Clearances for Coastal Structures and Coastal Erosion: Insights From Pondicherry’s Minor Port

By Sudarshan RSA & Vedhanthika Madhavan

In continuance with the theme of analyzing issues of environmental clearances within India, this article provides yet another perspective on faulty regulatory regimes being the primary cause of coastal erosion by citing the case of the minor port in Pondicherry—and especially failures in its maintenance. 

The premise, as before, is the same: while forces of climate change and nature’s rolls of dice continue to change our costs, its regulatory mishaps, bureaucratic inefficiencies and the play of vested interests that primarily seem to be shaping our coasts today.

Pondicherry, once home to some of the most alluring beaches in the country, today has captured public imagination as a city with rapidly dwindling beaches engendered by coastal erosion. 

The initial trigger for coastal erosion dates back to the French rule in the 1800s, when fortification of the Boulevard region (French town in particular) and construction of the Old Pier took place on the fragile sand dunes of the city. Moreover, a significant erosion of the coast for the first time was observed at the Pondicherry Distillery in the 1960s. Although the episode of erosion was solely attributed to natural forces in the past, today there is substantial evidence to show that it was a cumulative result of the reorientation of the coast caused by natural erosion, and the construction of the New Pier.

Today, the rising disappearance of beaches in the city has been largely attributed to coastal erosion induced by the minor port of Pondicherry. The roadstead anchorage port was constructed on the mouth of the Ariyankuppam river between the years 1986-89. Two breakwaters: one, a 370m long southern breakwater and two, a 150m long northern breakwater perpendicular to the coast were built as an integral part of the port to guard the anchored vessels from the overpowering waves. Interestingly, in the case of Pondicherry, the issue of harbour-induced siltation and erosion were anticipated, and as a precautionary measure, a sand bypass system—which dredges sand from the up-drift side and pours it on the down-drift side – was installed. However, the sand bypass system, despite being the state of the art in counteracting erosion, was a failed project as its usage was discontinued in a year because of tight budgetary constraints and political unwillingness. 

As a consequence of the human-induced erosion, beaches to the north of the port, which is incidentally the most densely populated region of the city, were subject to heavy erosion with the impact being felt as far as 15km away from the port. Since the construction of the port – a half km coastal stretch—has been lost every year. According to the National Assessment of Shoreline Changereport, 9.5km of Puducherry’s 30.6km long coastline is presently undergoing severe erosion. In an attempt to curb the erosion, several hard engineering approaches, involving the construction of seawalls and groynes, were undertaken. However, such man-made structures only serve to treat the symptoms of the larger problem but not the root cause itself. While investigating into the reasons for not adopting a comprehensive approach to tackle the issue, it was discovered that like many other coastal cities, the Public Works Department (PWD) in Pondicherry was entrusted with coastal erosion-related issues and not the concerned port authorities. The PWD, unaware that the erosion was caused by the disruption of the dynamic equilibrium maintained by littoral drift, regarded it as a flooding problem. Hence, flood control measures – involving the construction of coastal defence structures – were adopted to counteract the erosion. Although such ad hoc measures may seem beneficial at first glance, in the long run, these structures exacerbate coastal erosion. 

It is important to note, once again, that Pondicherry’s coast has been armoured with massive seawalls for more than 250 years. In total, there are ten seawalls that span a distance of about 5.8km, bordering almost 24% of the city’s shoreline. Frequent measures have been undertaken to lengthen and strengthen the pre-existing structures, primarily to save the livelihoods of the fishing communities who live very close to the coastline. However, a fact of great concern was also noted alongside: political parties who found the entire process lucrative capitalized on the opportunity to dump unwanted rocks and make hefty profits—thus all such measures were also not undertaken with the purest of intentions. All things considered, there is undoubtedly an urgent need for a paradigm shift in the way we tackle coastal erosion. A more holistic and comprehensive approach should be adoptedto revive the beaches that are eroding or those that have already eroded, and where possible the risk of its occurrences should be minimized by adopting precautionary measures like the sand bypass systems. 

In this way, Pondicherry’s case provides a fertile ground to explore and discuss the monitoring complexities revolving around those coastal developmental structures that were constructed prior to the promulgation of Environmental Clearance regulations. To illustrate, when the minor port of Pondicherry was constructed in the late 1980’s, environmental clearance regulations like the CRZ (Coastal Reguulation Zone Notifications; latest: 2019) and EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment Notifications) were not created, thereby rendering the port outside their purview. Interestingly, a letter by the then Prime minister – Indira Gandhi – shedding light on the significance of the nation’s coastal cities encouraged the Department of Environment to formulate the ‘Environmental guidelines for development of beaches’ in 1983. However, Pondicherry’s port did not comply with the prescribed guidelines as they were not legally enforceable. Furthermore, when the EIA notification was issued for the first time in the year 1994, it exempted minor ports from obtaining environmental clearance. Although subsequent amendments made it mandatory for both major and minor ports to get clearances, several projects with severe environmental damages commenced their operations between 1986 and 2006. 

Lastly, it is important to note that the whole monitoring process surrounding the minor port of Pondicherry has been hazy since its construction in the 1980s. A close examination of interviews that the authors conducted with environmental law experts and NGOs and an important report named ‘Calling the Bluff’  that presents a comprehensive study of environmental impact compliances & adherences to them, brings to light a few important particulars on the post-construction monitoring process for the port. 

Generally, the projects accorded clearance by MoEFCC’s (Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) Expert Appraisal Committees, have to adhere to a set of guidelines laid down by the ministry, which include general conditions applicable to all projects as well as some project-specific rules that are based on the concerns raised by the project-affected communities. Currently, the MoEFCC has six appointed Regional Offices (ROs) for the purpose of undertaking site inspections and reviewing the half-yearly compliance reports submitted by the project proponents. However, on further inspection, this system seems to be fraught with various limitations that allow it to be efficiently circumvented. For instance, a serious inherent limitation of the MoEFCC’s environmental clearance system which has hitherto gone unacknowledged & unresolved is inadequate human power. As the number of projects that were granted clearances swelled with the dilution of regulations for ensuring fast-track clearances over the years, the burden of insufficient officers in the regional offices increased manifold. Of all the six different regional offices, the Southern region has documented the highest number of projects (1225) that were accorded clearance between the years 1986 & 2006. In addition, a meagre four officers from Bangalore’s regional office were responsible for maintaining compliance records for all the projects. The absence of Monitoring and Compliance Reports for several projects highly suggests that non-adherence to the environmental conditions was very high in the region. 

All the aforementioned challenges faced by MoEFCC and the Southern RO, in particular, strongly apply to the case of the minor port of Pondicherry. Interviews with the senior members of PondyCAN also reiterated the same. The result of these bureaucratic inefficiencies was the creation of ample room for commercial & political interests to ignore environment guidelines and operate to the end of profit-making. The periodic maintenance dredging of the minor port was not carried out as there was no regulatory body in place to monitor the same. Likewise, the concerned monitoring authorities engaged themselves in strengthening the seawalls by dumping rocks frequently, even when there wasn’t a necessity, as they found the whole process of beach restoration very profitable and rewarding.

Overall, it is intriguing to observe how the case of Pondicherry contributes to the discussion of environmental clearances and regulations surrounding human developmental activities in the coasts, particularly around the development of minor ports that are believed to play a central role in fueling a nation’s economic growth. Pondicherry’s case perfectly illustrates the extent to which vested interests played a role outside the main clearance process and with regard to compliances after construction. By failing to incorporate the precautionary & corrective erosion control measures that were a part of the proposed plan, the mishaps surrounding the regulatory structure relating to the port resulted in great amounts of negative economic and social impacts that cannot be undone. Pondicherry’s story showcases that where there is room for profit to be made that has not been strictly plugged by regulations, parties with incentives to capitalize them will almost necessarily end up doing so. Thus, a greater amount of robustness, increased requirements of integrity in compliance and the like must necessarily feature in policies around the building and maintenance of coastal structures and thus, our coasts—for if they do not, it is only a swift and definitive loss of our coasts that awaits us. 

Vedhanthika studies Physics and Sudarshan studies Economics at Ashoka University.

Image credits – Needpix.com

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