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Coastal Erosion: A Regulatory and Political Phenomenon Today

In the last few years, numerous reports and articles have chronicled the sustained erosion of the coastline of peninsular India. A study conducted by the National Center for Coastal Research (NCCR) revealed that about one-third (33%) of the nation’s coastline has undergone erosion (“India lost”). While natural factors such as the littoral drift, i.e., the periodical movement of sand due to the action of longshore currents, do play an important role in shaping India’s  coasts; much of the aforementioned erosion can be attributed to unprecedented increase in human developmental activities—especially the building of coastal structures. Consequently, political interests, corporate interests and our laws—particularly  those cemented by the aforementioned interests—have come to play the largest role in shaping our coasts. This is  evidenced by the acceleration of coastal erosion in multiple coasts across the world due to the building of coastal structures such as ports, harbors, breakwaters, etc., which account for most of the human activity causing permanent alteration of our coasts. Consequently, studying the decision making processes in the building of coastal structures and their vulnerability to the influence of political and corporate interests should effectively illustrate the extent to which our coasts and shorelines are shaped by them. In light of the same, this essay examines the most crucial point in the decision-making process surrounding the building of coastal structures—Environmental Clearances under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986 (specifically under the EIA and CRZ notifications)—and analyzes flaws in the current way of operations. It also attempts to understand the role of  the conflicting vested interests of the governing bodies at play that have hampered their smooth implementation. 

Brief Overview of Current Regulations & Policies

In India, all human developmental activities that directly or indirectly affect the environment come under the purview of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 & subsequent amendments to it. In particular, two specific sets of rules under this act, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notifications (latest iteration 2020) & the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notifications (latest iteration 2019) play the largest role in the regulation of coastal structure development. 

EIA rules, including the present iteration, traditionally have mandated the obtaining of environmental clearances prior to the building of certain types of coastal structures. They are based on the nature of the project, area of construction, size (considering handling capacity) and investment. A formal four step process—namely, screening, scoping, public consultation, and appraisal—is prescribed to study and assess the potential impacts—social, cultural, environmental and economical—of industrial & developmental projects. In short, it involves the screening of projects to check whether they require clearance or not, the preparation of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report by the proponent based on the terms of reference prescribed by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) appointed by the state or central government. It then goes through multiple stages of public hearing with the project-affected communities and evaluation of the revised report by an EAC.

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, issued for the first time under Section 3 of the EPA 1986, particularly governs the approval of industrial and other developmental activities in the coastal regions of the country. The notification defines a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) & then organizes the CRZ into four broad categories and describes the kind of operations and processes permitted and prohibited in the different regions. While CRZ-1 and CRZ-2 include ecologically sensitive areas and built up areas with adequate infrastructural facilities, CRZ-3 and CRZ-4 pertain to rural areas and underdeveloped urban areas and islands respectively. According to the notification, unlike EIA clearances, CRZ clearances are limited to the submission of a few prescribed documents by the project authorities and do not entail the protracted process of public hearings. Under CRZ, the project proponent is required to submit half-yearly compliance reports to the concerned CZMA, which  must subsequently be made available in the public domain.

The following guideline flowchart prepared by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, clearly depicts the operation of clearance procedures with regards to coastal structures perfectly:

Fig: Clearance process for Category A & B1 Projects from MoEFCC Guidance Manual for the Environmental Clearances relating to Ports and Harbors.

A Critical Evaluation of the Current Regulatory Regime

Unfortunately, all has not been rosy with these regulations and notifications. Although their issuance has signified some environmental consciousness on the part of the government, recent iterations—particularly since  2014, when a committee headed by T S R Subramanian was appointed in order to enable fast-track environmental clearances—have largely focused on enabling further commercial activities around our coasts, especially in erosion-prone zones and eco-sensitive regions. In doing so, it has flouted multiple alarms of their environmental implications. Moreover, their implementation has faced  multiple challenges due to the play of political and corporate interests. 

The latest amendments to the EIA notification (2006) have made several alterations to the provisions in the existing law, facilitating ease of maintenance of industrial structures (including ports & harbors) ignoring much of the environmental implications such dilutions in regulation would have for our environment and coasts. 

On a particular note, meriting review, they have exempted projects whose clearances have expired, from public hearings on reapplication thereby reflecting utter disregard for the welfare of both the people and the environment. Moreover, the proposed EIA Draft Notification (2020) attempts to further facilitate ease of construction of industrial structures. It not only permits post facto clearances (projects without clearances can carry out operations), but also discourages the project-affected communities from reporting any violations of the law. The draft also encourages non-transparency by downplaying the importance of one of the crucial components of EIA, i.e., public participation. More importantly, in addition to proposing that the notice period for public hearings be reduced from thirty to twenty days, it advocates that public hearings be removed altogether for some projects

Likewise, CRZ notification 2019 has made promoting revenue generation from coastal cities through tourism, its primary objective. It has drastically reduced the number of No Development Zones (NDZ) in the coastal areas in order to facilitate the setting up of temporary tourism facilities like shacks, toilet blocks, and changing rooms. Furthermore, developmental activities in the coastal regions belonging to CRZ II & CRZ III no longer require clearance by the Union environment ministry but only from the concerned authorities at the state level

The main objective for diluting regulations is to encourage the developmental activities that the government claims are imperative for the nation’s economic development. However, it is important that we realize that irrespective of whether the laws are stringent or diluted, it’s the small and medium scale enterprises that bear the brunt of the long-drawn and complex environmental clearance processes. The big players in the market in either case have the deep pockets to outsource the work and fulfill the obligatory requirements through all available means. In brief, while the latest amendments provide undue power to the project developers, it severely disempowers the general public, particularly the fishing communities and other coastal villages.

Overall, various concerns persist in every step of the way,  allowing for capital and vested interests to dictate the future of our coasts and its inhabitants. It leaves little room for stakeholders’ voices to be heard and make any tangible impact. Much of the concerns pointed above represent a small fraction of the room for folly in today’s environmental policies. Our current policies, guidelines and regulations, as it has become evident, stand as less regulatory and more facilitatory, enabling environmental degradation and obstruction of environmental justice.

Contribution made under the condition of anonymity.

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