In the early 1970s, Pathrose Gomez, a philosopher fisherman of Marianad village in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, educated me about the role of sand on a beach: “Only if you allow the sea to play with the sand will you get to closely know its true behaviour.”

Such wisdom is a result of centuries of accumulated knowledge of the sea. Fisherfolk like Gomez had the ability to “read” the happenings in deeper waters by merely observing the surf and wave action or the behaviour of crabs on beach sands. If such knowledge still exists, it is of little utility, not least because natural beaches are disappearing fast. Instead, several thousand kilometres of our coastline is now literally paved with granite seawalls.

How are natural beaches formed? First, rivers flowing into coastal waters bring an uninterrupted flow of sand particles from mountains. Second, near-shore waves, large and small with differing energy, move this sand up and down in a playful seasonal rhythm. In one season the beach is large and expansive; in another it is small and narrow. Third, as these waves strike the shore at an angle they tend to transport the sand in a lateral direction as well, thus preventing excessive accumulation at any particular point. Natural beaches are the result of these three processes acting simultaneously.

Granite seawalls as protection for eroding beaches are a relatively new phenomenon. Beach erosion is the combined result of the reduction in the flow of sand from rivers because of sand mining and of unscientifically built structures on the coast that alter the wave action. Today, in many places, it is as though a “sand hungry” sea is angrily swallowing up even seawalls and exposing the coast, its inhabitants and infrastructure to more disasters.

The proposal made in the draft Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 2018 to reduce the No Development Zone to just 50 metres from the High Tide Line will only make this situation worse. More of the coast will get depleted as a result and the infrastructure built under the new regulations being proposed will be swallowed up by the sea sooner or later.

Handle with care

The coastal ecosystem is the most productive but also the most fragile. It is a dynamic realm, created by the meeting of water and land. It is a fuzzy interface with constantly changing boundaries. We need to adopt a different perspective when dealing with this ecosystem, particularly when it comes to assigning access, use and property rights in the coastal ecosystem. A terrestrial perspective, where boundaries are fixed and immovable, and assigning of rights is relatively easy and straightforward, is not conducive for the coast. A more “wet and fluid” approach is warranted.

The land-sea interface of the coastal zone – or what in common parlance is called the seafront or the beach – needs special consideration. This realm expands and contracts according to the season and must be considered a transient gift of Mother Nature. This is the ecological rationale of a No Development Zone for the coast. A wide zone is better for us. We reduce it at our peril.

All efforts to privatise this realm should also be forbidden. This is the playground for the sand and the sea to frolic. All citizens can have unrestricted and free access but without the right to put up any temporary or permanent structures. It is the realm where the public can enjoy the sand and the sea, and where fisherfolk can park their beach-landing boats and dry their nets.

In many countries, the public trust doctrine prevails with respect to beaches: beaches are considered part of the national patrimony. The state is the guardian, the trustee, and all of the public enjoy the benefits equitably.

Beaches are our common inheritance and if we do not want to lose them, their protection must be our collective responsibility – that of the state and the public.

It is best to leave the beach to the sea.

John Kurien is visiting professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.