are going to submit our recommendation soon.

What is the focus of your recommendation on the coastal regulation zone?

We want to strengthen the rule that no permanent construction can be allowed within 500 metres of the high tide line. But when we say permanent construction, it does not mean that one cannot build a boat jetty or a canal to drain water and so on. By permanent building we mean hotels, resorts and so on. The hotel industry objected to this rule pointing to examples from Hawaii and France where hotels are built right on the sea. But our argument is that people staying in the hotel may, in fact, like to walk 500 metres up to the sea. It is not too far.

Thus, coastal zone management has to have regulation, which should be carefully designed.

The second is education about coastal zones. Even without the tsunami, people should know to keep the coastal areas clean, free from sand-mining, pollution, dumping of garbage and plastics into the sea, and so on. So, educational programmes starting from schools are very important.

Finally, social mobilisation. Panchayats or any such local body should ensure that the community collectively protects the coast, like joint forestry management. We have prepared a detailed programme on participatory mangrove management based on a win-win situation for everybody. No winners and losers here.

There should be a coastal zone management samiti or council or committee, whatever you call it, in each well-defined coastal zone. It should include all stakeholders - fishermen, farmers, government officials and so on. That is what we call coastal systems research. We take 10 km each of land and sea surface from the shoreline and then look at the well-being of farmers on one side and fisherpeople on the other. Thus, we need a participatory management of the coastal zone with a regulating authority.

When you talk about regulation, it is important to note that fisherpeople, in some sense, have the first right to the sea. How do you take that into account in the coastal zone regulation?

That can be done through a process of aquarian reforms, just like land reforms; a reforms process for water. It should be such that there should be very clear guidelines for small, medium and big fishermen. There are guidelines already. Many of them are violated. But the main issue is how they can co-exist - catamarans, mechanised boats and small trawlers.

Important are issues such as what distances should be reserved for different people, and also the size of the fish each category can catch. For instance, if fish are caught very young, then the life cycle is broken. Thus, in our regulation, just as in the case of land reforms, we need a code of conduct. All need not be legislated. That is why it is called social mobilisation, which implements a certain number of aquarian reforms by consensus among the people. There should be a well-defined code of conduct, which the community should monitor.

There is a clear hierarchy in the fishing community. If it is a community-managed system with just a code of conduct without legislation, is there not a danger of those highest in the hierarchy controlling and marginalising those at the bottom? What is the safety mechanism for the most vulnerable in this system?

Hierarchies existed in all countries. It is a question of a democratic process. Our problem is that though the Panchayati Raj Constitutional Amendment Act was passed in 1992, even now, 12 years later, it is not really implemented. Schedule 11, which has 29 items, gives powers to the panchayats to manage some of the natural systems. The first item under Article 342 G is the management of agriculture, water and extension by panchayats. But, sadly, we have not empowered them to do this. Under my chairmanship, a committee has just completed work on focussing and revamping agricultural research. In that I suggest the setting up of a separate national institute to empower panchyati raj women and men to discharge their duties.

But, again, it is only about a code of conduct, not legislation. Will that not face the same problem as other reform processes?

No. Wherever the code of conduct should not be violated, it must be a regulation, an Act that provides for punishment. There are codes of conduct such as not throwing garbage on the road, for which you do not need legislation but a code of conduct would do. Peer pressure and so on can help in several cases.

But there are very vulnerable people living along the coast - very poor economically and socially, not owning anything, and so on - how can the Act protect them?

That is part of our social problem. Not only in the coastal area, exploitation of the poor happens everywhere. That is why some kind of an affirmative action is necessary to protect the weaker sections. That is why I have said that under the aquarian reforms, those operating catamarans, the lowest in the fishing hierarchy, must be protected by an Act, by law. There is a provision now. But many do not follow it. It must be implemented and the offenders punished.