A large oil painting adorns a wall in chief minister V. Narayanasamy’s plush chamber in the Puducherry legislative assembly building. It’s a picturesque landscape of the 17th century Puducherry (then known as Pondicherry) coastline: French colonial buildings overlooking the sandy beach and the sea.

Cut to present times: There is no beach to speak of in the city of Puducherry. Years of neglect by consecutive governments, the construction of a harbour and breakwaters have resulted in the death of the once-beautiful beach.

Referring to the pristine beach in the oil painting, chief minister Narayanasamy recalls fondly, “We used to have a lovely beach in the past and we all played in the sand."

Old boys from the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (an integral part of Puducherry’s landmark Aurobindo Ashram) echoed the sentiment while recollecting their own childhood.

Matriprasad, who goes only by one name, now a senior functionary in the Ashram, wistfully remembers the countless morning runs on the beach. The Deshmukh brothers— Basabjit and Bappu—recalled their afternoon frisbee games from the 1960s and 1970s. Locals remember their morning and evening walks on the pristine beach in the 1980s.

So, when and how did the beach disappear?

CM Narayanasamy blames the disappearance on natural erosion, the tsunami of 2004 and Cyclone Thane in 2011.

Environmentalists say the beach gradually eroded after a harbour was constructed at the point where the river Ariyankuppam flows into the Bay of Bengal, at the southern tip of Puducherry town. The construction of the harbour (started in 1986 and completed in 1989) obstructed the natural flow of sand and led to widespread erosion along the town’s coastline.

The Puducherry beach in the late 1970s. Photo: Aurofilio Schiavina/Pondycan
The Puducherry beach in the late 1970s. Photo: Aurofilio Schiavina/Pondycan

There has been a sustained campaign since early 2000 by environmental and citizen groups to address the issue of coastal erosion. After more than a decade and a half and many aborted moves by various governments, the current government under Narayanasamy formally launched the beach restoration work in March. The ongoing restoration work is expected to yield results by October this year.

This writer went with Aurofilio Schiavina, co-founder of Pondicherry Citizen’s Action Network (PondyCAN), an environmental organization working on the beach restoration campaign, to witness the extent of erosion along the city’s coast. We climbed the only lighthouse in Puducherry to get a bird’s-eye view of the coastal town. The breakwater jutting out into the sea from the harbour was clearly the dividing line—we saw a wide spread of sandy beach towards the south of the harbour but in the north, towards the town, all we could see were waves crashing into the black seawall.

Wake-up call

Explaining the ecological imbalance, Shekar Dattatri, an environmentalist who made the documentary film India’s Disappearing Beaches-A Wakeup Call, says, “The north side of the harbour was starved of sand because of the obstruction caused by the breakwater. The longshore drift washed away the existing sand from the north and with no new sand flowing in to replace what was lost, the harbour kept eroding in the direction of the town."

Schiavina added, “The British built the Chennai port north of the city and see how the city benefitted from the harbour with the Marina beach. But in Puducherry, the opposite happened."

How are beaches formed and maintained by nature? How have human interventions affected the natural ecosystem in Puducherry?

Dredging activity at Puducherry beach as part of the restoration project. Photo: Aurofilio Schiavina/Pondycan
Dredging activity at Puducherry beach as part of the restoration project. Photo: Aurofilio Schiavina/Pondycan

Standing on the seashore, you may have experienced the shifting sand every time the waves come and go. Although beach sand appears static to the eye, it’s constantly on the move. Natural forces such as waves, ocean currents and wind keep shifting sand from one place to the other. This complex geological process—the movement of sand aided by wind, waves and water currents along the coastline—is known as the longshore drift or beach drift. The sand (and silt) comes from the large network of rivers when they flow out into the sea.

Oblivious to us, the longshore drift moves around billions of tonnes of sand along the coast all the year around.

On India’s east coast, where Puducherry is situated, for about nine months, the South-East winds move the sand north and for three months the reverse occurs with the North-East winds moving the sand southwards. The North-East wind also brings the retreating monsoon to Puducherry.

Ecological problems arise when this dynamic ecosystem is punctured by human intervention. A recent study published in the journal Current Science states that 45% of India’s 7,500 plus-kilometre coastline is being eroded.

Construction of dams in rivers blocks the optimum sand and silt flow while breakwaters and groynes obstruct the longshore drift. Scientists explain that these hard engineering techniques, which appear beneficial to some, create new problems elsewhere. The harbour in Puducherry is one such example.

‘Lucrative business models’

In India, three types of structures are used for coastal protection. Seawalls (barriers) and breakwaters (walls extending into the sea), championed by Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS), Pune, and groynes (walls running cross-shore or perpendicular to the coast), advocated by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras.

According to environmentalists, both breakwaters and groynes are designed to block the longshore drift, creating little patches of beach at one end while shifting erosion further up the shoreline.

The construction of the North Reef at Puducherry beach. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/Mint
The construction of the North Reef at Puducherry beach. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/Mint

“This technique can maintain erosion at only one point and does not offer a permanent solution. They build every time there is erosion along the shoreline. Further, these structures are lucrative business models, running into crores, and favourable for the contractor-builder fraternity as it is an ongoing process," says Probir Banerjee, another co-founder of PondyCAN.

The 1980s saw several initiatives by the central government to develop infrastructure. In Puducherry, a harbour, an airport and a new underground sewage system were constructed. Since then, the harbour and the airport have been in disuse while the sewage system was operated without a treatment plant for many years.

“Ideally, Puducherry needed a fishing harbour for the traditional fishing community and not a commercial port," says Schiavina.

The beach that could have been

To prevent the harbour mouth getting silted up, periodic dredging is a necessity. If the prescribed process of transferring accumulated sand from the south side of the harbour to nourish the northern beach had been followed, the city would have had a wonderful beach today. “From 1989 to 1991, the government didn’t dredge the harbour mouth, which had completely silted up even though the harbour design had an integrated sand bypass system designed by CWPRS, a first of its kind in Indian ports," said Schiavina.

Locals say that due to administrative indecision and lack of funds, as the port couldn’t generate any revenue, the Puducherry port management could not continue dredging and maintain the sand bypass system.

“The government works in silos—the Public Works Department (PWD) has ample funds to maintain the township but there is no allotment of funds to the port department for dredging," said Banerjee.

In 1992, an attempt was made to dredge the harbour mouth and make the port operational but it ran into hurdles.

The Puducherry beach before the 1950s. Photo: Aurofilio Schiavina/Pondycan
The Puducherry beach before the 1950s. Photo: Aurofilio Schiavina/Pondycan

By 2006, around 8km of beach had completely disappeared and 30km of coastline (Puducherry and adjoining Tamil Nadu) was under severe erosion.

Around 40 groynes were planned by government agencies to satisfy the demands of fishing villages for artificial creation of beaches for parking their boats as well as building of seawalls to stop seawater incursions. It did not go unnoticed in the local community that these fishing villages were active vote banks.

In 2007, citizens of Puducherry came together to form PondyCAN. An effort was made to change the government’s mindset over seawalls, groynes and breakwaters— all temporary solutions to stop coastal erosion.

“PondyCAN representatives had several meetings with the state and central governments in the past decade but nothing positive has come out of any of these meetings," says Banerjee.

In 2010, the then central environment minister Jairam Ramesh agreed to sanction Rs60 crore for beach restoration after hearing a plea from environmentalists but it did not fructify as there was no intervention from the state government.

“Since the centre cannot impose any project on the state, this was just one example of several missed opportunities for Puducherry. Unfortunately, there is no ownership of India’s coast although at least five central ministries are involved in coastal activities," said Schiavina.

The restoration project

Things have started to look up with the ministry of earth sciences handing over the job of restoring the beach to Chennai-based National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), an autonomous body under the ministry.

NIOT conducted a study of the coastline, gathering data on waves and nearshore current movements over 30 years, and tied up with Singapore-based Sanctuary Beach, a firm with international expertise in beach restoration work, to design the restoration work on Puducherry beach.

“We have tried our best to keep this project as inclusive as possible, taking all stakeholder considerations from the start," says M.V. Ramana Murthy, senior scientist and group head, ocean structures, NIOT. Murthy is overseeing the beach restoration work.

According to Sanctuary Beach, in order to recreate the lost beach, the city needs to build two reefs—a nearshore wedge-shaped reef to the north of the city foreshore and an offshore reef for the south of the city foreshore.

The northern reef, the firm suggests, will provide a mild barrier to sediment losses, enabling sand to move naturally to the north while slowing sand loss from the city foreshore. The southern reef is designed to provide a safe and wide beach to prevent sand losses from the city back to the harbour mouth. Both reefs will have rocks placed underwater along the front and rear of the reef for scour protection. The rocks are expected to create a habitat for marine life.

Sanctuary Beach

“Globally, there are many examples of reefs solving the problem of erosion, by blocking waves to provide a sheltered zone and create a wide beach. The aim is to permanently stop erosion rather than find temporary ways to subdue the effects," states the international consultancy firm.

Sanctuary Beach was paid Rs90 lakh for reef design and consultancy.

Sanctuary Beach claims the wedge-shaped reef designs are “innovative" compared to the structures designed by CWPRS and IIT- Madras. The triangular arrow-head shaped reef suggested in the report will have a steel caisson laid on top of a horizontal rock platform constructed at a depth of 2.5 metres. The report says it is key for a sheltered shoreline and will reduce longshore currents to ensure sand is carried towards the shoreline.

The Puducherry promenade and seawall. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/Mint
The Puducherry promenade and seawall. Photo: Ananda Banerjee/Mint

NIOT is building the northern reef at a cost of Rs25 crore. The ongoing construction is happening right outside the secretariat building on the beach promenade. The south reef, which is supposed to be constructed in front of the Ajanta Hotel on the beach road, is the Puducherry government’s responsibility and is said to cost Rs35 crore. The distance between the northern and southern reef is around 1.5km. According to Sanctuary Beach, both reefs are important and have to be built at the same time. But the state government is yet to start construction because of a lack of funds.

The sand required for replenishing the Puducherry beach is estimated to be 450,000 cubic metres, of which 300,000 has to be supplied by Dredging Corp. of India Ltd (DCI)/Puducherry port department by dredging from the harbour and placing it in front of the town’s promenade. The dredging cost is pegged around Rs15 crore.

Political wrangling

Political issues have hampered dredging, slowing the beach restoration project.

According to the chief minister’s office, the contract for dredging was awarded to DCI by lieutenant governor Kiran Bedi without the government’s consent.

Bedi defends her move. “I was informed that there has been almost negligible dredging of the harbour in the past. Options were collectively explored to avoid such a situation this time and thus DCI was considered a viable option. If the secretariat had better quality, assurance and cheaper options, nothing barred them to pick (a dredger)."

DCI officials on site say that the government has not been cooperating with local logistical support, especially on hiring labour. Adding to the woes, both dredgers being used in the project have had recurrent mechanical failures due to high levels of sewage in the harbour mouth.

At the time of reporting, the state-run port had brought a private dredger from MARG-Karaikal port in Tamil Nadu at a cost of Rs2.67 crore to expedite the process, but that too broke down.

The beach restoration project has suffered as a result because it slowed the work of dredging and spraying sand on the coastline—a process known as “rainbowing".

NIOT’s Murthy is confident of restoring a small stretch of beach by October-end. At the time of going to press Murthy confirms that a small stretch of beach is now visible.

Over the next few years, with continuous sand nourishment, Puducherry may have a wider beach filled with sand as pristine as that in the oil painting hanging on the wall of the chief minister’s chamber in the assembly building.

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