In November 2015, Union Minister for Shipping Nitin Gadkari said India’s 7,500-km-long coastline would be used to develop hotels, resorts, yoga centres and spas. He hoped that coastal tourism would bring in investments of over Rs 10,000 crore for India. This thrust on coastal tourism is not new. The current government’s push for coastal tourism began earlier. Since June 2014, the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011 – the legislation that governs the use of coastal space in India – has been subject to a review, over 10 amendments and circulars and the threat of being replaced by a new Marine Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. The review and draft Marine Coastal Regulation Zone Notification advocated opening up the coasts to more tourism and two of the amendments granted relaxations to beach resorts, hotels and shacks. All this was done at the request of coastal states. In their submissions to the coastal regulation zone review committee in July/August 2014, many of these states sought relaxations for tourism structures.

The latest step in this direction came on March 6, when the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change issued an amendment to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. This amendment allows projects that have started construction without obtaining coastal regulation zone clearance to apply for post-facto approval by June 30. The ministry said granting such amnesty to project proponents was in “public interest” and absolved itself of the requirement of issuing a draft amendment and seeking public comments on it.

A similar amendment was made last year to the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, which allowed projects that had started “construction work or have undertaken expansion, modernisation and change in product” without environment clearance to apply for it post-facto. Projects were given a six-month window to send their applications to the Environment Ministry. Of the 1,353 applications the ministry received, four also required coastal regulation zone clearance. Two of those projects are tourism projects. Although these numbers may seem low, the matter has huge consequences.

The Expert Appraisal Committee, tasked with looking at violations in Environment Impact Assessment projects, is currently discussing a coastal tourism project in Kerala. The Kapico Kerala Resorts Private Limited had constructed a Rs 150-crore luxury resort without obtaining environment and coastal clearances. A petition was filed in the High Court of Kerala in 2011 highlighting this and demanding, among others, compensation for the loss in fisher livelihoods in Alappuzha district. In 2013, the court found the company guilty of “blatant violations” of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification and passed orders for the demolition of the resort.

But the demolition never happened. The company initially did not comply with district administration notices to demolish illegal structures and subsequently challenged the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court in 2014. While the case was pending in the top court, the amendment to the Environment Impact Assessment Notification came through and the company applied for post-facto environment clearance for the project. At a meeting in February, the Expert Appraisal Committee noted that the project also required coastal regulation zone clearance. While the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification in its earlier form did not allow amnesty to projects operating without such a clearance, with the March 6 amendment, the project is likely to get the green signal.

The latest amendment to India's coastal law will likely take a toll on coastal ecology and livelihoods. (Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP)

Implications of the change

Currently, states are preparing Coastal Zone Management Plans, or reference documents that guide coastal development and implementation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. These plans need to acknowledge current land use (after picking out violations) in coastal regulation zone and use it as a baseline for the demarcation of various regulatory zones. In the absence of these plans, coastal zone management authorities appraise project proposals by relying on tidal markings and zonations done on a case-to-case basis. But there have been instances when tidal demarcations or coastal regulation zone reports – as they are popularly called – prepared by two different agencies have not matched.

In December, the Kerala coastal zone management authority decided to request the Environment Ministry to blacklist Anna University’s Institute of Remote Sensing, which has prepared coastal regulation zone reports for several big projects in the state. The authority recorded in a meeting that the institute had prepared favourable reports for many projects that on verification were found to be in violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification and inconsistent with reports prepared by another agency.

Acknowledging the importance of coastal zone management plans in project appraisal, the National Green Tribunal in November banned the grant of clearance to development projects in coastal regulation zone areas. It stated in its order that the decision was based on the Environment Ministry’s opinion that in the absence of coastal plans, states should be barred from granting coastal regulation zone clearance. However, in March, the ministry first allowed post-facto clearance to development projects in coastal regulation zone areas and then submitted an affidavit with the tribunal asking it to take back its order.

Even those resort projects that are permitted in coastal regulation zones have to comply with stipulations on groundwater extraction, ensure the public gets access to the beach, and that sand dunes and mangroves are not destroyed. In the absence of reliable coastal maps and plans, any attempt at finding out if the site of a project had mangroves or sand dunes or any other sensitive structure would most likely be inadequate. And since post-facto approvals would not involve public hearings, the destruction of coastal livelihoods or fishing areas would not come to light, let alone be remedied. Even if one gets accurate maps and dependable plans, if projects are approved after they have started construction, the plans will remain only on paper and fail to effectively guide coastal development.

State push for tourism

In 2014, hearing the Kapico matter, the Supreme Court had demanded a report on coastal regulation zone violations from Kerala. Following this, the state’s MLAs and religious leaders had petitioned Oommen Chandy, the chief minister at the time, and demanded that the report be prepared in such a manner that tourism development was not affected. Kerala is among the states that had sought relaxations in coastal laws for tourism projects from the review committee.

The review report, the recent amendments and the proposed Marine Coastal Regulation Zone Notification imply that the thrust on tourism by states is deciding the direction of coastal development in the country. The March 6 amendment to the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification is one more step in that direction. It may cost the coasts their ecology and livelihoods, but it will immensely benefit companies like Kapico, some of which have already applied for amnesty while many more will now do so.

Meenakshi Kapoor and Krithika Dinesh are with the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environmental Justice Program.