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India's Weakened Coastline

The socio-ecological fallout of coastal infrastructure projects

By Vinita Govindarajan

The tall, swaying coconut trees on G Kalaivasan's farm have been the main source of income for his family for three generations. The 50-year-old farmer owns land with over a hundred coconut trees in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, which lies at the southernmost tip of India. ‘My grandfather planted them more than 60 years ago’, said Kalaivasan, who earns around $1000 each season by selling coconuts.

But Kalaivasan and several other farmers in this region fear the loss of their land and livelihood. Mugilakudiyirappu village, home to Kalaivasan’s farm and within a mile’s distance of the shore, was earmarked by the central government to develop a major international port in December 2017.

The project’s inception lies in the Ministry of Shipping’s aim to capitalise on Kanyakumari’s proximity to international shipping routes between South Asia and the global west. Currently, around 80% of India’s container shipment is outsourced to the ports of Colombo, Kelang and Singapore, at the loss of more than $200 million each year. By building a trans-shipment hub to handle a large cargo capacity, the Indian government intends not only to cut its losses but also to boost the country’s trade competitiveness.

Even though government authorities have assured residents of the villages that none of them will be displaced and no land acquisition would take place, the residents accuse them of lying. The farmers in the region fear that the project would bring along drastic changes to Kanyakumari’s ecology and landscape, including the complete takeover of their farmlands for the development of roads and ancillary port facilities. ‘We will have to sell our land to the government at a very low rate’, said Kalaivasan, ‘then where do we go? How can we leave our village and begin our life all over again elsewhere?’

Garland of ports

The port in Kanyakumari is just one of the 500 plus projects that the Indian government plans to undertake along the country’s vast coastline of over 7500 km. In 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government launched one of its flagship programmes called the Sagarmala, or Garland of the Sea, with port-led development as its main objective. This is essentially an extension of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s larger ‘Make in India’ initiative, which aims to attract foreign investment, boost manufacturing and generate millions of jobs. The establishment of new ports and industrial hubs near the coasts aims to connect sites of manufacturing directly with the global market.

However, these promises do not sound appealing to the local communities who earn their livelihoods in many proposed project areas. For instance, the fisherfolk of Ennore, an industrial hub in northern Chennai, have already witnessed the disastrous effects of port-led development on their livelihoods and the local environment. The Ennore creek, which lies at the mouth of the Kosasthalaiyar river, was once girded by mangrove trees, salt pans and tidal mudflats. Now, however, it is surrounded by 11 industrial plants that empty hazardous wastes into its estuarine ecosystem, including toxic flyash and other oily effluents.

More than 15 varieties of fish and crustaceans have disappeared from the creek over the years, including mackerel, catfish, sand whiting, tiger prawn, striped crab and mud crab.

According to the fisherfolk, this is the reason why more than 15 varieties of fish and crustaceans have disappeared from the creek over the years, including mackerel, catfish, sand whiting, tiger prawn, striped crab and mud crab. Further, an air quality study concludes that the people of Ennore are breathing in toxins substantially above the permissible level and as a consequence suffering from breathing disorders and skin disease. The encroachments on the creek and the solid waste that blocks the river mouth cause intense flooding in the surrounding areas even after a short spell of rain.

“What is now being done in Ennore is being repeated in Kanyakumari,” argues Nityanand Jayaraman, a writer and social activist based in Chennai, ‘the place they have chosen is ecologically very special, since it has sand dunes with vegetation on one side and agriculture on the landward side, within 100 metres from the sea. There is also the Manakudi estuary nearby with mangroves and more than 1000 acres of tidal salt marshes, salt pans and mudflats. These are the areas that are likely to be threatened.’

Dilution of regulations

Ecologically sensitive areas along the coast such as Ennore Creek are protected under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 2011, which limits development activity along the entire coastline. However, those opposing the projects say that these regulations are being systematically diluted to facilitate large scale projects such as those under the Sagarmala programme.

‘The notification laid down very strict rules for coastal management which is not feasible to implement if we are looking at making the coast a launchpad for economic growth and bringing in industries’, said Pooja Kumar of the Chennai-based Coastal Resource Centre, ‘so the government is constantly trying to bring in changes.’

The rules have been amended more than ten times since they came into force in 2011, affecting the lives of 171 million people living in 66 coastal districts. Policy researchers have noted that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has taken a two pronged approach to bring in these changes to coastal management. On one hand, the government is trying to revamp the rules altogether as earlier this year they introduced a draft for a new notification. At the same time, the government is constantly amending the existing 2011 notification, without pausing to legitimise the new one.

‘With both approaches’, said Kanchi Kohli, legal research director of the Namati Environmental Justice Program, ‘the common trend is that the most ecologically fragile spaces are being opened up for all kinds of development’. Kohli claims that the weakening of these coastal protection rules has left several mangrove forests, marshlands and salt pans open for unsustainable development activity.

In July this year, the government announced an amendment to the existing rules to allow projects by defence organisations which are of ‘strategic requirement’ and ‘national importance’ within protected zones where development activity was previously prohibited.  ‘These areas directly correspond with the project areas under Sagarmala – it’s almost like you’re building up or commercialising the coast’, Kohli said.

Under the existing protection rules, each state is expected to publish comprehensive coastal zone management plans which regulate activities in an area up to 500 metres from highest point of tidal influence. These plans were to be prepared five years ago, but the states only published these plans in February 2018. These too have been declared as incomplete by environmentalists. For instance, as the Coastal Resource Centre pointed out, the map of the project site in Kanyakumari district completely excludes the salt pans in the region, which were originally protected inter-tidal areas that acted as buffers against flooding.

‘Development for whom?’

Although one of the objectives of the Sagarmala is coastal community development, there is significant scepticism regarding this. ‘Even though Sagarmala talks about fisheries, they talk only about commercially high-end, or highly mechanised fisheries’, said Kohli, adding that little support would be extended towards small-scale or traditional fishermen under the programme.

At the same time, the fishing communities are being stripped of their role in governing the coasts. The new draft coastal rules have attempted to dilute the role of the district level committee – which consisted of at least three persons from the local fishing community – such that it could no longer take note of violations and report them to the central coastal authorities.

Among the many other amendments brought in to coastal regulation, one of the most crucial was the diluted role of the hazard line, a geospatial demarcation which maps areas vulnerable to waves, tides, and sea level rise. Previously, all development activity within the hazard line was heavily regulated. ‘Now, rather than having an administrative role in deciding coastal regulatory zones, the hazard line has been reduced to just a tool of reference while planning coastal land use’, said Pooja Kumar.

Thus, even as the Indian government has taken up ambitious climate action plans to cut down carbon emissions, India’s coasts are being increasingly rendered vulnerable to the effects of climate change by its own government. The Sagarmala and the affiliated Bharatmala programme – aimed at developing highways and transport corridors – only seem to indicate a greater push towards industrial and big-business driven development. This is despite the fact that in the past few years the Indian coast has experienced destructive storm surges like Cyclone Vardah and Cyclone Ockhi, and massive deluges such as the recent floods in Kerala that left more than 450 people dead.

Back in Ennore Creek, the fisherfolk have had to keep up with all the changes to the coast, most of which are against their interests.  

‘There were only a few regulations safeguarding the rights of fisherfolk, and these are all being wiped out’, said Srinivasan, the leader of the fishing cooperative. ‘Is displacement of people by companies what is called growth? Will anyone come and tell us that they can guarantee my family jobs, for all the future generations? The sea can do that. So, who is this development for? Is it for people or corporations?’


Images taken by the author, illustration by Isabel Galwey

Vinita Govindarajan reads an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at Hertford College, Oxford University. She was previously a journalist based in Chennai, India.


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