The fragile coastline
INDIA is blessed with a bountiful variety of habitats; from the coast to the Himalaya, the diversity of India’s natural habitats is virtually unmatched. What is sadly lacking is the will of the people to protect this rich diversity. Unfortunately, even decision-makers have failed to realise the importance of protecting our natural assets. The link between forests and water conservation is still a mystery to our political leaders and bureaucrats, despite year after year of drought invariably followed by floods. Similarly, the role of wetlands and the fact that they are some of the most productive eco-systems in the world has still to be recognised in practice. Above all, the fact that our coastal zones are among the richest and biologically most productive areas is still to be appreciated.
Basically, the coast is the interface between the land and sea. The beaches and inter-tidal zones are literally areas where the transition from land to sea, or sea to land, takes place. That the first life forms evolved from the sea, and gradually migrated to land via the inter tidal zones is a fact few remember. Or that several tens of millions of people depend on the coastal bounty for their survival and not on non-existent rations in a non-existent PDS, is a factor that does not seem to affect decision-making.
I still remember with horror a site trip to the neighbouring Raigad district in 1983. We had been invited by the state government to accompany a group of government officers and industrialists who were being taken around by the Collector to identify sites for locating coastal industries. One of the first sites shown to us was the beautiful beach at Mandwa. I still cannot decide whether the Collector was serious or joking when he said the beach was suitable for ship breaking! But worse was in store – we were taken to the Rewas jetty (which is surrounded by a vast expanse of mangroves) and the Collector proudly informed the group that about 100 hectares of land could be made available for industrialisation by reclaiming this ‘wasteland’.
There was general disbelief when I pointed out the crucial role of mangroves in the marine ecosystem – the fact that they provide invaluable and irreplaceable habitats for a wide range of breeding fish, that they provide nutrients to marine life, that they act as land builders and protect the coast from storm damage and erosion. All these factors meant little to the government officers or to the industrialists. The suggestion was dismissed with a shrug and a remark that industries were more important than mangroves. Looking back in time, I think it was a crucial day for many of us, and the battle to protect the Raigad coastline was joined. How this led to the battle to protect Murud Janjira and the Coastal Regulation Zone notification itself, I will come to later. Let me first deal with the legalities of coastal protection in India.
India is probably the only country in the world that has legislation in place for protecting the entire coastline of the country. And it is not only the actual coastline that is protected but also the land between the high tide line (HTL) and the low tide line (LTL) as well as the land extending to 500 meters from the highest HTL. Indeed, 19 February 1991 will go down as one of the greatest and most glorious days for the protection of the country’s coastal environment. It is on this day that the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification was issued by the Government of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
The coastal regulation zone notification is without doubt one of the most forward looking pieces of legislation in India. Not surprisingly, it is also one of the most controversial of our environmental laws. The genesis of the CRZ notification lies in a letter written by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to chief ministers of all coastal states on 27 November 1981, directing them to ensure that the entire coastline of India should be protected from environmental degradation. In the letter, Indira Gandhi also stated that the 500 meter strip of coastline should be kept free of all unnecessary development.
The chief ministers were simultaneously asked to prepare a coastal zone plan for the entire state for approval by the central government. Not surprisingly, almost everyone of them immediately wrote back to her stating that this ‘directive’ would be enforced. One chief minister even suggested that the 500 meter strip would be inadequate and it would be necessary to protect an area of 1000 meters. Unfortunately, since the prime minister’s directive had no legal/statutory basis, it was never seriously enforced anywhere in the country.
As long as Indira Gandhi remained in power, some semblance of enforcement was observed. The moment she was out of power, all intentions to comply with this directive disappeared. The directive itself was conveniently forgotten by the state governments. For them, it was back to business as usual. Every state government resumed the indiscriminate approval of industries, residential buildings, commercial complexes and so on, wherever permissions were sought. In the state of Maharashtra, the Kharlands Board continued to reclaim coastal wetlands for the cultivation of salt resistant varieties of paddy – in the process, thousands of acres of mangrove ecosystems were destroyed.
Needless to add, not one state government even attempted to prepare the coastal zone plan; in the case of Goa, which was then a union territory, an attempt was made by the administration to prepare a plan, but this document too never really saw the light of day.
Briefly, the CRZ notification stipulates that the coastal zone should be divided into four categories: CRZ I is defined as (i) areas that are ecologically sensitive and important such as national parks/marine parks, sanctuaries, reserve forests, wildlife habitats, mangroves, corals/coral reefs, areas close to breeding and spawning grounds of fish and other marine life, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historical/heritage areas, areas rich in genetic diversity, areas likely to be inundated due to rise in sea level consequent upon global warming and such other areas as may be declared by the central government or the concerned authorities at the state/ union territory level from time to time; (ii) area between the low tide line and the high tide line.
No construction or any activity is permitted within 500 meters of such areas. However, in the case of land between HTL and LTL which is also classified as CRZ I certain activities (such as laying of pipelines) are permissible.
CRZ II is defined as areas that are within the limits of legally designated urban areas, substantially built up and provided with infrastructural facilities such as drainage and approach roads, water and sewage mains, and so on. CRZ III is defined as those that are neither within I and II. CRZ IV category is applicable to islands.
The CRZ notification stipulates the types of prohibited and permissible activity. It also stipulates that a coastal zone management plan (CZMP) should be prepared and submitted to the MoEF for approval within one year of the date of the notification, i.e. by 19 February 1992. Until such time as the CZMP is app-roved, the state governments are directed to strictly implement the provisions of this notification.
What is significant is that in 1991 the CRZ notification was not supported by any state government. The MoEF itself was under terrific pressure, and totally unable to withstand it. The officer who conducted the hearings and drafted the final notification can be thanked for the horrendous ambiguity and lack of cohesion that emerged from the battering the draft notification got from the state governments. Looking back, it now seems incredible that a notification like this, though castrated in many ways, got gazetted at all.
The ambiguities and inconsistencies in the notification, and there are several, have been capitalised upon by builders, industrialists, hoteliers, state governments, port authorities, highway authorities, and all the other lobbies whose only interest is to locate their projects along the coastline. However, these inconsistencies and ambiguities can still be easily resolved if one accepts that the notification was brought in to protect the coastal environment.
Since the notification was enacted, the Bombay Environmental Action Group and the Goa Foundation are the two NGOs that have actively fought for the implementation of the CRZ notification at the grassroots level. Between them more than 50 cases have been filed in the Bombay High Court only on CRZ. But repeated attempts were made to destroy the CRZ notification in our courts. Fortunately, the boost from the Supreme Court in upholding the CRZ notification in 1996 made a tremendous difference. I still remember one memorable day in the Bombay High Court when, despite the Supreme Court order, every line of the CRZ notification was dissected with the primary objective of establishing the fact that this notification could be applied only to industry!
What is shocking is that not one state government had prepared a CZMP even by mid-1993. This provoked a writ petition in the Supreme Court by the Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action. It was only following a series of orders from the Supreme Court that the MoEF and the state governments woke up from their slumber. Finally, on 27 September 1996, the CZMPs were conditionally approved by the MoEF.
The state governments were asked to collect various types of information from sources specified by the MoEF, and superimpose these on the maps approved by the MoEF. Thus, for example, information regarding the breeding grounds for turtles was to be collected from the Wildlife Institute, Dehra Dun; information about mangroves, mud flats, coral reefs from the Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad, and so on. A two month period was provided for this purpose. However, not one state government has submitted the final CZMP to the ministry.
In the interim, what is happening? One has to only look at different parts of the coastline to realise that little has changed. The municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai has destroyed two extensive patches of mangroves for setting up sewage treatment plants and aeration lagoons. The Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority continues to busily reclaim land in the Bandra-Kurla complex in total defiance of the CRZ notification and orders of the Supreme Court. So is the case in New Mumbai.
Reclamation is still going on in Versova and Malad. The BSES power project in Dahanu continues to discharge fly ash and bottom ash within the inter-tidal zone, and the Dabhol Power Company has merrily dumped thousands of tons of soil into the creek and reclaimed land for its power project jetty. Hundreds of illegal buildings have been constructed within the CRZ areas after 1991. In Mahim Bay, when the MoEF gave clearance to the Bandra-Worli ‘sealink’ project, the project proponents were permitted to reclaim not more than 4.7 hectares of land for the toll centre. And guess what has actually happened? About 30 hectares of land has been brazenly reclaimed in total defiance to the law, and orders of the Supreme Court to strictly implement the CRZ notification have been conveniently and completely forgotten.
Another major threat to the coastline has been the aquaculture projects. Supposedly meant to increase marine exports, these projects have been environmental disasters. Many of the aquaculture projects have come up in areas that were rich in mangroves. The first step has been to invariably build embankments with the intention of blocking the flow of tidal water and thus killing the mangroves. Second, to maintain the salinity of the sea water at the desired levels, the ground water is ruthlessly exploited to compensate for evaporation losses, thus depriving the local communities of their drinking water sources. This form of over-exploitation also results in salinity ingress.
Finally, since modern high- tech aquaculture centres rely on high dosages of nutrient feed laced with antibiotics to maintain high growth rates, the impact of the wastes that are pumped out into the natural ecosystem are catastrophic. Not only is the local fish population decimated, but the spread of bacteria and infections ultimately results in even the aquaculture ponds being wiped out. And yet, hundreds and thousands of new aquaculture projects came up, particularly along the east coast, until the Supreme Court stepped in and put a stop to it. The government’s response: a new Aquaculture Bill that will circumvent the Supreme Court judgment and allow the destruction of our coastline to continue.
What is reassuring is that despite efforts at the highest levels, the CRZ notification still remains in force. Second, citizen and environmental groups all over the country are getting organised and are taking legal action against specific violations. Some state governments have finally realised that the protection of the environment should be given priority. The role of the mangroves in mitigating the impact of the recent cyclone in Orissa has fortunately been realised. Preliminary surveys carried out a few days after the ‘super cyclone’ devastated the coastal areas of Orissa in 1999 indicated that areas with good mangrove cover suffered minimal damage as compared to those areas that had destroyed their mangroves.
Rather than opposing the CRZ notification and asking that it be further relaxed or scrapped, it would be desirable if the state governments appreciate the importance of protecting the coastline. The basic approach should be to restrict new development within the CRZ to the bare minimum and allow only those activities that are essential.
CRZ I areas in particular, should be scrupulously identified and protected. It is imperative that any fresh investments along the coast be critically examined keeping in mind the fact that vast stretches of our coast- line would probably be submerged within the next 30-50 years as a consequence of global warming. Storm/cyclone damage is also likely to escalate over the years.
A report on the impact of global warming on coastal areas should be entrusted to NIO. This information is already required to be collected by the state governments as stipulated in the conditional approval of the CZMPs by the MoEF vide its letter of 27 September 1996. However, there seems no harm if the MoEF independently commissions NIO to do this study for the entire country. A study is urgently needed to establish the mitigative impact of mangroves in minimising the cyclone damage in Orissa. Only genuine local inhabitants should be permitted to expand their dwelling units to cater to natural growth – outsiders should not be allowed to masquerade as locals.
The notification needs to be redrafted to remove the legal loopholes and ambiguities. However, if it is accepted by all that the basic intent of the notification is to protect the environment and the coastal areas from the impact of unwanted activity, there is actually little ambiguity. Coastal zone management plans require to be prepared on a scientific basis by an institution that enjoys credibility within and outside the government. There is also a need to establish the links between reclamation and erosion. Reclamation, if allowed at all, should be kept to the bare minimum and allowed only if is absolutely unavoidable.
People must also be made aware of the fact that global warming is now a reality. The effect of climate change as a result of global warming will result in the rise of sea levels. At a national level, such changes could lead to the submergence of vast areas of Bangladesh, leading to a massive influx of ecological refugees into India. Cities like Mumbai, which in any case get submerged with 15 centimeters of rainfall, will also be affected. As I never fail to point out, automobile pollution would not be a problem in Mumbai 50 years down the line; not because automobiles would be non-polluting, but because we will all be commuting by boats.