Revealing the coordinates of India’s High Tide line would equal the disclosure of the designs of satellites, missiles and rockets by the Indian Satellite Research Organisation. This is what the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, which is an autonomous centre of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said in its response to a Right to Information application seeking information on the freshly mapped High Tide Line. The Centre refused to share the information, saying it would harm its scientific and economic interests.

But the High Tide Line is not a commercial secret of a private entity. It is geospatial demarcation of the highest point reached by the rising tide along the coast.

Accurately mapping the High Tide Line is important because it forms the baseline for Coastal Zone Management Plans prepared by state authorities for coastal districts. It is essential for the government to protect the coast, for industry to secure its coastal zone clearances and for people living along the shores to safeguard their livelihoods. The plans, which regulate the activities in the area up to 500 metres from the High Tide Line, are under revision.

The Union government is also in the midst of revamping the rules governing India’s 7,500 km-long coastline. The new Marine and Coastal Regulation Zone notification, likely to be issued by the end of July, is expected to allow residential construction and tourism activities along the coast, even in ecologically sensitive areas. Land reclamation for commercial purposes, which was banned earlier, could be allowed under the new rules too. A draft of the new rules has been sent by the Union environment ministry to other concerned ministries for consultation.

Together, these changes could reshape India’s coastal landscape, with ecological and economic implications affecting the lives of 171 million people living in 66 coastal districts, including more than a million employed in coastal fishing, according to the World Bank. The government is keen to develop 400 ports and ten coastal economic zones with investments exceeding Rs 7 lakh crore along this coastline.

Much depends on where and how the new High Tide Line is drawn.

High stakes

India’s environment ministry regulates the activities within 500 metres from the High Tide Line, an area called the Coastal Regulation Zone. The rules restrict construction and development in certain zones. Manipulating the High Tide Line can then potentially open up more areas along the coast to construction and development activity.

Existing Coastal Regulation Zone rules.

In the past, different government bodies relied on a range of maps showing the High Tide Line, prepared by the National Institute of Ocean Technology, the Institute of Remote Sensing, and the National Institute of Oceanography. To avoid confusion, the environment ministry decided that a single, uniform High Tide Line map should be used for all projects undertaken along the coastline.

In 2014, the National Coastal Zone Management Authority, India’s central coastal authority which comes under the environment ministry, handed over the responsibility of demarcating the High Tide Line to the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management. Located within the Anna University campus in Chennai, it advises the government with the objective of promoting “integrated and sustainable management of the coastal and marine areas in India for the benefit and well being of the traditional coastal and island communities”.

The demarcation of the High Tide Line was declared complete for eight states in May 2016 but there has been little effort by coastal authorities to share the data with the public.

High secrecy

In August 2016, the Coastal Resource Centre, an environmental non-governmental organisation in Chennai, filed a Right to Information application with the central coastal authority seeking details of the new High Tide Line. This request was forwarded to the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, which demanded a sum of Rs 2.46 crore to provide the NGO with the information.

National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management's response to RTI query.

When the Coastal Resource Centre made an appeal regarding the response it received, the appellate authority upheld the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management’s stance. The reason stated was that disclosing the data would affect “scientific and economic interests” of the government agency as it is involved in many consultancy services for which this data forms the foundation.

Response to appeal filed by the Coastal Resource Centre.

“Public scrutiny of such foundation data sets is critical as this forms the basis of the Coastal Zone Management Plan,” said Pooja Kumar of the Coastal Resource Centre. “An inaccurate High Tide Line can result in a flawed plan, and throw open ecologically sensitive areas for development.” sent an email query to the Union environment ministry asking if it had taken a policy decision to not part with public data on coastal regulation. In the query, had also asked what, in the ministry’s view, could be the private economic interests of an autonomous government body such as the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management that prevented it from sharing data that would contribute towards imposing regulatory frameworks that impact the entire country. No reply was received.

In February, the Coastal Resource Centre filed another Right to Information application – this time with the Tamil Nadu coastal authority. It received the data for the state’s coast in a PDF document, for the regular fee of Rs 50. had also asked the Union environment ministry why the state coastal authority was permitted to share the data while the central coastal authority was not. Again, no reply was received.

In contrast to the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management’s refusal to share information on the High Tide Line data, the environment ministry publicly shares geospatial data of other territorial areas that it protects under the environmental laws, such as Ecologically Sensitive Areas. In fact, the coordinates for these areas are publicly notified through the gazette.

High anxiety

The lack of transparency extends to the methodology adopted by the the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management in demarcating the High Tide Line. In a query to the Union environment ministry, asked if the methodology to demarcate this line had been disclosed to the public. Again, no response was received.

Dr Ravinder Singh Bhalla, an ecologist at the Foundation for Ecological Research, Advocacy and Learning in Puducherry, said that top-down approaches often use seemingly complicated technology for demarcation to side step public scrutiny. “I do not think this is acceptable,” he said. “Tidal markers need to be physically placed so they can be assessed by independent observation. The HTL [High Tide Line] is not a mysterious or elusive entity.”

In Tamil Nadu, researchers of the Institute of Remote Sensing at Chennai’s Anna University had completed a similar demarcation exercise of the High Tide Line along the state’s coastline in 2013. “We walked the entire state coast with GPS gadgets, measured the high tide, took water samples during the dry season to mark the HTL [High Tide Line] in tide-influenced water bodies,” SS Ramakrishnan, the institute’s director, told The New Indian Express. The physical markers placed by them can still be found on the ground, said Kumar of the Coastal Research Centre. But there is no evidence of ground visits of the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management.

The Centre’s refusal to share data has triggered anxiety among Tamil Nadu’s coastal communities, who fear they may be locked out of the process of finalising new Coastal Zone Management Plans. Bhalla said that it is necessary to involve coastal communities in the process, particularly those whose livelihoods are based on the functioning of coastal ecosystems. “Can a democratic country afford to bypass the primary stakeholder in such an exercise?” he asked.

High Tide Line marked for Ennore Creek in North Chennai. Image credit: The Coastal Resource Centre.

In the next part of this series, a closer look at the possible impacts of the new High Tide Line on coastal ecology and the livelihoods of fishing communities in Tamil Nadu.