Between the devil and the sea

India’s coastal zones are facing the brunt of development, hurting not only the environment but livelihoods too. A fresh policy perspective is needed to protect them

Anupam Hazarika | August 9, 2018


#Coastline   #Environment   #Development  
Courtesy: Google Earth
Courtesy: Google Earth

With a coastline over 8,000 km long, India’s coastal zone is endowed with a variety of marine ecosystems which include mangroves, coral reefs, sea grasses, salt marshes, mud flats, estuaries, lagoons, and unique marine and coastal flora and fauna. The Sundarbans, shared between India and Bangladesh, are the largest contiguous mangroves in the world. India also has major stocks of corals, fish, marine mammals, reptiles and turtles, sea grass meadows and abundant sea weeds. Coastal fishing employs a million people full time, and the post-harvest fisheries employ another 1.5 million.

Despite their ecological richness and contribution to national economy, India’s coastal and marine areas have not received adequate protection and are under stress. About 34 percent of India’s mangroves were destroyed between 1950 and 2000. Almost all coral areas are threatened, marine fish stocks are declining and several species of ornamental fish and sea cucumbers are fast disappearing. Such rapid depletion and degradation, unless arrested and possibly reversed, will impact the livelihood, health and well-being of coastal populations and adversely affect prospects for India’s sustained economic growth. India’s coastal and marine environments are threatened by a lack of integrated development planning, especially given the large concentration of towns, petrochemical complexes and industries along India’s coasts.

Only 9 percent of waste water from India’s coastal towns is treated before entering coastal waters; thus adding to their already heavy chemical burden from the huge volumes of agricultural run-off that routinely flow into them. In addition, large numbers of coastal people remain dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, especially in the absence of alternative livelihood opportunities. However, the returns from traditional fishing are diminishing due to environmental degradation and overexploitation. Risks from climate change will only exacerbate these challenges.

Coastal fisheries are immensely important, both economically and in terms of environmental health. In India, they provide essential livelihoods and shape the local cultures of a large share of the population. For the impoverished, they supply a significant quantity of basic free food. India is the second largest fishing nation in the world. Coastal vegetation habitats, such as mangrove forests, serve as buffers to protect the shore line from wind generated storms and support coastal ecology. It is an important part of a local ecosystem as it strongly modulates land-ocean interactions and the mixture of fresh and saline water in estuaries provides many nutrients for marine life. Salt marshes and beaches also support a diversity of plants, animals and insects crucial to the food chain. Beaches prevent salt water intrusion into the ground water which is used for drinking water and agriculture and therefore fundamental to our water and food security. The coastline of India is both a precious natural resource and an important economic asset. Once the coastline is destroyed, it may be impossible to fully restore either the coastal ecology or lost livelihoods. Immediate action is needed to protect and restore this irreplaceable national treasure and in redirecting coastal development for a sustainable future.

With rampant development activities being implemented by state and national governments in coastal areas, there is a strong necessity for making drastic changes in policy making. First and foremost, there is a need to evolve a national policy for the conservation and restoration of the entire coast of India. This can be achieved by conducting comprehensive scientific and environmental studies of coastal geomorphology, eco-system habitation, and effects of development on coastal zones. Consultation with coastal communities concerning their economic needs and protection of their environmental assets is another stepping stone to develop a national policy. The various public policy priorities, such as protection of the coastal ecology, livelihoods of coastal communities, economic development and security should be mapped for better policy making process.

The costs of the damage caused by environmental services and the repairs required thereafter can be incorporated directly into the prices of the goods, services or activities which cause them, thereby contributing to the implementation of the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle. High penalties can be imposed for violations by way of fines and imprisonment, whether it is by an individual, a company or the state, under a Coastal Protection Act, in line with the Wildlife Protection Act. The coastal communities should be involved to create ownership and agency for ecosystem conservation, similar to the “Forest Rights Act”. The national policy framework should be developed through the centre-state coordination in consultation with relevant scientific and technological field experts, local communities and NGOs. There should be a nodal body for effective enforcement of policies and cells at the local level with state officials and violations should be penalised and publicised through media.

Although policymaking and implementation is important, it must be supported through adequate fund allocation. Both government and other funding agencies could look into reinvigorating fund allocation for ecosystem preservation. Funding should be provided for scientific studies to strengthen the knowledge base of coastal eco-systems and to understand the impacts on the coast due to man-made interventions.

Awareness programmes should be conducted for the coastal communities and students on the ecological, social, cultural and economic importance of the coast and the adverse impacts of manmade interventions such as construction, mining, dumping of wastes and effluents. Research institutes and coastal communities should be encouraged and incentivised for monitoring the coastline and restoration activities based on comprehensive scientific studies. For the protection of coastal areas, it is imperative to declare coastal areas which are damaged as ‘endangered’ and stop any further development until that area is restored.

India has one of the biggest coastlines in the globe and most of our coastal areas are already bearing the brunt of development and unsustainable tourism practices. Most mangrove areas are already submerged which has also led to habitat displacement of wildlife species. The mass bleaching of coral reefs in Australia is an indication of what is coming in the future. Thankfully, the coral system in Andaman and Nicobar Islands is still intact, though not for long.  Therefore, developing a policy framework for the protection of marine life and most importantly coastal ecosystems is an immediate imperative.

Hazarika is a senior research associate with Pahle India Foundation, New Delhi.


(The article appears in the August 15, 2018 issue)

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