MAC: Mines and Communities

Coming next month: brand new coastal rules

Published by MAC on 2004-12-29

Coming next month: brand new coastal rules

Wednesday December 29 2004

New Delhi, Chenai: It may be too early to look for a silver lining to the tsunami tragedy but this could very well be the first one: The disaster and its horrifying aftermath are being factored in by a high-powered scientific Government committee as it prepares a comprehensive review of regulations determining settlement and development along the country's 6,000-km coastline.

This committee, headed by agriculture scientist M S Swaminathan, was set up in July this year to review existing Coastal Regulation Zone norms notified in 1991. Their final report is expected next month.

Nothing would have shown the enormity of their task than Sunday's disaster. For, the existing CRZ rules are almost always followed in the breach.

Because they are flagrantly violated, the committee was asked to review it and now with the unprecedented death toll - speculated at 8000 by Tuesday night - it's taking a whole new look.

The Coastal Regulation Zone norms of 1991 seek to regulate human activity within 500 m from the coast. It divides the entire coast into four zones depending on the density of population and the development already existing there.

In Zone 1 fall the most sensitive areas with mangroves and corals. Here, no development is allowed within 500 metres of the coast. Zone 2 is towns and cities where buildings are already touching the sea. Zone 3 includes undeveloped areas and tourist places where permission is allowed on a case-to-case basis in a band up to 200 m from the sea. Zone 4 is area like Andamans and Lakshwadeep.

According to experts, if CRZ had been implemented in letter and spirit, there wouldn't have been so many people so close to the sea - unprotected, exposed to the waves. CRZ rules are also meant to ensure a "natural line of defence'' - mangroves, corals and sand dunes.

"Tsunamis have been rare but a wall of water hitting the coasts in the form of cyclones has always been a reality. The Swaminathan committee is going to keep all this in mind,'' said Prodipto Ghosh, Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests.

"This event will not hasten anything. We want a solid, science-based report since the first time around, there was also a lot of shooting from the hip,'' he added.

CRZ norms have been so controversial that they have occupied many hours in high courts of every state with a coastline and the Supreme Court.

The Swaminathan committee will review the CRZ notification "in the light of the findings and recommendation of all previous committees, judicial pronouncements, representation of stakeholders and interest groups.''

These groups include fisheries, tourism, harbours and port authorities. Arrayed on the other side are NGOs who have been pointing at wide scale violations, not just by private operators but also state governments, making Indian coasts a veritable battleground.

Though Swaminathan is not ready with the report yet, he has indicated that there will be a plan to regenerate mangroves and natural sand dunes.

Sand mining

For example, the mangroves in Pichavaram and Muthupet region in Tamil Nadu acted as shields and protected traditional communities. But in Alappuzha and Kollam, where there is illegal sand mining, devastation has been more widespread.

CRZ has never really been implemented fully with violations beginning as soon as the notification became law. Construction was done in the "no development zone'' and groundwater was illegally tapped specially by resorts and industries.

In 1994, the CRZ's most stringent norms were relaxed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in an amendment to the notification. The NGOs went to Court and it was restored. The states saw it as a Federal encroachment to their laws. States were to come out with their Coastal Management Plans which they delayed till the Supreme Court ordered them in 1996.

"Now most states including Tamil Nadu have submitted their plans but these take a long time to implement considering the scale of development that has already taken place,'' said Ghosh.

Lobbies have often fired from the shoulders of fisherfolk saying that CRZ prevents them from earning their livelihood. Now they have rallied behind the CRZ. "We want it to be implemented properly with proper monitoring,'' said a spokesperson from International Collective for Fishworkers based in Chennai.

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