Highway to hell

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Elevated beach expressways in Chennai could hurt fisherfolk and turtles, warns Nityanand Jayaraman

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

ASK CHENNAI’S fisherfolk and they will tell you that the road to hell is built on stilts. Various Central and state government agencies plan to construct three controversial expressways on stilts in the coastal city. These roads will displace more than 1 lakh people — mostly urban poor — and create a 100 km maze of elevated expressways, all of which will be built over river banks and the city’s famed beaches.

Until recently, Chennai residents were comforted by the fact that these projects would not be allowed under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, 1991, which prohibited road construction on beaches and inter-tidal areas.

Indeed, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had twice rejected CRZ clearance for a freight expressway over a tidal-influenced Cooum river from the Chennai port to NH4 connecting Chennai and Mumbai. This, despite the fact that the foundation stone for the project was laid by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even before any clearances were sought

So what happens when the law prohibits pet projects pushed by parties in power? Simple. The law is changed. While much noise has been made by environment minister Jairam Ramesh about how he is a stickler for rules, the truth is that he can’t be blamed for his commitment to the rule of law. His caving in to “strategic interests” was evident in the recent clearance of the Jaitapur nuclear plant and the POSCO steel project in the face of overwhelming evidence of irregularities and environmental dangers.

If his predecessors perverted the law for private gain, Ramesh seems to do so for ideological reasons and political gain. That said, Ramesh does seem to be somewhat uncomfortable in legalising the illegal. That is why he has declared that he will change the law if required.

Ramesh was not joking about changing the law. A few days before the publication of the CRZ 2010 notification, he told Mint that he was “doing a complete root-and-branch amendment”. Sure enough, where the original CRZ prohibited 44 out of 68 activities within the 500m regulation zone, the new one prohibited only seven.

The notification permits roads anywhere along India’s coasts — over mangroves, salt marshes, fishing hamlets, turtle nesting sites and sand dunes. The only condition: they should run on stilts.

This blanket exemption hasn’t gone down well with the fisherfolk. “This is not a matter that affects Chennai alone. Now, expressways can be built anywhere along India’s coast. What is the use of having the right to housing if an expressway is going to interfere with a fisherman’s right to livelihood?” asks K Saravanan of Urur Kuppam, one of the villages that will be affected by the elevated expressway.

Urur Kuppam lies north of the upmarket Besant Nagar beach, and stretches to where the Adyar river meets the Bay of Bengal. The estuary is a haven for migratory birds and the wild stretch of beach is used only by turtles and fisherfolk.

It is here that the Student Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) sets up its makeshift turtle hatchery every December. Every year, thousands of Olive Ridley turtles swim ashore to lay eggs on Chennai beaches. Enacting a ritual that predates dinosaurs, gravid turtles swim back to the same beaches where they were hatched, undeterred by the hostile changes these shores have undergone in modern times.

Nothing in any of India’s environmental legislation will protect the Olive Ridleys and their beach habitat. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, which lists the Olive Ridley as an endangered species, is of little comfort when their nesting sites on the beach have been written off to road builders by the MoEF.

No comfort zone Olive Ridleys will have to find a new haven if the roads on stilts become a reality
Photo: AP

‘Roads-on-stilts’ appear for the first time in a document titled ‘Discussion Paper on CRZ 2010’, published by the MoEF on 22 April 2010. The paper talks about “construction of stilt roads to protect mangroves in Mumbai”. Sidestepping the specific references to “protect mangroves” and “Mumbai”, the pre-draft CRZ notification published for comments on the same day exempts “roads on stilts” throughout the Indian coast.

The dropping of the specific references appears to be a result of lobbying by groups such as Wilbur Smith Associates, which prepared a feasibility report for the beach expressway. The 2009 report concludes that the beach expressway is feasible, without mentioning that the CRZ rules prohibited roads on beaches.

Responding to a query by the Highways Department on the implications of the CRZ rules on the beach expressway project, the company pointed to a Central government proposal to amend the original rules so that “construction of roads on stilts (flyways) is a permissible activity”.

“Wilbur Smith’s conclusion that the project is feasible relies not on data, but on a foreknowledge that the law will change to permit expressways. Such predictions fall in the realm of astrology, not feasibility reports,” said a press release issued by Save Chennai Beaches Campaign (SCBC), a group opposing the expressway.

“It is curious how a draft CRZ amendment proposes to exempt roads-on-stilts at a time when elevated expressways in Chennai are being held up because of the rules,” says SCBC activist Sharadha Shankar. “It makes one wonder if the agencies behind the expressway aren’t the same ones that lobbied to have roads-on-stilts exempted in the draft rules.”

EVEN UNDER RTI, the MoEF has not revealed the identity of the agencies that pushed for inclusion of roads-on-stilts. Even more curious is the ministry’s commitment to ensuring that such roads are allowed anywhere along India’s coast.

Responding to the April 2010 pre-draft notification and the September 2010 draft notification, the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) among others had expressed apprehensions about the roads-on-stilts clause. Between September and December, the NFF held consultations with Ramesh to push for critical changes in what they saw as a disastrous and antifisherfolk notification. One of the key demands was to delete all mention of ‘roads-on-stilts’.

‘The MoEF notice is our death warrant. If we are to die, we will not go down without a fight,’ says Saravanan

According to NFF chairperson Matanhy Saldanha, the minister agreed to bring in the necessary correction to change the blanket exemption. But, he later reneged on the promise. In a written response to NFF on why he went back on his word, Ramesh clarifies, “Road on stilts (were) retained keeping in view the congestion of the urban sectors in the populated areas of the coast. The road on stilts is primarily to be laid on the mangrove areas that will not affect the tidal inflow and cause minimum destruction to the area.”

But these clarifications will not bring relief to Chennai’s fisherfolk. If the devil is in the detail, it is of no use to anybody that the devil is securely locked away within Ramesh’s head. If roads on stilts cannot be equated with projects like express highway, that should be spelt out. Fishermen like Saravanan are up for the fight. “Ramesh’s notification is our death warrant. If we are to die anyway, we will not go down without a fight,” he says.

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