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Saving our coastlines

Divya Karnad, Dec 4 2017, 22:33 IST
Environmental legislation has myriad consequences because natural processes in the environment are so interconnected. DH Photo by Govindraj Javali

Environmental legislation has myriad consequences because natural processes in the environment are so interconnected. DH Photo by Govindraj Javali

Searching for a lovely romantic spot on sandy shores, far from the maddening crowd? Your search has just been made harder by a complex process called erosion. This is not the physical process of sand being eroded, although that is the unfortunate outcome. What is pertinent here is an erosion of legislation. Beaches, the outpouring of longing for stasis between land, rivers and oceans, are the epitome of change. Change has never been faster than today, with about half of our country's coastline under threat of disappearing forever.

Chipping away at the rock of our environmental legislation, are small tweaks, amendments that slipped past public scrutiny; one affecting rivers, another affecting industry, a third affecting coastlines. No one could see what it was all adding up to, perhaps not the amenders themselves. India's disappearing beaches reveal the cumulative impact of complex processes involving dams on rivers, construction and mining along the coast, falling groundwater levels and impacts of climate change.

Without public scrutiny

As the rich monsoon claims the land every year, the land relinquishes bits of herself as the sediment that fertilises the shallow ocean. Rivers race to erase this relationship, scouring the rock to create sand and delivering it to the coast at their estuaries. The ocean then steps in to layer this sand and sediment along the coast, and the water currents shape these formations into beaches.

But various little safeguards that were put in place to keep our rivers fresh and flowing and our oceans clear and bountiful have disappeared. The most recent was the October 2017 amendment to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification (CRZ), 2011, to allow mining of atomic minerals like uranium and thorium. More significant than the actual removal of sand and sediment for mining in fragile coastal ecosystems is the fact that there was no opportunity provided for public scrutiny or feedback on the proposed amendment.

According to an article by researchers from the Namati Environmental Justice Programme, this is just the latest in a series of such amendments that have been notified without public scrutiny. Another important amendment that bypassed public opinion was the serious issue of lifting regulations on groundwater withdrawal along the coast, near urban areas.

The 2016 report of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources states that India's groundwater is already severely depleted. With urban areas already facing issues of saltwater intrusion into groundwater, the impact of allowing further groundwater withdrawal, could seriously impact drinking water supplies of coastal regions.

A more insidious threat is the gradual loss of public spaces to private property that serves commercial interests. One aspect of this involves the definition of the coast, or more specifically, the High-Tide Line (HTL). Under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991, areas within the first 500 metres of the high tide are protected from development by law. However, the HTL itself was not defined until a recent coastal zone mapping exercise, by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, which controversially left out ecologically sensitive areas and wetlands in Tamil Nadu.

Further, fishermen suggest that the real HTL is actually further inland than that marked on the map. Marking the HTL further out to sea opens up more area close to the sea for construction and development. At the same time, another amendment does away with the requirement of coastal tourism infrastructure to provide a pathway outside their premises allowing public access to the beach. Not only does this physically restrict public access to the remaining beaches, but it also allows for more dense development along the coast.

The construction of hard, cement structures on beaches that are made of shifting sand produces unusual patterns of erosion along the shore. This is most starkly visible as a consequence of the construction of ports with breakwaters and other hard structures in the sea. The most famous example is that of the beach in Puducherry, which was eroded after the construction of the port, just south of the beach.

According to a report by PondyCAN, a non-profit organisation that works on coastal erosion, natural sand deposition flows from south to north along the Puducherry coast, but this was blocked by the jetty, breakwaters and other hard structures built by the port. Consequently, beaches to the south of this construction received all the sand, and beaches to the north received no sand. The regular erosion continued on both sides of the port, with the result that sand from the Puducherry beach was only eroded and not replaced causing total loss of the beach.

Coastal development, along with other industrial development, was also enabled by amendments to the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. In March 2017, for a period of six months, proposers of development that violated norms set by the Environment Protection Act were allowed to apply for post-facto clearance - a process that renders the already controversial impact assessment process completely useless. In light of all these changes, an overall picture emerges, of the very land we live on being eroded from under our feet.

The standard response to such visible erosion has been to artificially deposit sand in order to create beaches. This is not a new idea. The Marina Beach in Chennai was actually just a sand ridge formed in the estuary of River Cooum. It was turned into a beach through active modification and artificial deposits of sand by the British.

Karnataka's plight

The coasts along Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts have already been earmarked for extensive tourism development. Currently, tourism infrastructure is interspersed with fishing villages, but with the new CRZ amendment, tourism projects could cordon off all access to the beaches.

The implications of added human pressure on the delicate coastal ecosystem and the requirement of additional groundwater are compounded by the Union Government's 'Startup Coast' initiative, intended to ease pressure on Bengaluru and develop coastal Karnataka as a supportive environment for startups. This raises issues that currently plague Bengaluru's 'startup-friendly environment', including groundwater depletion and pollution, extensive construction and lack of area for rainwater seepage. All these would have been subject to extensive scrutiny under the previous CRZ laws, but will now be considered legal forms of development.

The Mangaluru-Malpe area is particularly threatened, not only by extensive coastal construction in the form of existing ports and harbours, but also in the form of the proposed harbour at Kulai. In addition, the Yettinahole project and the Paschima Vahini project threaten the loss of freshwater inputs into Dakshina Kannada's waters, threatening to completely destroy the coastal fisheries. The fishermen had a sneak preview of the impacts of reduced freshwater inflow in the years of 2016-17 when monsoons were weaker than usual, and therefore fish catches had greatly declined.

Environmental legislation has myriad consequences because natural processes in the environment are so interconnected. Public awareness that there is no issue too small to slip unnoticed is the first step to restoring India's coast. Environmental governance requires public participation rather than apathy. Safeguarding India's beaches requires constant vigilance, regarding even small amendments to India's environmental laws.

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