Securing our Coastal Assets

Is half a day enough to discuss coastal matters? Perhaps not. But every such meeting brings forth new information and new knowledge which is always helpful to understand a little bit more about problems of the coast. Thus, the seminar organized on 17th October by PondyCAN supported by the Freemasons and the Chennai Chapter of INTACH did bring out some very crucial points. The pity was that not too many people knew about it and it was not reported in the press either.

The programme began with a welcome address by Sri Probir Banerjee, ARGM, Chennai Area Regional Grand Lodge of Southern India. He explained the genesis of the meeting and said that because of motives of profit over environment, local communities are becoming refugees. The objective of the seminar was to get a larger picture of coastal ecology.


Hon’ble Dr. Justice P Jothimani, Judicial Member of the National Green Tribunal, was the Chief Guest and gave the inaugural address. He spoke about his experiences with the NGT, and said that over half of the natural disasters are due to human negligence. He referred to the extent of illegal activities on the coast, the proliferation of groynes and seawalls and the absence of uniform coastal legislation. He also mentioned how brick kilns operating in the Sunderbans were supplying the building requirements of Kolkata. He mentioned how the Supreme Court has emphatically said that nature was to be preserved for the future and the importance of ‘polluters pay’ and ‘precautionary principle’. The challenge before us is to balance economic development and environmental protection. The term ‘sustainable development’ is loosely understood and no one has a clear idea of the same. He observed that variation in expert opinion added to the confusion. He concluded his address by saying that courts cannot solve environmental issues. Only comprehensive dialogues by experts in the field with all the stakeholders in seminars like this can help in finding solutions to the environmental problems faced by us.


The first technical session opened with the screening of the film, “India’s disappearing beaches – A wakeup call” produced by veteran filmmaker Shekar Dattatri for PondyCAN. Recent studies show that about 40 per cent of India’s coastline is already subject to erosion. Among the important reasons are the blocking of the free flow of sand along the coast, littoral drift or longshore drift, due to the presence of increasing number of structures. Aurofilio Schiavina of PondyCAN who has been instrumental in documenting this problem in Puducherry. The town had a beautiful beach once and then they built a port. The port’s breakwaters obstructed the longshore drift and the beach disappeared. The sand by-pass system that would have protected the beach was not activated. Constructing a seawall to protect an eroding coast only transferred the problem to the adjacent area. After all, beaches are extremely important not only for their recreational value but also because they prevent seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers and protect the coast from storm surges. He described the difference between terrestrial and coastal infrastructure. The former included roads and bridges and was static in the sense that once the construction was completed, their impacts are not likely to worsen. On the other hand, coastal infrastructure like breakwaters in harbours was dynamic and had greater longer-term impacts. 


Dr Jayasree Vencatesan, Trustee, Care Earth spoke on “Impacts of development on coastal wetlands’. Her talk had six major points. The first one was ‘the problem of definition’. Wetlands meant different things to different people and this fuzzy definition created a number of problems. The Ramsar Convention’s definition, for example, was very comprehensive, encompassing marshes and swamps but lakes and estuaries too. They had mapped 474 wetland complexes in and around Chennai but the PWD rejected this claiming that there were only 43 waterbodies. The problem of definition resulted in the conversion of natural shallow creeks with their own function of absorbing floodwaters into deep water bodies by which their wetland character was lost. Another case was that of the Pallikaranai marsh which was converted into a bird sanctuary by putting up mounds in the middle of the marsh, thus creating more ‘edge’ and changing the character of the marsh. Some wetlands like ‘Kaarapidagai’, a large contiguous wetland in Nagapattinam district was not even identified as a wetland and hence was being subject to extensive abuse through construction, mining and other activities. The second point was ‘the problem of overriding human concerns’, especially programmes on beautification of the coast. The third was the ‘archaic system of classification of natural resources’. As our knowledge and understanding improve, so should our response. But we continue with ancient systems as sometimes, they are more convenient perhaps. Thus wasteland and wetland are often ‘convertible’ categories. The Pallikaranai marsh was categorised as ‘wasteland’ by the British. It is a swamp or marsh. But using the archaeic definition is convenient when parts of the marsh can be reclaimed for building. Thus, the NIOT and the Centre for Wind Energy, both Government establishments, are located in reclaimed areas of the marsh as it was classified as a wasteland and hence of no value. The fourth was ‘the absence of natural land use zonation policy’. This means that there are no clear ways by which certain areas can be declared as inviolate. The last is the problem of stereo-typing of institutions without looking at their capacity or what they were doing. Thus, non-governmental organizations are considered fit only for conducting awareness campaigns or filing PIL. Her last point was ‘unidentified coastal wetlands’. There were coastal wetlands which had not been identified as such because of poor understanding due to various causes. For example, there is a pair of wetlands near Vizhundamavadi-Pushpavanam which actually belong to two different systems. Since they occur as a pair, they were thought to be part of the same system but it was only after detailed discussions with the local women that the understanding came. This also emphasised the importance of traditional and local knowledge.


Sri T. Mohan, Advocate, spoke about his experiences with coastal law, specifically with the construction of the East Coast Road (ECR) in 1992-93. The road construction had started without any impact assessment and it was clear that it would lead to an ecological disaster. Filing of petitions resulted in a halt in construction and so finally, even today it continues only as a state highway and not a national highway. It goes past a number of fragile systems and has also resulted in development along the highway. He pointed out that in most cases, the development of coastal infrastructure was dynamic in nature, expanding over time and was quite often a fait accompli situation. Often, coastal projects were cleared in the name of national security. When objections were raised, often they were brushed aside with a promise to commission a study. With respect to the CRZ Notification which has been in force since 1991, no prosecution has ever happened till 2013 which reflects the poor implementation of law and scant regard for the same. He felt that law offenders must be sent a clear signal that civil society is watching. Sometimes political differences can help in actually implementing the law as in the case of the Queen Mary’s College which was to be converted into the state Secretariat. He concluded that these were only promoting integrated destruction of the coast.


At the end of the session, there was a discussion with extensive participation from the audience and moderated by Dr Suresh Kuppuswamy, Senior Professor and Design Chair, Satyabhama University.


Sri Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust, Mumbai, traced the history of the CRZ regulation saying that it was perhaps more effective when it was a mere directive from the then Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi. Ever since the notification came into being, the loopholes in the notification are being examined to see what can be permitted. For example, relocation of the word ‘bay’ resulted in someone saying that the entire Bay of Bengal coast should have a CRZ of only 100m as specified for bays. He called for a grassroots movement to ensure enforcement of the notification and said that what kept it going was the fishing community. He felt that courts were systems of last resort and so, for everything, it did not make sense to take any and everything to the court. The fact is that decision makers do not really care about ground realities and were largely concerned only with forward movement of files. He also was concerned about the fact that people were not concerned about coastal biodiversity and called for sensitisation of people to this and coastal issues in general.


A film “The Sea of Change: Traditional fishworker's perception of climate change” was presented by Dr Venugopal and Ms Ramya Rajagopalan on behalf of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers. Shot in Kakinada (Andhra Pradesh) and in Mumbai (Maharashtra), the film explores the perceptions of the traditional fishworkers to the changes in their habitat. The film examined important questions related to sea erosion, habitat destruction and pollution, and attempted to corroborate them with evidence and facts on the scientific reality of climate change.


The last presentation was by Dr Ahana Lakshmi who spoke about coastal vulnerability and climate change. She said that there was a paradigm shift in disaster response and was moving from reactive (relief after the event) to predictive (installation of early warning systems) to proactive (disaster risk reduction including restoration of coastal ecosystems). Coastal ecosystems were multi taskers and while healthy ecosystems are resilient, most ecosystems are under various threats as a result of which the services they provided are compromised. In coastal areas, life is tied to water from upstream to downstream and hence it was necessary to look at the catchment to coast continuum as a whole. Fragmentation of ecosystems was a major cause of flooding. Green infrastructure looked at natural or nature based solutions. In coastal areas, the major threats were shoreline erosion and flooding. Mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass meadows to reduce wave energy and hence reduce shoreline erosion and natural as well as constructed wetlands to mitigate floods could be used as green infrastructure. She concluded that awareness and understanding of ecosystem services especially their monetary value may lead to better protection of coastal ecosystems. Improving coastal resilience was not an impossible task considering the new tools available today.


There was a brief discussion at the end of the presentations moderated by Smt Tara Murali, Co-Convenor of INTACH-Chennai Chapter. The meeting closed with a vote of thanks given by Sri M. Ravindran, W.M. Lodge No. 407, Senior Advocate and Former Additional Solicitor General of India.

Ahana Lakshmi

(with inputs from Prof Suresh Kuppuswamy for Session 1)