Any seagoing fisherman will tell you that the sea can be a terrifying place. Only minds shaped by elite ignorance can see the sea as merely an aesthetic resource to be consumed and the seashore as just another piece of real estate to be developed. Yet, this is exactly what the Union Cabinet did when they exposed their incomprehension of science, the sea and climate change by approving the draft Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2018. The Cabinet claimed the notification will “give boost to people, desirous of seeing and enjoying the beauty of the mighty seas”.

If notified, the rules will be intensely opposed by fisherfolk. They will be joined by other coastal communities smart enough to realise they too will be left more vulnerable to the sea’s increasingly devastating tantrums.

Justifying the draft notification, the Cabinet’s press release argues that it will create additional opportunities for affordable housing. “This will benefit not only the housing sector but people at large looking for shelter. The notification is so designed that it balances the needs in such a way that both are fulfilled,” it adds. “Tourism has been one of the greatest creators of livelihood and jobs. The notification will boost tourism in terms of more activities, more infrastructure and more opportunities and will certainly go a long way in creating employment opportunities in various aspects of tourism.”

These declarations and the notification’s claim of being based on scientific principles are disingenuous.

Doomsday scenario

From the violent cyclone Ockhi, which went from a depression to a severe cyclonic storm in just half a day, and the freak monsoon in Kerala to the devastating cyclone Gaja and the failed monsoon in Tamil Nadu, India is being told that the sea will remain a harbinger of bad news.

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that the world is on a collision course with its climate. Global temperatures will exceed the catastrophic threshold of 2 degrees Celsius unless radical action is taken within the next decade to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Even at the lower side of temperature rise, scientists are in consensus that coastal states in countries such as India are among the most vulnerable to sea-level rise and coastal flooding.

Just a week before the Cabinet approved the draft notification, Minister of State for Environment Mahesh Sharma sounded a dire warning for coastal India in response to a question raised in the Lok Sabha. “India’s western coast, including Khambat and Kutch, besides parts of the Konkan coast and South Kerala as well as the deltas of the Ganga, Krishna, Godavari, Cauvery, and Mahanadi on the East Coast are among the most ‘vulnerable’ areas as the sea level is projected to rise by 3.5 to 34.6 inches between 1990 and 2100, leading to inundation of valuable land and habitat,” he said, citing India’s submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Curiously, the minister even mentioned the existing CRZ notification of 2011, with its regulatory restrictions on construction near the coast, as a safeguard against rising seas.

But even this law was not effective against coastal encroachments. After all, any law is only as good as its enforcement and the CRZ notification is among the most poorly enforced of India’s environmental norms.

In a 2006 review of the post-tsunami relief and reconstruction work, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India blamed violations of the CRZ norms and the resultant overcrowding of coastal areas for playing “a major role in loss of human lives and property during the tsunami”. The audit also noted that the environment ministry “had amended the CRZ notification and the range of amendments presented a trend that allowed commercial and industrial expansion in coastal areas”.

All science and signs underscore the need for a withdrawal from the seas. Yet, the 2018 draft throws in affordable housing as an excuse to allow for denser construction closer to the high tide line than previously permitted. Tourism for employment is invoked to justify the construction of temporary facilities, including bathrooms and shacks, within 10 metres of the waterline. The process for obtaining permission for activities within urban and rural areas near the coast has been eased and made less rigorous by decentralising it to state and even town planning authorities.

Disaster tourism

Only last week, a submarine landslide triggered by the eruption of the Anak Krakatau volcano in Indonesia generated a massive tsunami. Responding to a viral video of the tsunami sweeping out the band Seventeen and their concert audience of tourists caught unawares at Banten’s Lesung Beach, the author of The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh, cryptically tweeted: “This could be an allegory of how the world ends.” India’s Cabinet seems as blissfully unaware of impending disaster as the ill-fated tourists on Lesung Beach.

Tourism may be a great earner of revenue and generator of low-quality temporary jobs. But it is also a cause of intense conflict with traditional fisherfolk.

The hit-and-run tourism industry views the beach as a pretty piece of real estate to be traded and used. This comes in conflict with the fisherfolk’s use of the beach as a livelihood and cultural commons. In cities such as Chennai, Mumbai, Puri and Vizag, the elite aesthetic of middle class tourists is crowding out livelihood and cultural uses of the beach by fisherfolk, by invoking casteist notions of dirt and impurity.

At Chennai’s famed Marina Beach, a conflict is simmering. At Nochikuppam, a historical fishing village near the Light House, the tourism project Swadesh Darshan is at a loggerheads with fisher livelihoods. A service road carved out of the beach commons for use by fisherfolk living in the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board housing was forcibly converted into an 18-metre “high-speed” concrete road in 2017. Fisherfolk continue to use the space for emptying and mending fishing nets, and selling fish. However, this nameless livelihood commons now has a menacing new name, Santhome Loop Road.

As part of Swadesh Darshan and its elitist conceptualisation of the beach, the city’s authorities want to evict women fish vendors from the new road, and unleash the tourism potential of the space. Contrary to the traditional and cultural notions of roads as a commons for diverse and overlapping uses – including mobility – the police, city corporation and Madras High Court want to convert this concrete stretch into an exclusive zone for high-speed mobility by private vehicles. No public buses ply this route.

At other beaches in Chennai, and elsewhere, as well, a notion of bourgeois environmentalism is seeking to replace and regulate beach vendors without any simultaneous effort to limit tourism.

Not quite affordable

Caught between a landward moving tide and a seaward moving city, for urban fisherfolk housing near the coast is a priority. However, the environment ministry appears intent on replacing fishers and fishing-related uses of the coast with tourism and real estate – and does not seem sincere about building housing for the poor.

While the Cabinet’s press release hits all the politically correct notes about on affordable housing, three questions arise with respect to the location of such housing close to the sea.

First, what is the environment ministry’s track record in living up to its stated commitment to affordable housing?

The CRZ notification of 2011 mandated coastal states to prepare detailed Coastal Zone Management Plans within a year of the notification, complete with housing plans for fisher communities. It was not until the latter half of 2018, six years after the deadline, that the states – only a handful of them – actually submitted their plans. Even then, the plans were incomplete and missing crucial mandatory elements. None of the approved plans, including of highly urbanised states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, contain the mandatory housing plans for coastal fishers despite repeated demands for the same.

The approved plan for Tamil Nadu, where fisherfolk contested the failure of the State Coastal Zone Management Authority to prepare long-term housing plans, is incomplete, inaccurate, illegal and out of line with the notification of 2011.

Second, assuming that “affordable housing” means housing for the poor, why is the government intent on pushing economically vulnerable communities to a zone that is fraught with the risk of natural disasters and sea-level rise? The Print reported that Smriti Irani was one of the Cabinet members in favour of the diluted legislation. The article quoted an unnamed official as claiming that “Irani said that slum colonies should be made for the poor on the coastline”. If true, this is nothing short of scandalous, considering that the coastline is a dangerous zone.

It is a fact that marginalised communities in coastal cities already occupy the ocean’s margins. Relocating them to affordable housing within the city would improve their lives and distance them from sea-based hazards. Of India’s land mass of 3.28 million square kilometre, a meagre 13,750 sq km – or 0.11%, including 10,000 sq km of tidal wetlands and 3,750 sq km of coastal land – falls within the CRZ. It is not clear why the government thinks this meagre strip of vulnerable land is crucial for affordable housing and the rest of the mainland is not suitable.

Third, how affordable is affordable?

The government’s excitement at the rich prospects the “Housing for All” scheme holds for the construction industry is palpable. In October 2017, then finance secretary Ashok Lavasa reportedly said a universal affordable housing scheme would give a big boost to the construction industry. For it would entail building 1.2 crore homes in three years at a cost of Rs 1.8 lakh crore under the urban component of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

But as Manisha Natarajan points out in her critique of the scheme, the affordable housing segment, with homes priced at Rs 5 lakh to 10 lakh, is not attractive for the private “construction industry”. She contends that “building homes at those price points is simply not viable despite policy incentives such as infrastructure status to affordable housing, lower GST of 8% credit-linked subsidy scheme and extra floor area ratio”.

Then there is the matter of Sagarmala and Bharatmala. They are referred to as “strategic projects”, which have blanket exemption from the CRZ norms. The sea, tidal wetlands, virtually any kind of geography can be legally obliterated for such projects.

The optimist in me argues that even if public opposition fails to force the Union government to revoke the draft CRZ notification, the sea will do its job of punishing the intrepid, though simple-minded, interlopers. If the notification survives, the coastal encroachments enabled by it will likely be swallowed by the sea in the next few decades.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a writer and social activist based in Chennai.