For our nation's precious coasts

For our nation's precious coasts

For our nation's precious coasts
In its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), India acknowledged that its coastal areas are at particular risk from sea level rise due to climate change. It went on to share in the document that as an adaptation strategy, India has demarcated vulnerable areas on the coasts as Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) and regulated development in these areas. However, the CRZ notification, how it stands at the moment, raises doubts about it proving to be a good adaptation strategy.

The 7,500-km-long coastline of India is a mosaic of fragile ecosystems such as mangroves, sand dunes, coral reefs and estuaries that support rich biodiversity. In 1981, Indira Gandhi, in an attempt to maintain the beauty and biodiversity of the coasts, had written to all coastal states directing that no development should take place in the first 500 metres of the coast. However, use and misuse of the coasts continued. Then in 1991, CRZ notification was brought in as a legal instrument for the protection of coasts. It divided this 500 metre wide coastal strip into differently regulated zones.

Besides its ecological significance, the coasts are highly productive. Projects such as ports and oil pipelines can come up only on this interface of land and sea. They are premium areas for tourism and real estate projects. Of late, this land is sought for setting up power plants and SEZ (Special Economic Zone) projects as well. CRZ notification was amended many times between 1991 and 2001 to open up the coast for these uses.

By 2002, this led to a notification, which had to be read with more than 20 amendments and directions in order to be implemented. However, in all these amendments, livelihood considerations were missing. There are close to 10 million fisherfolk dependent on the coasts, who were not made part of the decision making process. While dealing with the difficulty of implementing a fragmented piece of legislation, the new notification of 2011  also tried to address this gap.

The CRZ Notification, 2011 has created a new category of areas called Critically Vulnerable Coastal Areas (CVCAs). CVCAs are areas that have high degree of livelihood dependence and hence, should be protected and managed with the involvement of the communities. The notification also draws put a preliminary list of 12 CVCAs. Karwar and Kundapur in Karnataka, Vembanad in Kerala, Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu and Coringa, East Godavari and Krishna in Andhra Pradesh are some of them. Although no CVCA has been notified till date, this provision of the notification can be used to safeguard traditional livelihoods dependent on the coast. However, this notification is also undergoing changes currently — in the last year and a half, the CRZ notification has been subject to one committee review, six amendments and two clarificatory notes by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). Some of these have direct implications for coasts’ ability to cope with climate change.

Work in progress
The first one is the amendment issued by the MoEFCC in November 2014 to transfer its powers to appraise certain projects to the concerned State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities. The change was well received by the state governments for the decentralisation of powers to them. Decentralisation as a concept, is worthy of admiration but in this case, it stopped short at the level of the state government. It did not factor in the need of institutions’ roles in regulated development, monitoring and enforcement of CRZ notification at the levels below the states. After four years of the new notification, which advocated creation of district level institutions for coastal governance, these institutions are yet to be fully functional. 

In February 2015, the MoEFCC allowed construction of hotels and beach resorts, in the first 200 metres from the sea of the CRZ II (urban) area. The amendment also permitted construction of tourism structures in the intertidal areas and areas falling within the hazard line. Without suggesting anything on climate safeguards to be adopted by these structures, the amendment may increase coastal vulnerability. Due to the nature of their profession, the choice of living close to the shoreline is predetermined for fishermen and other coastal communities. As per Marine Census Data, there are more than 3,200 marine fishing villages in India. Unregulated tourism structures on the coast increase risk to their lives and property monumentally.

In March 2015 came the amendment to extend the town planning norms to the CRZ II areas (urban) of the country. This implies that the coastal towns and cities now can be as developed as their counterparts in rest of the India. This was done without ensuring that the coastal towns are prepared for more urbanisation and additional burden on already crumbling situation of waste disposal, sewage treatment and water supply. 

Reclamation for construction of roads in CRZ was permitted through a much contested draft amendment in June 2015. The amendment was opposed by many environmentalists, urban planners and fisher groups for its impact on tidal flow, ocean currents and rich biodiversity of the creeks. This series of amendments was preceded in October 2014 by the report of a committee constituted under the chairmanship of Shailesh Nayak, the then director of the Ministry of Earth Sciences to review the CRZ notification. The committee submitted its report to the MoEFCC in October 2014. However, the report has not been made public. It is not known whether these changes spring from the Shailesh Nayak Committee Report or a bigger overhaul in pursuance to the committee’s recommendations would be the last nail in the coffin.

Even if these amendments are in pursuance to the Shailesh Nayak Committee report, are these changes aligned with the objectives of the CRZ notification, 2011 is worth asking. Participatory planning for the coasts, robust CRZ enforcement mechanism, active district coastal institutions and identification of conservation areas are important milestones of the CRZ implementation. An amendment providing guidance on procedures, timelines and responsibilities for achieving these milestones would have prepared coasts to withstand climate change. But the recent changes to coastal regulation seriously compromise coasts’ resilience.

Recently, the World Bank released its annual score card rating the ease of doing business in 189 economies. The rankings are determined by aggregating scores on 10 topics such as ‘starting a business’, ‘dealing with construction permits’ and ‘enforcement of contracts’. On this list, India demonstrated a jump of 12 spots from last year. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while expressing his delight at it, shared that it is not a true reflection of the reforms initiated by the Government and India’s position should get even better next year.

These amendments to the CRZ notification will contribute substantially to the leap that India sees the next year. So, all is not lost for the CRZ notification — it may be a misfit in India’s INDCs, but if the MoEFCC continues with its course, it can certainly feature in the next report by the World Bank on ‘Ease of doing business’.

(The author is with the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environmental Justice Program.)
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