As we enter the age of largely market-driven conservation, with “sustainable development goals" looking at conservation through the prism of too many people destroying the environment, we’re seeing a whole new range of displacement of fishworking communities. However, this does not change what the fishworkers’ demands have always been—to put the decision of how we interact with the oceans back in their hands. They say we’ve done it for a long time and we know that our survival depends on it. They say that while our demands might not fall under the definition of conservation or what is sustainable, how we understand the oceans is where true environmental protection lies. We know how to feed ourselves and those around us. Give value to that instead of the corporations that currently dictate food systems.

This has been a long-standing demand right from the time fishworkers undertook the iconic Kanyakumari March in 1989, setting in motion the national movement to protect India’s coastlines. The evolution of coastal regulations is located within a combination of international instruments and a symbiotic community-coastal context. In 1991, the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) notification was issued under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), 1986. This five-page document demarcated coastal regulation zones (I-IV) between the high-tide line and 500m to landward and “imposed restrictions on setting up and the expansion of industries, operations or processes".

Unfortunately, in a direction that went against what was expected, the state repeatedly amended the notification for the benefit of tourism, shrimp farming and industry lobby groups. After the December 2004 tsunami, the CRZ was reviewed and a new coastal regulation framework called the Management Framework was introduced. Sensing that this was aimed at shifting the onus from a regulation framework to managing where we put people and industries, the fishworkers undertook three years of mobilization, resistance and engagement. Finally, the then Union environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, broke the deadlock and oversaw the implementation of the new notification, CRZ-2011.

The introduction of this notification was aimed at ensuring livelihood security and conserving and protecting coastal stretches, and was indeed a step in the right direction. Just like CRZ-1991, CRZ-2011 too was published under the EPA, which gave powers to the government to take all the measures it deemed necessary to protect the environment, including restrictions on polluting industries. The drawback with CRZ-2011 was that it codified all the 25 amendments that had been made to the 1991 notification, most of which had only served to dilute it. In the seven years since, CRZ-2011 has been marked by poor implementation and unscrupulous violations.

In what is now becoming more the norm than the exception, the dilutions to the CRZ are being done without taking into consideration the views of the public. On 18 April, the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) published the draft coastal regulation zone notification 2018 (CRZ- 2018), inviting views within a period of 60 days from its publication. Even before these comments could be analysed, the MoEFCC introduced another amendment, on 2 July, to CRZ-2011, this time under the clause of “Public Interest". What is unprecedented is that both these changes to coastal regulations have deliberately omitted consultations with the fishworking community—India’s largest, non-consumptive coastal stakeholder.

And the deliberate ignoring of fishworkers is because India is currently in the midst of the Blue Economy. Through its flagship Sagarmala programme, the government aims to mobilize this mega-development plan which envisions shifting the country’s central India-based mineral policy to the coastlines. This is being done by shifting manufacturing, transport (road, rail, water, pipelines), coastal shipping, real-estate development and tourism to the coastlines. The only obstacle, of course, is that the dynamic and diverse coastal belt where this shift is envisioned is currently protected under the CRZ notification.

To know what happens when coastal regulations are diluted and public participation is suppressed, one has only to look at Thoothukudi. It is a perfect example of what can happen along the coastline should we have polluting industries there. Vizhinjham port, Dhamra port, Hazira port, Kandla port are other examples of how large ports displace fishworkers and destroy the environment.

The draft CRZ-2018 and the amendments to CRZ-2011 to facilitate large-scale infrastructure along the coastline have only reinforced the belief of fishworkers that coastal regulations can no longer be left to the discretion of the executive. The executive continues to play around with the regulations, diluting them in parts through amendments, and in entirety through new notifications. As a result, the community is once again reviving its demands for a comprehensive coastal rights Act; an Act which gives the rights over coastal lands and coastal waters back to the people, and puts them at the centre of decision making. This would put the focus on what kinds of fishing technologies should be deployed, what kinds of coastal development should be undertaken; what the rules would be on, say, sewage treatment, chemicals in the water, etc.—and decisions would be taken by the people.

What is important is that fishworkers see themselves as indicators of the health of the coastline. As communities that have lived on the coast for thousands of years, they view their displacement as the potential beginning of the displacement of a much larger Indian population. While the CRZ might be limited to a 500m land component, India’s dynamic coastline, as well as the threats of global warming, sea-level rise and changing weather, mean that people living much further inland too are at risk. It is estimated that 250 million Indians live within 50km of the coastline. When the executive itself becomes one of the biggest violators of the CRZ notification, we have to ask: Are we willing to let a small group of bureaucrats dictate the future of approximately 20% of India’s population? Are we going to let Thoothukudi-like motivated, dedicated suppression of dissent be the way India reaches out into the future?

The current preamble of the CRZ addresses both environment protection and livelihood security. To develop these into comprehensive Acts, fishworkers are demanding the simultaneous development of two Acts. One is an actual coastal rights Act, which would be an Act of Parliament like the EPA, but specifically for coastal protection. And the second one is a fisher’s rights Act, along the lines of the forest rights Act. These would be developed keeping in mind the historic injustice of land rights of traditional fishing and other coastal dwelling communities, which remains an unsettled agenda since independence.

By no stretch of the imagination are fishworking communities at the centre of any policy decisions related to the coastline or fisheries. We need to give recognition to the 3,200 villages along our coastline, with some four-five million people who live there, and the many more millions of people reliant on the informal economies, with secondary and tertiary supply chains related to the fishing industry. Behind the Act is the simple idea of putting control back in the hands of the people. For true environmental protection, we need a coastal rights Act and a fisher’s rights Act that complement each other and are developed through a robust process in Parliament.

As told to Bibek Bhattacharya.

Siddharth Chakravarty works with The Research Collective, New Delhi. His focus is on livelihood issues along India’s coastline, with a deep interest in the impacts of globalized seafood trade.

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