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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Murdering the sentinels of the shore

God forbid if there was another tsunami wave that hit the coasts of India or a cyclone or any natural disaster. This country has created a r...

Written by Valmik Thapar |
January 19, 2005

God forbid if there was another tsunami wave that hit the coasts of India or a cyclone or any natural disaster. This country has created a recipe for a menu of even greater destruction. And the cooks who have originated it are our senior politicians and bureaucrats.

The tragedy is that in the short period between 2001 and 2003, 21 different amendments and notifications were made in a massive effort to dilute the Coastal Zone Regulations. This is what we let in on the coastline:

1. In April 2001, we permitted foreshore infrastructure, projects in the Department of Atomic Energy, mining of rare minerals, allowance for defence requirements, jetties, shipways etc. Did the Air Force installations on Car Nicobar that were devastated have Coastal Zone Regulation clearance? And if not is that the reason they were devastated? Could the loss of lives have been avoided? Important questions for which answers must be sought.

2. In May 2002 we fiddled with every word, line and sentence of the regulations, i.e. No Development Zones now had a condition ‘‘Provided that such an area does not fall within any notified port limit or any notified Special Economic Zone…’’

3. In October 2002 we expanded the ever growing list of permissible activities on the coastline by allowing air strips and associated facilities, desalination plants, power generation projects and facilities for storage of petroleum products and so on.

4. In July 2003 we fiddled with distances, reducing No Development Zones by 50 m to develop tourism and its infrastructure, and also permitted a diversity of projects emanating from the Department of Atomic Energy. Both are part of the menu that will make for an even worse disaster than we have faced, including nuclear hazards. After all how many did we have to evacuate from near the nuclear plant on Tamil Nadu’s coastline? Was it 20,000 or 30,000? What a horror story would have unfolded if there was a leak.

These dilutions of the coastal regulations are shocking. They are ticking time-bombs waiting to welcome the next natural disaster. If politicians and bureaucrats in the last government were able to twist and change the laws, the same is happening in the present Government, irrespective of the party in power, such is the power of vested interests.

It was in 1981 that Indira Gandhi issued a directive creating an inviolate zone 500 m from the high tide line. This not only regulated human activity near the sea but protected people and their property from its violence. The directive was followed for the next decade. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi piloted the Environment Protection Act through Parliament. And only in 1991 under this Act did all the coastal stretches (7,000-km long) became part of the Coastal Regulations Zones. The four different categories of these Zones attracted different rules and restrictions. And over the years came endless impotent committees and institutions to repeatedly review the laws that had been framed.

India is a master at creating committees and over the last decade we have created the most brainless groups of people to advise us on the natural world. Genuine experts have been replaced by yes men. Even the Forest Conservation Act is plagued with violations, undealt with. Ticking time-bombs. Let’s not forget that without forests, trees and mangroves, our death toll from the tsunami wave would have at least doubled. It was already high enough and only because in many areas we had cleared the vegetation. We damage the sand bars, the coral reefs, the mangroves and then of course the beaches and the coastal forests. Huge amounts of mangrove have been removed and replaced by shrimp farms. These are vital buffers that protect, so when they are removed and a tsunami or cyclone comes, many more die then they ought to.

We created a National Coastal Zone Management Authority and 13 state-level Coastal Zone Management Authorities in 1998. All these authorities have done little—few project proponents follow the restrictions and the enforcers of the law have failed to take action on the massive violations of the law. Coastal zones are the direct responsibility of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. They have to enforce the laws. Yet the creators and enforcers of the law abuse and break it. The poorest of the poor suffer and die. How much more blood has to flow before we learn our lessons? In the last tsunami wave, tens of thousands died in the first few hundred meters from the shore line. It was much less in the next 500 m. And very few deaths were recorded in India after 1,000 m.

We need a new Coastal Zone Regulation that prevents anything from being constructed within 1,000 m from the shore line. And what we need to do very quickly is to defuse the ticking time-bombs that have been generated in the last decade on our coast. Even a country like Sri Lanka that has no coastal laws has already enacted a new one which prevents any development 300 m from the high tide line. Over the last year the Swaminathan Committee has been reviewing the coastal regulations. I spoke recently to Dr M S Swaminathan, who was full of praise for Indira Gandhi’s original farsightedness and told me that irrespective of the pressures we must ensure the enforcement of very stringent coastal regulation.

To do any of this we require the Prime Minister to intervene. The politicians and bureaucrats who have twisted and manipulated our laws need to be answerable. They cannot be permitted to take ad hoc decisions for short-term gains.

The writer has spent the last 30 years working on issues concerning nature

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