Kerala’s Coastal Zone Management Plan 2019 raises anxieties – old and new

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Extreme erosion along Kerala’s 590-kilometre coastline has brought to focus the draft Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP-2019) which is currently under discussion. The draft prepared by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, corresponds to Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) notification of 2019 (CRZ-2019). The deliberations have stirred up new apprehensions and old anxieties about coastal regulation. It is somewhat unusual that discussions on the Coastal Zone Management Plan is taking place even before the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority approving it for the mandatory public hearings as per norm.

Reports in the media show that for the most part the coastal communities are once again articulating concerns they had before the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) finalised the CRZ-2019. There are others stakeholders, including major political leaders, complicating these discussions by injecting new elements going beyond the CRZ-2019 tantamount to amending the notification itself. Bringing up new demands at this stage is reminiscent of the approach adopted by Kerala towards the first coastal regulation of 1991 (CRZ-1991) when an exception was sought. Such interventions carry the risk of diverting attention away from the key concerns of coastal communities concerning CZMP-2019.

The notification of 1991 was revised in 2011 and 2019. The expert committee chaired by MS Swaminathan, constituted in July 2004 to carry out a quick but comprehensive review of the CRZ-1991, submitted its report in February 2005. It was followed by the revised notification of 2011 (CRZ-2011). On June 17, 2014, soon after the change of government at the Centre, MoEF&CC constituted an expert committee chaired by Dr Shailesh Nayak to review the notification of 2011 to address concerns raised by Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra and to simply the regulation. This committee submitted its report in January 2015 which resulted in the CRZ-2019.

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The CRZ-2019 notification will come into effect only after the formal approval of the corresponding Coastal Zone Management Plan. The CRZ-1991 was approved only in 1996, due to inordinate delays in preparation of the CZMP. The corresponding CZMP (CZMP-2011) for Kerala was approved only on February 28, 2019.

Coastal Zone Management Plan: Concerns of communities

Recognizing the grave implications of anthropogenic global climate change, there is a need for a sound regulatory framework to address the threats to coastal ecology and sustainable development of communities dependent on the coast. Among the larger concerns, the most vexing are the norms concerning dwellings and livelihoods. The amendments and revised notifications have avoided addressing the issues. The norms insisting that dwellings and livelihood patterns must, in effect, remain almost frozen as of 1996 is grossly unfair.

While the intent of the 1991 notification was to safeguard the rights of communities that have historically been coastal inhabitants, the legalese used, and several provisions would be problematic even in the short-term not to mention the longer-term implications. Families having dwellings in the ‘No Development Zone’ without door number allotted by local body cannot even build a proper dwelling after the regulation.

Nearly 30 years ago, not many local bodies in the coastal tracts were insisting on registration of residences. Far too many decrepit dwellings hardly qualified for registration. There was neither incentives nor necessity for it. The population density in coastal tracts of Kerala is relatively high. Despite that, these areas have not received equal attention for settlement-level planning and disaster risk reduction.

Protection of ecology is the primary goal of coastal regulation. In the Indian context, the rights of the coastal communities are integral to that. The notification of 1991 has its beginning in the famous Prime Minister’s directive of Nov. 27, 1981, from Indira Gandhi in response to rising resentment against rapacious tourism and related activities that disrupted the lives of coastal communities of Goa. The indecorous activities under the garb of coastal tourism proliferated on the heels of official policy of promoting it.

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The coastal regulation 1991 sought to rein in the indiscriminate developments on the beaches and various ancillary activities adversely impacting ecology. These were also transgressing the rights, both formal and customary, of the coastal communities. The notifications of 2011 and 2019, proclaimed the intent of the law more explicitly, mentioning that its purpose is “to conserve and protect the unique environment of coastal stretches and marine areas, besides livelihood security to the fisher communities and other local communities in the coastal areas and to promote sustainable development” The biggest challenge is to ensure that the CZMP helps in realising this primary intent of the regulation.

Re-prioritising coastal tourism

Notwithstanding the declared intent, the notifications have been sharply criticised for departing from the stated aims both in letter and spirit. The sharpest criticism is of the on process of developing CRZ-2019. A report in IndiaSpend points out that while more than 3,000 fishing collectives submitted objections and suggestions to the published draft, 90% were ignored, several key industry-friendly changes and certain dilutions were incorporated.

A striking feature of the CRZ-2019 is its explicit pro-tourism slant. In some ways, it signifies a return of the coastal development to the pre-1991 situation. The current process of discussing CZMP reignites many issues that caused discontentment among coastal communities back then. That said, despite the stated goal of conserving and protecting “livelihood security to the fisher communities and other local communities in the coastal areas” in the notification, in practice it has not been fair to the developmental needs of the coastal inhabitants or their aspirations for marching forward with rest of the society.

As far as the coastal inhabitants are concerned, certain ways of interpreting the CRZ provisions seem to freeze their progress and constrict livelihood options. In practice, the coastal regulation has tended to restrict rights of the coastal communities to improve their living conditions while promoting various exogenically driven development in the form the permissible activities through liberal and at times creative application of the law. The coastal communities must consider all legal avenues to enforce the stated intent of the notification and take part in the discussions on CZMP to assert their rights.

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Not every so-called responsible or eco-tourism project is truly so in its implementation. The responsible tourism has largely been reduced to a cliché. In effect, it is implemented without real regulatory framework or mechanisms to penalise or stop deviations. Thus, while both dwelling rights and livelihood options are subject to tight constraints, a liberalised approach favours coastal tourism.

Even the best of eco-tourism plans often have large ecological footprints and considerable negative environmental impacts. All coastal tourism projects must be subject to legally enforceable responsibility framework that allows participation of the local community and has provisions for regular monitoring of ecological impacts by autonomous agencies. Therefore, the discussions on CZMP-2019 must be vigilant about such components requiring detailed scrutiny.

Integrated Island Management Plan – A Damocles Sword

A novel feature of the CZMP-2019 is the need for characterisation of islands and an Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP). It is conspicuous by its absence in the draft CZMP-2019 and its absence hangs like the Damocles sword. It is unambiguously stated in CRZ-2019 that the notification will come into effect only after MoEF&CC approves CZMP incorporating IIMP. While CRZ-2019 mentions IIMP must cover both coastal and backwater islands, the draft CZMP-2019 lists only the backwater islands. It is silent about the approach used for the demarcation. The MoEF&CC has also not issued specific guidelines for the demarcation of islands in conformity with the provisions of CRZ-2019.

The draft CZMP currently under discussion has listed 1,826 backwater islands in the 10 districts where CRZ applies – nine close to the 590 km shoreline along Lakshadweep Sea and one into which part of the Vembanad Backwaters (about 1500 extends. The average area of Kerala’s backwater islands listed from these ten districts is 16.5 ha. Both the minimum (40 sq.m) and maximum (33.7 are from Ernakulam district which also has the maximum number of backwater islands (1074).

Almost 90% of the backwater islands are of area less than 10 ha with average area in a few districts between 2 ha to 3 ha. The applicability of IIMP norms specified in the CRZ Notification 2019 (i.e., norms for Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands) seems highly impractical and inappropriate for the tiny backwater islands. The IIMP will have implications for all stakeholders and any discussion on CZMP will be incomplete without IIMP.

Experience across the world shows that laws alone cannot ensure protection of the ecosystems, secure ecosystem services, or enhance sustainable livelihood. Participation and vigilance of local communities, support of scientific studies, cooperation of the institutions of local self-governance, and political will are also needed.

The discussions on the CZMP-2019 among stakeholders must scrutinise it thoroughly to ensure that all aspects of it are in sync with the primary goal of the notification, which is conservation of ecology and protection of livelihoods of the traditional coastal inhabitants. The discussions must have a proper framework to register views of the stakeholders and the agencies facilitating the process must ensure that all views are documented.

(Dr CP Geevan is Visiting Fellow, Centre for Socio-economic and Environmental Studies (CSES), Kochi, Kerala. He is also Member, Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority.)