Indian coasts for sale: 80% projects cleared; only 8% even visited
- India\'s 7,517-kilometre long coastline is a contested space.
- Cities, industries, power plants, resorts and roads compete with some of the most rare flora and fauna in the world.
- What is needed is an informed tradeoff between conservation and development.
- But the process for environmental clearance is a scandal.
- State Coastal Zone Management Authorities clear almost 80% of the projects put before them.
- At times, only 15 minutes are spent to consider a project.
- To make matters worse, the reports on which these decisions are based are provided by the promoters of the project themselves.
- The authorities visit the site for very few cases.
- In many states, the authority spent just 5% of its time monitoring violations.
The Hawksbill Turtle is a migratory turtle that visits India on the beaches of Tamil Nadu, Odisha and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. It has been prized by humans for centuries, with earliest records of the turtle dating back to 5th millennium BC China.
The Hawksbill is now a critically endangered species, and among the diverse flora and fauna that dot the beaches, mangroves and coral reefs along India's coast.
But this 7,517-kilometre long coastline is a contested space. Competing for space on the coast are growing cities, towns, industries, power plants, resorts and roads.
The need for such development puts huge pressure on the coastal areas, and also demands that informed tradeoffs be made between conservation and development.
However, an 'informed trade-off' is one of the hardest things to come by.
Over the past few years, governments at both Centre and states have claimed that environmental clearances are the greatest deterrent to India's economic growth.
This is clearly a red herring. A three-year research recently concluded by the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, has established that, on an average, nearly 80% of project proposals put before the State Coastal Zone Management Authorities, or SCZMAs, are cleared. These bodies are mandated to assess development projects coming up within 500 metres of the coast.
India's coastal zone violations will most likely get regularised, unless we repair our CRZ institutions
Getting these numbers is itself a herculean task. The data on clearances is buried deep inside scores of meeting minutes, and have to be painstakingly accessed through requests under the Right to Information Act.
But the real scandal is the process of clearance itself, not just in the debate over the percentage of approvals.
The SCZMAs literally seem to have no time to check proposals or monitor violations in coastal areas. In a clear breakdown in logic, while giving clearances they also rely on information and impact assessments provided by project developers themselves.
Short on time
Consider this: a state authority considers 15 proposals on average in a meeting that lasts half a working day, according to the CPR report, which studied nine state-level authorities' decisions from 1999 to 2014.
This works out to just about 15 minutes for each proposal in a meeting: it's lesser actually, since meetings also include discussions about conservation measures, violations of orders, drafting coastal zone management plans, etc.
For a body that is entrusted with protecting India's coastal ecosystems, this appears abysmally less. This is especially so since the projects being appraised include everything from repairs to houses to thermal power plants and factories coming up near the coast.
In some authorities, there is also little time to prepare before the meetings. Mangaraj Panda, a former non-government member of the Odisha Coastal Zone Management Authority, said that documents related to the project proposals, such as EIA report, are given just one or two days before the meeting, leaving little time to consider the proposal.
"After getting a lot of proposals in one meeting I raised objection and from my second meeting onward the project document with EIA etc. in bunch [was] delivered to us one or two days (in advance)," Panda said. "Members (are) hardly able to go through the proposals and formulate opinion," he added.
Not surprisingly, only 8% of the projects were found to have undertaken a site visit, in the CPR study.
The rest are based on details of environment impact provided by the project developers themselves, or third party agencies commissioned by them to do study the environmental impact.
This may not paint the entire picture, since developers have an incentive to under-report the impact of their projects, and may not even have full knowledge of the impacts. This affects not just the impact on species, but also on traditional livelihoods.
"The SCZMAs are completely dependent on what is said to them by the project developers. If the EIA report says that there is no fishing in the vicinity, there is no way for the authority to know if it is right or wrong," said a former member of the National Coastal Zone Management Authority.
Field visits seem to take place only when an issue gets politicised or there is a court case
"They might do their study in the off season and report that there is no fishing. But there is no process for the state-level authority to see the ground reality. Field visits seem to take place only when an issue gets politicised or there is a court case associated with it," the member added.
An SCZMA member said, on the condition of anonymity, that the field visits are conducted by the project developers, who also organise lunch and travel for the authority members. In one instance, they had stopped the operation on the day of the visit, so the members could not determine the environmental impact it might cause.
The trend has continued beyond CPR's study period. For instance, at its 97th meeting on 23 January 2015, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) had 74 items on its list, including their final approval for the Shivaji Statue project in Mumbai, besides beach resorts, anti-erosion bunds in Mumbai and over five dozen cases involving projects in bay areas of Maharashtra.
Nevertheless, 80% of projects received by the nine state authorities were approved.
Violations - the norm, not the exception
With less time on their hands to inspect project proposals, the authorities have even lesser time to engage in monitoring violations. According to the CPR report, the Goa authority spent a third of it's time in discussing violation and compliance of its orders - the highest among all states. Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka spent under 5% of their time.
This is pertinent because if violations are not identified, they may get regularised in new coastal policies. The Coastal Zone Management Plan or CZMP, is a master plan of the current situation on the coast based on which authorities take decisions. The new CZMP is due in January 2016.
This means that authorities have just about seven months to identify all violations. But given their current state, it appears the tortoise may lose the race.