New CRZ Notification: One Step Forward, And Two Back?

Even as the new CRZ notification grants fishing communities the right to redevelop the land on which they live, it lays open coastal lands for other forms of development which will adversely impact their livelihoods.

Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh wants to introduce a River Regulation Zone to regulate activities on the banks of major rivers. “The manner in which the Yamuna riverbed has been devastated by constructions should be a wake-up call to all of us,” he stated at a meeting in New Delhi recently. The statement was made, coincidentally, on the day his ministry announced the new Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011 that replaces the earlier one from 1991.

While the minister’s plans for rivers and their banks might be appreciated, his plan to manage India’s coasts has not been universally lauded. In fact, the very fear he expressed about the Yamuna riverbed could become a reality for India’s coastal cities.

Not everyone is apprehensive about the new regulation. Builders and land developers are viewing it as a positive step. But the fishing communities that dot the 7,500 km long coastline are distressed, for the new regulation gives with one hand and takes away with the other. And environmentalists fear that unchecked development of coastal lands will destroy precious natural buffers and biodiversity.

What the new notification gives is the right to fishing communities to redevelop the land on which they live so that housing conditions can be improved. This is now possible through a change in the classification of their location from CRZ II to CRZ III. (In CRZ II, redevelopment would not have been permitted.) Plus, in the case of fishing communities in Mumbai, they get an additional Floor Space Index (FSI) of 2.5 instead of the current 1.33. In other words, they can build higher on the same piece of land. The justification for this is ostensibly to ensure that everyone is resettled. But it also means that the excess land available once people are accommodated vertically can be used for other purposes. This is where there is ample room for manipulation and misuse of a concession designed to benefit fisherfolk.

But the fishing communities’ concern is not just housing; it is principally livelihood. And on this they are not at all sure that the new notification will help them. For, even as it grants them additional rights to organise their housing it lays open coastal lands for other forms of development.

For instance, one of the issues that fishworkers’ representatives took up with Ramesh in the run-up to the new notification was their opposition to roads on stilts along the coastline. They argued, as the Mahim fishing colony in Mumbai opposing the Bandra-Worli sea link had done for years — that erecting pillars in the sea along the coast affects tidal patterns and thereby fishing. In the case of Mumbai, their pleas were overruled in the name of ‘development’. And yet their specific request on this count has been left out of the notification. Indeed, the Maharashtra government has already started pushing for a plan for coastal roads on stilts.

There is some sense in the argument made by Ramesh and others that you cannot have a uniform rule for the entire coast of India. You need to factor in the realities of urbanisation as well as the urgent need to preserve natural buffers such as mangroves and reefs that can minimise the damage caused by sea level rise or by natural disasters like tsunamis. Those for a diluted CRZ hold out the example of other cities around the world where such strict regulations are not in place and where the sea front has been exploited for commercial purposes.

However, environmentalists emphasise that even the original CRZ notification had been modified 25 times. And its implementation was followed more in the breach — with spectacular instances such as the 31-storey Adarsh building in Mumbai, which added a full 25 floors more than it was allowed to under these very rules. If this can happen within shouting distance of the lawmakers of Maharashtra, and with many of them being complicit, one can only imagine what else has been going on. It also means that the new, more lax, CRZ notification will be even more amenable to misuse than the previous one.

V Vivekanandan, advisor to the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, believes that the new notification cancels out the fishworkers’ struggle against the previous Coastal Management Zone plan that was sought to be introduced in 2008.  It had to be abandoned in the face of trenchant opposition.

Since 1991, he points out, there have been new pressures on coastal lands. In 1981, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi acknowledged the need to protect coastal areas from an environmental and livelihood perspective. The CRZ, 10 years later, was the result of this awareness. But since then, he says, it has been steadily weakened by a combination of groups — those who want to put coastal lands to other uses such as Special Economic Zones (SEZs), for the construction of power stations, including nuclear, for ports, for non-polluting industries — and those who want to fence off coastal areas to preserve biodiversity. Both strategies overlook the concept of coastal zones as common lands that should remain accessible to everyone, especially those dependent on them for their livelihood, such as fishing communities.

Take the case of Maharashtra. The government plans to build a series of power stations, nuclear and thermal, all along the Konkan coast. What this will do to the marine resources does not even form part of the discussion. Ramesh was quoted as saying: “India must get used to power plants being located in coastal areas. The availability of water, import of coal or uranium fuel… will necessitate power plants being located here.” Yet, it is an indisputable fact that the warm water discharged from power stations eliminates marine life in coastal areas. In addition, other infrastructure like ports and jetties will further disrupt the marine ecosystem and directly impact the lives of fishing communities along these coasts.

The impact of the new CRZ rules on urban areas like Mumbai will also be considerable. Despite its many limitations, Mumbai’s coastline has been preserved to some extent because the rules forbade development within CRZ I and II. It is entirely possible that if such rules had not existed, popular beaches such as Chowpatty and Juhu, which constitute important democratic open spaces for people of all classes in the city, would have disappeared altogether. In Goa, citizens’ groups had to go to court to ensure that five-star hotels did not cut off access to beaches.

On the other hand, one has to acknowledge that some slum redevelopment schemes have been held up because of CRZ rules.  These are not just the Koliwadas. They include slums that fall within CRZ II. In fact, some of the redevelopment schemes in Dharavi, quite a distance away from the sea, were delayed for over two years because, technically, they had to obtain CRZ clearance. Such anomalies have to be rectified. But they could have been sorted out within the older notification.

The real problem in India with all environmental laws and regulations is their implementation. In Mumbai, as in other cities, those with power and political clout manage to get around every rule, while genuine cases such as those of the urban poor wanting to redevelop their land end up embroiled in endless red-tape.

The importance of strictly adhering to a more stringent coastal zone regulation for a city like Mumbai, and other coastal cities, has become all the more urgent in light of global warming and genuine fears of sea level rise. If Mumbai experiences another episode of heavy rains and high tides, as it did in July 2005, and there is no buffer by way of beaches, rocky outcrops and mangroves, the devastation could be more extensive than that which occurred six years ago.

The question that Ramesh has to answer is why the specific needs of the Koliwadas could not have been met by bringing in amendments to the existing rules without issuing an entirely new CRZ notification. Who will monitor implementation of these diluted rules if the past record has been so murky? Can the Centre really ensure that state governments are not complicit in diluting an already diluted set of rules?

These are not just rhetorical questions. People living in cities along the coast as well as those dependent on coastal lands for their livelihood have a genuine reason to be worried about the future.


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