A storm foretold



As energy corridors, SEZs and tourism plunder our coasts, fishermen fight for their lives. Rohini Mohan sounds the warning on an impending crisis by the sea

Twilight zone: A fisherman casts his net in Kutch, Gujarat
Twilight zone: A fisherman casts his net in Kutch, Gujarat, Photos: Shailendra Pandey

FEW OF US are easily convinced of an urgency. How many people dead, we ask. How much money siphoned? Have wailing women and famished men walked to the hallowed protest venues in Delhi? Have courts swooped into the mess? Have the armed forces been summoned? Have the media pundits spun in delirium? Do we have a blood shot, money shot, or a darkest-moment- in-human-history shot?

Metropolis: Mumbai city builds over its creeks and mangroves, demolishing fishing slums
Metropolis: Mumbai city builds over its creeks and mangroves, demolishing fishing slums

Unfortunately, national crises — real, complex, and large-scale — do not always come screaming. They don’t always fit in a single photograph.

The sight of 30 fishermen from coastal Cuddalore taking an overnight bus in search of a fertile seaside does not seem urgent at first. But they are travelling that far because hot effluents from four power plants have killed the fish in their own patch of the Bay of Bengal, five minutes away from their homes. In Mundra, Gujarat, the seaside is being shaved of mangroves, the beaches landscaped, and fisherfolk edged out for the largest private SEZ in the country. Without mangroves and beaches to cushion the blow of cyclones and tsunamis, India’s naked shoreline will slowly begin to be eaten away by the advancing ocean.

But as long as disaster is not coming next week, we don’t hear alarm bells.

The state has sanctioned 23 power plants on the coast, all of whom are dredging sand from beaches
The state has sanctioned 23 power plants on the coast, all of whom are dredging sand from beaches, Photo: B Sumesh

In Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, two men were killed earlier this year when the police lathicharged villagers protesting against a thermal power plant and private port that would destroy a wetland crucial to fishing. The environment ministry waved a finger at the company. The company shrugged. Nothing changed. Similarly, a decade-long court battle has not stopped the singling out of fishing colonies in Mumbai slums for demolition.

These are not isolated battles, but reactions to a raucous upheaval all along the 7,500 km Indian coastline. The coast is today the government’s newest development zone, one that’s believed to be able to accommodate the country’s bursting economic ambitions. The east coast —Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha — is poised to be an energy corridor, with each state having signed on anywhere between three and 23 thermal projects. The west is being mined for its rare minerals, and its beaches leased for tourism.

Muniamma KS: Battles to prevent her village in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, from being swallowed by sand erosion
Muniamma KS: Battles to prevent her village in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, from being swallowed by sand erosion., Photo: Rohini Mohan

There will soon be one port every 28 km of the Indian coast. While Singapore has only one port, and the US 30, Gujarat will have 50 ports — one every 25 km. Maharashtra will have the highest density, with one every 13 km. Each port is linked to a private industrial hub, housing chemical factories, power plants and automobile units.

The seed of the conflict, however, doesn’t lie in coastal development itself — communities do want it in several places — but in the utter disregard for the big picture. Do we need so many ports? And what of coexistence? More than 3.5 million fisherfolk already live on the same coastline; there is a village every three km.They have been given no option but to move. Sometimes, it is because their houses are razed. Often, as ocean science experts and environmentalists told us, it is because the seawater has been poisoned or overheated, emptying it of marine life.


Ahmed ‘Kaka’:Battles in Mundra, Gujarat, against the illegal razing of mangrove forests by the Adani Group
Ahmed ‘Kaka’:Battles in Mundra, Gujarat, against the illegal razing of mangrove forests by the Adani Group.

The stubborn conviction that development must happen at all costs has begun spiralling into an environmental disaster. Thirty percent of our shoreline is already heavily eroded; massive structures are forcing water to shift elsewhere, to eat into 1,112 acres every year, swallowing villages, thinning beaches, and crashing into houses and hotels. Of Karnataka’s 300-km coastline, 250 km faces erosion. Thirty-six percent of Odisha’s beaches are under threat. As mangrove forests are cut and creeks blocked to reclaim the shore, global marine experts show that the stock of 320 commercially important fish in Indian waters has dropped below sustainable levels. India is still the world’s third largest exporter of fish, but it’s a medal it might not have for long.

As TEHELKA travelled for a month along India’s coastline, the impact of this rapid rise of ports, power plants, chemical factories, massive townships and tourist resorts was all too visible. As the first community to be directly affected, fishermen were putting themselves in the line of fire everywhere.

Despite a high court order against it in July 2011, the company was seen scooping freshly-cut mangroves in September
Despite a high court order against it in July 2011, the company was seen scooping freshly-cut mangroves in September

An urgent coastal crisis, we could call it, but in an era of a thousand urgencies, perhaps another alarm bell will only add to the cacophony; it will have neither accountability nor solution. State after state, fishermen insisted that they had no use for the futile panic of urgency. “When I speak to government officials or corporations, I get the feeling that they see no difference between fishermen, tribals, farmers and all kinds of poor people. We’re simply obstacles to them,” says 30-yearold Usman in Bhadreshwar, Gujarat. If they listened, Usman would tell coastal developers to look inward. That a plundered coast poses as much danger to India’s development dreams as it does to fishermen. It is, as Usman puts it, “time to hit the pause button”. It is time for corporations and governments to introspect, to shed their terrifying blindness about real and imminent consequences.

ONE OF the starkest instances of rapid coastal industrialisation is along the 907-km-long Tamil Nadu shoreline. In the past decade, Tamil Nadu has sanctioned 23 power plants — all of them on the coast. Nagapattinam district alone has 12, and this year, Tharangambadi taluk in the same district received news that a sixth power plant would arrive in its vicinity.

A police post in Kerala to prevent such clashes
A police post in Kerala to prevent such clashes,Photo: B Sumesh

It is to protest this that Rajkumar woke up at 5 am on 21 May 2010. On his left palm, he wrote keywords with a pen: “Five plants already there. Vendaam (don’t want). Will lose access to sea. Hot water discharge will kill fish.” Rajkumar is a short, 30-year-old man with disproportionately long arms, curly hair and betel-stained teeth. He owns a boat, several nets, and used to bring back a catch of Rs 50,000 every time he set sail. Rajkumar has been fishing since he was 13, till Chettinad Power Corporation Pvt Ltd fenced off the plot for its plant two months earlier. Rajkumar wanted to make sure he would speak up five hours later, at the company’s public hearing.

Chettinad was to construct a 1,200 MW coal-based thermal power plant, private port and railway line, costing Rs 7,200 crore, on a plot the size of about 180 large cricket fields. The public hearing was organised by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and Chettinad to seek the opinion of the five coastal villages. Three-quarters of the population was fishermen, and they had not even been mentioned in the company’s environmental and social impact report.

The report of the public hearing omits a crucial point: that Rajkumar threw a slipper at the Collector for the false claims

In the past four years, five highly water- dependant factories, producing chemicals and thermal power, had come up around him, all on the coast. The effluents — hot water from cooling plants, fly ash from burnt coal — were all finding their way into the sea. Simultaneously, the local catch had fallen by half. Chettinad would now be the sixth factory within a 9 km radius. Rajkumar, like close to 2,500 fisherfolk in the Tharangambadi area, believed it was the last straw.

Joseph: Battles companies mining sand and rare minerals in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. He was jailed and beaten up for demanding compensation for fisherfolk suffering from cancer and renal failure. On the run, he often goes to Kerala to fish, where Tamil and Malayali fishermen clash over dwindling catch
Joseph: Battles companies mining sand and rare minerals in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu. He was jailed and beaten up for demanding compensation for fisherfolk suffering from cancer and renal failure. On the run, he often goes to Kerala to fish, where Tamil and Malayali fishermen clash over dwindling catch, Photo: B Sumesh

But the public hearing was a farce from the get-go. District Collector C Munianathan, who presided over it, says about 400 villagers attended. Panchayat chiefs say there were close to 2,000. The minutes of the hearing (prepared later) record only some of the vociferous opposition from fisherfolk. And it omits a crucial detail: when the Collector falsely summed up that all villagers welcomed Chettinad, Rajkumar flung a slipper at him.

In the skirmish that followed, the police beat up two fishermen. For a week after the hearing, at around 2 am every night, they visited the nay-sayers at their homes and roughed them up. Enraged, the fisher community went on protest marches, seven hunger strikes, week-long boat strikes and even blocked the Tehsildar’s office. About 200 fishermen were arrested six months ago. The local media did not report the protests, even though regional channels Sun News and Jaya TV filmed the demonstrations.


Coasts On Fire

Where distress has reached breaking point

Click to Zoom

1 Tamil Nadu

Decade-long protests against 12 power plants that pollute and cut off access to the sea. Home to India’s longest coastal energy corridor

2 Andhra Pradesh

Kakrapalli, Srikakulam
Two are killed when police lathicharge villagers protesting East Coast Energy’s thermal power plant

3 Odisha

Tata Port, Dhamra
Fishing is banned in the nesting beach of the endangered Olive Ridley turtle, but the port is being built 15 km from it

4 West Bengal

Jambudwip Island, Sunderbans
Fisherfolk who seasonally used the area for decades were evicted and their equipment burned down by the forest department. Regular firing, arrests

5 Pondicherry

Karaikal Port
Residents and fishermen have lost nearly all their beach to erosion caused by port construction and seawalling

6 Kerala

Massive erosion due to 60 percent of the coast being taken over for tourism and sand mining

7 Karnataka

Displacement and pollution by the state-run SEZ and refinery have ignited conflicts

8 Goa

Morjim Beach
Heavy tourism-related constructions cause erosion. Escalating clashes between fishing community and resort owners

9 Maharashtra

The Koli community battles rapid unplanned commercial real estate taking over creeks and slums

10 Gujarat

A Muslim fishing community fights India’s biggest private SEZ that’s razing mangroves and affecting catch


Still, Chettinad began construction a few months ago. Here is how it was granted clearances. In the environmental and social impact assessment (EIA) reports it submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Chettinad skimmed over the effects of pollution and obstruction of the coast. It said fisherfolk would not be affected. “Chettinad underestimated the damage to the coastline,” says Arul Selvam, a community environmental monitor.

The Environment Protection Act allows EIAs to be prepared by agents hired and paid for by the company — there is little to stop them from playing down the losses. “Ministry clearance just comes with a set of riders that no one enforces,” says Arul, calling it “no less than a free ride”. The first structures Chettinad built were a boundary wall and a security booth. The shore is no longer open for fishing. Despite repeated attempts, Chettinad refused to respond to TEHELKA’s queries.

Today, Rajkumar and all the fishermen from Tharangambadi pack lunch boxes and take a bus to the Karaikal harbour 40 km away to be able to fish. “Fishermen who’re not close to the sea are as good as migrant coolies,” says Rajkumar. Territorial wars, rare a few years ago, are commonplace now. Three weeks before TEHELKA met Rajkumar, he was in a bloody sicklebattle between two fishing villages. “Like hungry dogs fighting for the last piece of bread,” he says in disgust. Thanks to sailing in overfished waters, their earnings have fallen drastically.

Incredibly, TN Fisheries Minister KA Jayapal says their 2011 budget allocation and World Bank loans for a coastal management project would be used to shift fishermen to “alternative occupations”. In a perfectly cyclical logic, the minister explains, “It’s for their own good. Anyway, the catch is falling.” That the profusion of polluting and displacing industries has contributed to this is not acknowledged. So if you can’t convince fishermen, convert them. “If we want a better life for the poor, more reliable electricity, we have to make some changes.”

In the absence of a strong monitoring and enforcement, the CRZ has forced fisherfolk to depend on the slow grind of the judiciary

This justification has roots in a competing concern — TN has suffered from an acute power shortage in the past decade. Energy solutions were a rallying point during the recent Assembly election. It was touted to have brought the AIADMK to power, although it was the previous DMK government that signed most MOUs.

“Power plants have always been premised on the assumption that they are inevitable infrastructure for development,” says economist Vijay Bhaskar, faculty at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “It is supposed to shame the critics — what, you want the poor to never have electricity?”

The state currently generates 10,214 MW, about 30 percent of which is thermal energy. Demand is increasing by 8 percent every year, and the twelfth five-year plan puts TN’s additional power demand at 17,750 MW. The latest power plants launched will however generate significantly more — 40,000 MW. Environmental economist Ajit Menon says it’s clear this is part of a larger strategy, of refashioning the east coast as an energy corridor. “The usage break-up is like this: a large chunk for self-use, a little for the state to distribute, and the surplus — which in this case is more than 20,000 MW — will be sold for profit to other states and countries.”

Not a bulb will be lit by alternative technology like wind or solar power.

There is a global realisation today that ultra thermal power plants are too destructive to be the sole way forward, but Bhaskar says “industrialising states like TN operate on a ‘more is good’ formula”, however inefficient it is. “Political parties and bureaucrats are so tied in with old world development experts like the IMF and World Bank that they’re unable to delink and imagine alternatives that will not snuff out primary producers like fishermen and farmers,” he adds.

But why is the coast the new SEZ? For power plants, being close to the sea means cheap and easy access to a water source to use as a coolant, and the ability to import coal (from Indonesia and Australia). Moreover, there are fewer obstacles to building on the coast than inland. The coast is common property. By law, fishing activity must be given priority over residence, tourism and commercial interests. However, in practice, coastal commons has not meant community rights for fishermen. Government agencies — either the revenue or forest department — control both usage and sale of land. Under the Gujarat and TN SEZ Acts, the coast is regularly classified as “wasteland”. It’s no surprise that the east coast is the new energy hub. Unlike forest land, governed today by the Tribal Rights Act that accords some individual right to forest dwellers, coastal areas are still a free for all.

THE FIRST attempt at regulating coastal development in India was in November 1981, in the form of a stern letter by then PM Indira Gandhi. It directed chief ministers of the nine coastal states to keep a 500 m strip of coastline free of “all unnecessary development”. This “no development zone” would prevent pollution and “misutilisation of beaches”. This letter set the blueprint for the coastal law as it is today. In 1991, after a whole decade of lobbying by green activists, environment minister Maneka Gandhi passed a special notification under the Environment Protection Act. It was called the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991.

The CRZwas a progressive, but controversial law. It identified four zones in the coastline. The area between the high tide line (HTL) and the low tide line (LTL), which includes ecologically sensitive areas like mangroves, coral reefs and marine parks, was CRZ-I. No activity is permitted 500 m from CRZ-I areas. CRZ-II refers to substantially developed municipal and urban areas. CRZ-III is defined unhelpfully as neither I nor II. CRZ-IV is applicable to islands. In each zone, prohibited and permissible activities were specified.

The zoning is the CRZ’s greatest strength and greatest failing. While it says you cannot build on the coast, it says nothing of what will happen if you do. A violator can be prosecuted under the Environment Protection Act, but this involves long drawn out litigation and inadequate punishment. As a result, the CRZ has been more frequently violated than followed. Goa, for instance, has recorded more than 5,000 violations. In the absence of strong monitoring and enforcement, the CRZ has forced fisherfolk and activists to depend on the slow grind of the judiciary.

The 1991 notification also assumes that all beachfront development is an environmental hazard. There are 3,202 fishing hamlets on the Indian coast. The blanket ban on construction meant that fisherfolk homes were also identified as CRZ violations. “The first wave of CRZ enforcement was bizarrely about evicting fishermen and demolishing their houses,” says Mumbai- based environmentalist Debi Goenka. “It continues now, because it’s easier for the states to go after the small fry.”

“The law is not really alive to the different pressures on coasts of different states,” says Chandrika Sharma of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers. Coastal cities like Mumbai and Chennai and the state of Goa are crowded with fishing houses and slums. The 500 m no-go area ended up throwing them out. In cities like Mumbai, where a small patch of home is everything, protests by a section of a slum, have little traction. Repeatedly, the Koli community finds itself in court.

Fishermen do not have land rights or title for the beaches, creeks and lagoons they use, often not even for their houses along the coast

NO ONE exemplifies this struggle more than Rajesh Mangela, a shy crusader from Mumbai. In a three-room tenement in the narrow Adarsh Nagar slum in the upmarket Versova area of Mumbai, Mangela speaks to me in an odd mixture of legalese and journalese. “The question remains,” he sums up, as we sit down for supper after a distressing meeting with a group of cynical fishermen, “why is the government eagerly ceding coastal land to all except fisherfolk, when setting up and expansion of non-fishing activity in the aforesaid areas is prohibited by law?”

Mangela is a part-time postal services employee who has spent more time in courtrooms, municipal departments and local trains than on a boat at sea. As a member of the Koli community, he insists he is still a fisherman. “Just because I went to college, I don’t lose my fisher status,” he says. “Everyone else in my family still fishes, and I’m still handed the ill-treatment meted out specifically to fishermen.”

Mangela’s house was demolished in 2008, along with 125 others from his community. “The collector and municipality quoted the CRZ notification to us,” says Mangela. Their houses were built on the Malad creek, where years of reclamation have reduced 1,000 acre mangrove forests to 400 acres. Towering adjacent to the demolished Koliwada (fishing settlement) are a private hospital and several housing societies owned by judges, MLAs and businessmen. On the Versova beach behind Mangela’s house, three private bungalows glimmer in the light of the setting sun.

Today, Mangela lives with his parents, brothers and their children — 13 people share three rooms. Clambering on a cot and chair to reach the top shelf of his cupboard, Mangela brings out around 20 thick files stuffed with newspaper clippings, judgments, petitions, notices in Marathi and English, maps and photographs. He divides them into two piles, representing the two battles he’s fighting.

First, the Mumbai Development Authority’s slum redevelopment plan that will demolish the slum to construct a highrise for the same slum-dwellers. This is a public-private joint venture to apparently save creeks from being taken over by the ever-expanding horizontal slums. In other words, Mangela is at risk of losing another home.

His second preoccupation is, as he titles it like a whodunnit, “The missing fisherman’s rights law”. Fishermen across the country do not have individual or collective land rights or title for the beaches, creeks and lagoons they use, and often not even for their houses fanned along the coastline. Unlike tribals who now have the right to dwell in the forest, fishermen only have traditional, unofficial rights as a community that has historically lived in, fished from and protected the coast. And traditional rights, as is painfully evident all along the coastline, are easily flicked away

In 2008, fisherfolk leaders, including Mangela, met then environment minister Jairam Ramesh to talk about legitimate coastal rights. Mangela remembers that Ramesh listened intently. “We told him to see us not as villains but allies on the coast,” he says. Ramesh promised to meet fisherfolk across the country. In the following months, 35 public consultations were held.

In January 2011, a new CRZ notification was announced. It bans SEZs on the coast, which the 1991 notification did not. It makes special provisions for Mumbai, Kerala and Goa, and for critically vulnerable coastal areas including the Sunderbans, Bhitarkanika, the Gulf of Kutch, Vembanad and Malwan. For the first time, it includes tidal water bodies like creeks, rivers and estuaries.

But it still does not grant rights to fishermen over marine resources and land. A week after the 2011 notification, the MOEF did propose a draft Bill to establish these rights. It has since disappeared into the deep recesses of the MoEFwebsite without discussion. MoEF insiders say the law is stuck in “a jurisdictional battle”: fisheries and, therefore, fishing communities, fall under the Ministry of Agriculture.

Over 20 years, the CRZ has been scathingly criticised, heavily blamed, and torn asunder by lobbies of diametrically opposing visions for the coast. Fishermen and environmentalists however admit that despite its flaws, the CRZ notification is still the backbone of every coastal war. The greater demon, they say, is lawlessness of engineering that has our coasts under siege.

IF YOU’VE never been tossed about on a boat, while your hands wind and pull in the weight of the sea twitching wildly in your net, you might call Jam Abdullah Fakir a romantic fool. “Mazaa hai na machli mein, azaadi hai,” he says, his salt-flecked face wrinkling in the stunning width of his grin. There is fun in fishing, and freedom. He makes it sound easy.

Fakir lives in Bhadreshwar village, nestled in Gujarat’s forehead, with Pakistan above and the Arabian Sea below. Eight months of the year, around 150 fishing families from his village move to Tunda Bandar, an intertidal zone in the Mundra region. They live in thatched huts, surrounded by thousands of bamboo poles from which tonnes of fish are hung by their mouth to dry. Twice every day, in the span of a nap, the high tide brings the sea in. Glum boats come unstuck from the wet mud and bob impatiently on the rising water. People start to run to their vessels in teams of four or five, and pull the motors to life. In about 10 minutes, some 200 men leave to sea. Before 12 hours, when the tide recedes, the fishermen are back, their iceboxes laden with Golden Anchovy, Bombay Duck, Ribbon fish and small prawns. The women clean and dry about 80 percent of the fish, and sell the rest. The men slump back into ennui, till the next high tide. This has been happening twice a day, for about 200 years.

Fishermen like Fakir clock their lives and livelihood around the tides, as do saltpanners, cow grazers and farmers in Mundra, a coastal taluk in Kutch district. Villages here derive their character from centuries of relentless landscaping by the sea. The fringes of Kutch are thick with the country’s second largest mangrove cover (marine intertidal forests). Natural buffers against cyclones and floods, mangroves are rich with seaweed, corals, fish, 18 sea mammals like dolphins and dugongs, 87 types of birds, and 800 species of marine life. They’re often called an ecological miracle.

ALL THIS ecology and culture is under great threat today — due to rising industrial investments that do not work around the sea like Mundra’s people have been, but engineer it to fit their needs. Fakir’s Tunda Bandar now lies uncomfortably close to a power plant, and is half consumed by the Gujarat Adani Group’s acres that have been expanding since 1992.

According to Adani’s own 2008 estimate, it has approximately 15,570 acres around Mundra, which includes two ultra- mega power plants, the largest private port, and the largest SEZ in India. Fakir remembers expecting the Adani jetty (when announced in 1998) to be like the government- run old Mundra port, where export and fish processing co-existed with port activities. But this ‘jetty’ was different: it was private, built and run by Adani. Inside are roads, railway lines, power plants, warehouses, overhead conveyor belts, townships, and even an airport.

Adani has leased space to three oil refineries, luxury hotels and a world-class township. In the same area, the Tatas and OPG have also set up 4,000 MW and 2,600 MW thermal power plants respectively.

It is with appallingly poor data that governments plan for the port sector. There are 213 now, one every 28 km of our shoreline

To fit all this, the Mundra coastline, which was 6 km from the town before 1991, has been pushed beyond 14 km. Here’s how: By law, no structures can be built 500 m from the government stipulated high tide line. But Adani’s maps show the high tide line 7 km ahead of where the state stipulates it, which on a regular map is well within the Arabian Sea. “If the line keeps changing on the map, so does the permitted area for construction,” says environmental lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay. When asked about this apparent violation, Adani officials did not respond.

Despite the CRZ banning construction in Mundra’s mangrove forests, the Adani port managed to swing environment as well as forest clearances from the MoEF almost 7 years ago. It was smart paperwork once again. The port’s EIA falsely claimed that there were no mangroves in one part of the plot, and that they would be unharmed in another. In reality, since 2005, over 3,000 acres of mangrove forests have been destroyed.

Driving through Mundra, it is impossible to miss the smoking chimneys and impressive conveyor belts in the horizon. Around them are dead or uprooted piles of mangrove trees, some of them centuries old, from 3 feet to 20 feet high. Ashen sand stretches on till the eye can see, with only the stumps of a collapsed fishing jetty, or a surviving mudskipper to prove that this was once part of the Arabian Sea. With most of the mangrove covers not clearly notified as forest or revenue land, neither department takes action against the violations.

Fishermen — especially the Pagadiyas who fish by standing neck-deep in the tidal zone to trap fish with their hands — were the first to sense the loss. As the intertidal zones were thinning, so was fish catch. Dredging — scooping the undersea to create deep, calm waters for ships to dock — and movement of large shipping vessels, made it dangerous for smaller boats to fish in the same waters.

The company’s audacity began to enrage coastal communities. In the late 1990s, fishworkers of Jharpara village fought being evicted forcefully from Navinal creek. Adani offered to spend Rs 4 crore on fishing nets. “What will I do with nets when my creek is blocked up?” asks a Jharpara fisherman. Three years ago, Shekhadiya village protested when land acquired for the SEZ’s airstrip blocked their daily path to the creek. Some villagers were paid for their silence, while others were arrested.

Eventually, fishermen and farmers filed a PIL in the Gujarat High Court alleging mangrove destruction. The court slapped a show-cause notice on Adani. In his reply, the company’s lawyer is known to have said that Adani “didn’t destroy mangroves — the local communities and camels did.” Unconvinced, the high court ordered Adani to stop razing mangroves.

On the ground, however, the bulldozers resumed work. In September this year, TEHELKA captured images of trucks sweeping up freshly uprooted mangrove shrubs, and dumping sand in its place, right opposite Adani’s corporate office.

AS INDUSTRIES and ports sweep the coast aggressively, lawlessly, destructively, it is clear that they operate on a calibrated ignorance of risk. Economist Pavan Sukhdev warns that coastal developers should be wary of two risks. One is regulatory. “Laws may change and they may lose their licences and land if they’ve got it illegally.” Secondly, with the real effects of climate change and coastal erosion, the protection cost of structures become very high. “If you don’t have natural barriers like mangroves, you can potentially damage your own ports and factories.”

Unnervingly, it is on this shaky plank that the nation’s biggest coastal project will stand. Bigger than the energy corridor, bigger even than the SEZ race — India will soon have 213 ports on its coast. That’s one port every 28 km of the coastline. Of this, 180 are ‘minor’ ports, defined by the Ministry of Shipping as any port that is not major. “They’ll have you believe that minor ports are harmless little baby ports,” says Thiruvananthapuram-based coast and fisheries expert V Vivekanandan. But the terms minor and major are not about size, but jurisdiction. Minor ports are approved by the state, while major ports are under the Centre. “Minors can be private ports as big as major ports,” says Vivekanandan. The eleventh five-year plan envisioned a port investment of around Rs 36,000 crore, of which three-fourths was expected from the private sector.

Since 1991, state governments have been aggressively inviting private investment for ports. They enter into concession agreements — tax incentives, fast pollution control clearances, easier land allotments and other financial benefits.

Environmentalist Sudarshan Rodriguez, who has been researching the impact of ports, points out that no department has a grip on how many minor ports there are. The shipping ministry counts 187. The 2009-10 Economic Survey of the Planning Commission says 200. The Ministry of Earth Sciences showed 186 minor ports in 2009. But when researchers Aarthi Sridhar and Rodriguez conducted independent RTI enquiries in states in 2010, they arrived at a grand total of 213 minor ports.

It is with such appallingly poor data that governments plan for the port sector. “The shipping ministry takes calls on whether we should have more ports in certain sites, with no idea about what’s really on the coast already,” says Rodriguez.

Odisha is an example. The state has notified eight sites as potential port development areas. Five of them — Nuagaon, Dhamra, Gopalpur, Jatadhar Muhan, and Palur — are close to three world-renowned mass nesting beaches of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles.

An MoEF committee highlighted in a 2009 report that for a coastline as idiosyncratic as India’s, the cumulative effects of ports were “unknown”. Based on this report, in August that year, the ministry imposed a three-month moratorium on port proposals and expansions. It promised to evolve a policy on coastal projects, especially ports. Before the moratorium period was even completed, however, in three months, an MoEF office memo reversed the moratorium.

UNBRIDLED PORT development affects not only marine life and fishing, but also the very shape of our shoreline. Sitting in the widest, most severely air-conditioned cabin in the sprawling campus of the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) in Thiruvananthapuram, Dr NP Kurian tries to explain how.

Kurian shows a century of geomorphic studies through a pencil diagram. He starts with a vertical arc, representing a shoreline, and on its convex side, draws several squiggly lines. “That’s the sea,” he says. Then he spends about 10 seconds laboriously dotting the inside of the arc. “Beach sand.” His geology jargon has disappeared, and Kurian’s manner easily softens from that of the politically correct director of the body that calculates the high tide line for Kerala, to that of a tutor.

“Say you put a port… here,” Kurian says. He makes a cereal box on the dotted area, and quickly traces two roughly parallel lines from the arc into the squiggles. A standard feature of ports are breakwaters — stone or concrete offshore structures that jut into the sea, and go as deep as the ocean bed. As the name suggests, they break the full intensity of waves moving towards the shore, thus protecting the buildings. “The coastal defence often becomes a coastal hazard,” he warns, pleased with his wordplay. “Because we rarely account for littoral drift.”

Littoral drift is the lateral shifting of sand that occurs as waves meet the shore at an oblique angle, moving in the direction of the wind. Port berths, terminals, and as Kurian was explaining, breakwaters, block this drift of sand. In Kerala, which is on the west coast, sand accumulates at the south of every coastal obstruction. “Then what happens to the north, which was expecting this sand nourishment?” asks Kurian. He draws more waves north of the breakwater. The squiggles have merged with the dots. The sea has eroded the land, washing deeper and deeper.

Kurian asks us to drive about 100 km from his office to Kayamkulam port, “where all the theory plays out for the naked eye to see”. North of the port area, half-broken houses, an abandoned “homely” motel and an out-of-work banana plantation manager tell me that the coast is being gradually eaten away. Kurian’s research aide puts a number to it: close to 2 km has drowned since 2006.

Further down, coastal areas of Kollam district too face the brunt of breakwater projects for ports and tourism. Kurian’s aide looks worriedly into the satellite images that show irreversible distortions to Kerala’s very shape. “Every day,” she says, “we learn that what seems to be a solution in one part of the shore actually radiates out in the worst ways elsewhere.”

It is only when port-induced erosion begins to show that state governments press the panic button. Suddenly, the problem of environmental destruction turns into one of displacement. With the most densely populated coast in the country, Kerala is one of the first to be faced with the need for damage control.

Like a stuck record, Kerala replaces failed seawalls with more of the same. At present, 77 percent of the coast is walled off

KERALA’S LARGELY Latin Catholic fishing community is a clamorous vote bank, mobilised by an odd partnership of the church and communist party unions. Thanks to their political and lobbying force, the state has seen pioneering changes in the Indian fishing sector — for instance, it was the first to introduce a ban on trawling, or deep sea mechanised fishing in the monsoon-breeding period. The National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) has one of its strongest bases here. It also has some of the country’s largest frozen seafood export companies. Yet, when it comes to protecting what is arguably its most valuable resource, Kerala is a one-trick pony.

In the past 60 years, the most popular form of coastal protection in Kerala has been the construction of seawalls. They cover 77 percent of its 570 km coastline. Only less than a quarter of the shore is available to close to 2 lakh fishermen, most of whom still do shore-based fishing. The NFF estimates that at least 15,000 people have lost homes during the past five years. Others often find their fishing canoes crashing on the jutting walls of concrete.

The seawall solution is a technological fix, like band-aids for a chronic disease. “Seawalls work for short distances, but backfire when you slap it on all over,” says Kurian. The walls have damaged the coastline, and have themselves fallen to the force of the waves. “It is the nature of the ocean to move sand,” he explains. Seawalls, especially if built indiscriminately, will surely collapse some day.

Still, like a stuck record, the state insists on replacing failed seawalls with more seawalls. Earlier this year, it announced a 62 crore budget for granite walls 50 metress from the shore all along Kerala. Sajeer Abdul Rahman, member of civil society coalition Kerala Tourism Watch, says he asks himself often why the government, “despite scientists advising them”, keeps making bad decisions. “Bad protection is like a gun that shoots from the back,” he says. “The newfound love affair with artificial reefs, walls and geo tubes as protection are not yielding prescribed results and causing problems in Goa and Kerala. Despite evidence of failure, the government makes hurried decisions under the influence of corporates, lobbies and some scientists.”

Kerala Tourism Minister AP Arun Kumar defends the seawalls “as the cheapest and most scientific form of protection available”. After a moment, he mentions that it wasn’t for him to decide anyway. Oddly enough, it’s the state irrigation department that builds seawalls. The chief purpose of the walls, it seems, is to prevent the salination of farms.

KERALA MAY be a relatively fisher-friendly state, but it too shares the peculiar myopia towards coastal development with the rest of the country. Vivekanandan believes that coastal planning in India comes with an “agriculture bias”, a tendency to fuse the two primary sectors, and understand coastal issues from a farming framework. The fisheries department is under the Ministry for Agriculture, whose online database on India’s marine life focusses solely on the quantity of catch. An official from the department informs us that fish production was increasing every year, “so what problem are you talking about?”

NFF Chairman Matanhy Saldahna fumes that the history of the fisheries department’s policies is “like a horror story of failed experiments”. “They’re always telling fishermen catch more, catch more. They give us soft loans for mechanised boats, and convince us to go deeper,” he says. “I feel like pulling my hair out, and screaming that if illiterate fishermen can understand the value of conserving a resource, why can’t you politicians?!”

Even the all-India ban on fishing in monsoon, when several marine species breed, was the result of a nation-wide fishermen’s movement against the government’s encouragement of trawlers and deep-sea vessels. Saldanah’s predecessor, Kerala-based Thomas Kochery had called this the “environmentalism of the poor”.

Still, when the MoEF decides to conserve a species or protect a marine area, it keeps out fishermen. The biodiversity parks of Gulf of Mannar and the turtle nesting beach of Gahirmatha, Odisha, illustrate this exclusive conservation. Sustainability, in the end, has become the foster child of law and engineering. For marine conservation, there are a thousand no-go lines and bans, a clearance Raj, and long battles in courts. For coastal protection, there are seawalls, groynes and breakwaters — all of which simply shift the problem elsewhere. Till today, in Cuddalore, Mumbai, Goa, Srikakulam and Odisha, there is no cumulative assessment of the damage multiple structural interventions are causing to the marine ecosystem.

The coastal wars are about many things – corruption, the addiction to growth, diverse meanings of development. But underneath it all, it is about our frightening claim to have such a complete command over nature that we can radically reengineer it with little risk. Few people and policies worry if this development can employ even half of the 3.5 million skilled, self-employed people it will render jobless. But fewer leaders — corporate and political — are stopping to ask if we really want to build our economic ambitions on top of something as tempestuous and unpredictable as the sea.

(The local offices and sometimes headquarters of all corporations mentioned in the story–Adani, Chettinad,OPG, Tata–were approached for comment, but they declined to speak on record. Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh and Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan also refused to respond to repeated queries.)

Next, The End Of Fish

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.


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