Save India's Beaches from Our Laws

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To: Shri Jairam Ramesh

Minister of State for Environment & Forests

Government of India

Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex

New Delhi 110 003

September, 2010

Sir:

Subject: Remove all references to Roads-on-Stilts from any legislation related to regulation of activities in Coastal Zones

This letter is on behalf of the signatories below and Save Chennai Beaches Campaign, a coming together of residents of South Chennai, to protest against the proposed Elevated Expressway on Chennai's beaches. We believe that the Draft CRZ Notification, currently up for comments, has several clauses that will have a devastating effect on the coastal environment and residents. Many of the prominent recommendations and aspirations of fisherfolk and other coastal communities reflected in the consultations held by the Ministry do not find a place in this proposed legislation. Notably, the demand for an Act of the Parliament rather than a Notification that is vulnerable to bureaucratic tampering has been ignored. We hope that they will in any final version of CRZ legislation. Further, we request you to bring a bill that is truly protective of fisher rights and environmental quality. Any Notification proposed must be only an interim measure to provide more stringent protection of the coastal environment and rights of coastal communities until the enactment of a law.

A case in point demonstrating the permissiveness of this Notification is the blanket exemption given to Roads-on-Stilts. Given that the purpose of connecting islands or providing trans-harbour links, including in Mumbai, has already been specifically provided for in the Draft Notification, we believe that the inclusion of Roads-on-Stilts enlarges the scope of permissible activities on the beach front. While island links and transharbour links may be seen as an activity requiring shorefront facilities, roads-on-stilts cannot. As per the Draft Notification, Roads-on-Stilts are permissible and can be constructed virtually anywhere on the Indian coast – over turtle nesting grounds, salt marshes, beaches, between the HTL and LTL, over mangroves, along the beds of tidal rivers. Further, the Notification does not clearly define what they mean by sealink and trans-harbour link, and no such definition is easily available from the Indian Roads Congress or other available documents.

Given the potential for such a clause to devastate the Indian coastline and open it up to road and real-estate development, we demand that all references to “roads-on-stilts” be removed from any legislation, including any interim Notification, related to coastal zones, unless it is to specifically prohibit them in CRZ areas.

In seeking this rejection, and in establishing the lack of bonafide of the current Draft Notification, we are informed by two highway proposals in Chennai, Tamilnadu. The Elevated Expressway between Port and Maduravoyal, touted as a Link Road, will run along the River Cooum with pillars placed on the river-bed in CRZ 1. The Elevated Beach Expressway between Marina Beach and East Coast Road, touted as a Link Road, will run along 14 fishing villages and four of Chennai's celebrated beaches, including on CRZ 1, and between the High Tide and Low Tide Lines. Both are not permissible under the current CRZ Notification, but will become permissible under the proposed Draft Notification.

We fail to see how the proposed provision to allow roads-on-stilts will protect the environment or safeguard the rights of coastal communities. The fact that Chennai's beaches are both a cultural heritage, and a natural heritage owing to their status as a turtle nesting site, gain it no special protection under the proposed law.

We request you to consider our arguments below for deleting any reference to “Roads-on-Stilts” in any legislation proposed to regulate activities along the coast.

Chennai is known for its beaches. The Marina, which stretches from the mouth of the Cooum River all the way to the southern edges of the city, is a recreational space, habitation, cyclone barrier, a nesting habitat for the Olive Ridley, a livelihood space for fisherfolk and for vendors catering to tourists, and an area of paramount importance in the coastal ecosystem.

a) No Protection under law: Ironically, for an area of such outstanding importance, there will be not a shred of protection under environmental laws if the Draft CRZ Notification, that is proposed to be re-issued overriding the CRZ 1991, is finalised.

The Rs. 1200 crore Elevated Beach Expressway project, which is to run through an ecosensitive estuary, between the High Tide and Low Tide lines, and on the very spots that the Olive Ridley sea turtles lay their eggs hopes to by-pass all environmental due diligence by sleight of hand and exemptions that are proposed in the draft CRZ Notification, 2010.

The appearance of “roads-on-stilts” in the Draft Notification, and the circumstances surrounding it, are indicative of the success that industry lobby groups seem to have had with the Ministry of Environment & Forests.

“Roads-on-stilts” appear for the first time in a policy note in the document titled “Discussion Paper on Coastal Regulation Zone, 2010,” published by the Ministry of Environment & Forests on 22 April, 2010. The Discussion paper talks about “Construction of stilt roads to protect Mangroves in Mumbai.” Sidestepping the specific references to “protect Mangroves” and “Mumbai,” the pre-draft CRZ Notification published for comments on the same day gives a blanket exemption to “roads on stilts” throughout the Indian coast.

The dropping of the specific references to Mumbai and mangroves, at least circumstantially, appears to be a result of lobbying by groups such as Wilbur Smith Associates. This view is strengthened by the following facts. On April 1, 2010, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority asked Wilbur Smith Associates to clarify the position of the Elevated Beach Expressway under the Coastal Regulation Zone rules.

Wilbur Smith responded through a letter dated 28 April, 2010, stating that:

a) “Road construction (elevated or at-grade) is not a permissible activity in CRZ as per the CRZ Notification, 1991.”

b) “In April 2010, MoEF published the Draft CRZ Notification, 2010 for public comments. . .As per the draft Notification, construction of roads on stilts is a permissible activity in CRZ. . .” (Emphasis added)

Wilbur Smith goes on to confidently state that “it is expected that this project qualifies to get CRZ clearance as per the new CRZ Notification 2010.”

Sure enough, the draft Notification issued on September 15, 2010, mentions “roads on stilts” as a permitted activity with no reference to mangroves or Mumbai.

Section 3(x)(a) of the CRZ Draft Notification, 2010, extends a blanket exemption to “roads on stilts.” It states:

“Land reclamation, bunding or disturbing the natural course of seawater except those – a) required for setting up, construction or modernisation or expansion of foreshore facilities like ports, harbours, jetties, wharves, quays, slipways, bridges, sealinks, roads on stilts, coastal police station and helipad for defence and security purpose and for other facilities that are essential for activities permissible under the notification.”

Further, Para 8(ii)(I)(i)(e) states that “no new construction shall be permitted in CRZ I except, construction of trans-harbour sea link and roads on stilts or pillars without affecting the tidal flow of water between LTL and HTL.”

Para 8(ii)(I)(ii)(g) states that “Between LTL and HTL in areas which are not ecologically sensitive and important, the following may be permitted, namely:- construction of trans-harbour sea links, roads on stilts or pillars without affecting the tidal flow of water.”

Since the beaches of Chennai have neither been declared ecosensitive nor accorded any protection under the environmental laws, the Olive Ridley's status as a species listed under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act is not likely to offer it any protection.

b) Eviction of Coastal Communities and Disruption of Fishing Livelihoods: The proposed highway will cater primarily to the private car owning elite and will come up on the destroyed houses of fisherfolk and coastal poor. The road, in two phases, will run through several major coastal hamlets, including fishing villages such as Nocchikuppam, Nocchinagar, Dommingkuppam, Srinivasapuram, Pattinapakkam, Urur Kuppam, Olcott Kuppam, Odai Kuppam, Odaimanagar, Thiruvanmiyur Kuppam and Kottivakkam Kuppam. The Feasibility Report admits that the project will necessitate “removal of fisherman villages on a temporary basis.” The project area admittedly has a population of 1.009 lakhs according to the Wilbur Smith Feasibility report. The Tamilnadu Government's record of rehabilitation of urban oustees is pathetic. The current relocation sites – in Semmancheri, Kannagi Nagar – are all in low-lying areas prone to flooding, and with no sewage, water, educational, transportation or medical infrastructure, and far away from the people's places of work. For fisherfolk, relocation has the added problem of difficulty in accessing the sea.

As a livelihood space for fisherfolk, the beaches are put to special uses seasonally. In the months of Aadi and Aavani (July, August, September), sardines -- a shoal fish -- are caught in large numbers close to the shore by artisanal fishermen. Vast expanses of beach sand, exposed to the sun are used to dry the fish for the market.

In the months of January to March, when the seas are still, Chennai's fisherfolk haul the communal Peria Valai (Big Net) to catch mackerel, prawns and perch. The Peria Valai, which is hauled by 50 to 60 able-bodied men requires untramelled access to beach lengths of 500 metres with sandy stretches extending landwards for at least 200 metres. The erection of pillars on these stretches will mean the abandonment of this highly selective seasonal gear that has been perfected over several centuries.

During and after construction of the highway, use of beach spaces for net-mending, fish drying, shore-seining etc will be affected.

c) Making a bad situation worse:

The blanket exemption for roads-on-stilts makes a bad situation worse.

The Government of Tamilnadu has wrongly designated the entire coast of Chennai as CRZ 2. By notifying even ecosensitive areas including sandy beaches, Olive Ridley turtle nesting grounds and estuaries as CRZ 2, they are opening these areas for unregulated development. This despite the fact that the Ministry of Environment & Forests, through a letter to the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamilnadu, dated 27.9.1996, has issued clear instructions that “In addition to the information already available with the Government of Tamilnadu, all ecologically important and sensitive areas shall be demarcated on the basis of the following sources of information and be classified as CRZ 1.” The suggestive list mentioned by the Ministry in this letter include: mangroves, mud flats, breeding grounds for turtles, areas rich in genetic diversity, and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The Wilbur Smith report admits that “the first phase of the proposed road project crosses the marine environmental sensitive place of Adyar estuary. The estuary is also name demarcated as bird sanctuary by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. Noise generation arising during the construction activity will drive the birds away and cause an ecological imbalance to the estuary and the fish population.”

Construction of the road will lead to irreversible damage to environment, permanent loss of habitat and 24x7 noise and air pollution in Chennai's most cherished recreational space.

d) Increasing vulnerability:

The Bay of Bengal Coastal Zone is prone to cyclones and tsunamis. Tsunamis are rare but cyclones are more frequent. The main cause of damage or loss of life in cyclones is the storm surge which affects the coastal zone. (Other causes of damage – wind and heavy rain – affect interior areas too but they are secondary causes). It has been scientifically established in India and abroad (1) that year by year the damage due to cyclones is increasing although the cyclones may not be more in number or intensity and (2) that the increase in damage is due to socio-economic and demographic reasons, in short, more and more human activity on the coast.

Vulnerability maps have been prepared for various parts of the coast but these are based on meteorological parameters and need to be revised from time to time considering the status of human activity in each area. The storm surge from one single cyclone is enough to destroy major structures. Sri Lanka for example had tourist hotels right on the shore which were destroyed by the tsunami.

The introduction of large structures in the CRZ other than those which have to be there has to be avoided to minimise damage to life and property.

e) Disruption of Olive Ridley Turtle Nesting Habitat: Marina, Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur and Kottivakkam beaches are known nesting grounds for Olive Ridley turtles.

In 2008-09, about 65 turtle nests were recovered from the 7km stretch between Neelangarai and Adyar Estuary by the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network. In 2009-2010, more than 5000 volunteers, mostly students, walked the 7 km stretch and recovered 70 nests. The same year, another NGO – Tree Foundation – recovered 41 nests from Periya Neelangarai and Injambakkam stretches within the Chennai Metropolitan Area. At roughly 100 eggs per nest, that totals 11,100 eggs or hatchlings saved by volunteers just in one year from Chennai's beaches.

These figures only refer to the nests recovered by volunteers immediately after turtles were detected laying the eggs during the nightly turtle walks. The recovered nests are but a fraction of the total number of nests on these beaches.

Ridleys are listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act and ought to be treated at par with the Indian tiger. Olive Ridleys normally lay their eggs in nests about a metre deep within 40 metres of the high tide line. Turtle hatchlings are extremely light sensitive, and strike out towards the moonlit-oceans in the absence of any background light. With a highway running through the beach, the lights are likely to fatally confuse Ridley hatchlings.

The Wilbur Smith feasibility report states: “The proposed construction activity has significant impact on fauna. The proposed site is known for the breeding ground of Olive Ridley Turtle (Green Turtle). The construction activities will have major impact on the turtle breeding.”

f) Theosophical Society and Adyar Estuary: At one time, the Government of Tamilnadu had declared the Adyar Estuary as a bird sanctuary. Even now, despite the polluted nature of the waterway, the estuary and the densely wooded grounds of Theosophical Society continue to attract a variety of birds.

The developments on the Northern shore of the river, and within the creek area (MRC Nagar) and the increased urbanisation since 1989 have already taken a toll on the local bird bio-diversity. The avian diversity, though, remains impressive for an urban setting despite the beating that the habitat has taken. According to a comparative study done in 2009 by EMAI, a Chennai-based registered Trust engaged in environmental monitoring and action, at least 109 birds were spotted in the Theosophical Society and Adyar Estuary area in 2009. This is in contrast to 175 in 1989, before the constructions in MRC Nagar came up, and 124 in 2004. At least two species, listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, have been sighted in the Theosophical Society grounds. The Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes) and the White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) were regular visitors to this area until 1989 and 2004 respectively. The fact that such species frequented this ecosystem underscores the ecological importance of the area, and indicates that the region should be revived to make it hospitable for these and other species.

The Theosophical Society is also a haven for birds, bats and other wildlife and is the last remaining lungspace within South Chennai. Constructing an elevated road along the Society's edges is bound to disturb the carefully protected ecosystem within the Society grounds.

Indeed, one of the last surviving patches of tropical dense evergreen forests is to be found in the grounds of the Theosophical Society. The Society has a balance of gardens, orchards and forests, and indigenous and exotic tree species. The Saraca Indica [Asoka, not Nettilingam] as well as a graft from the Bodhi (Ficus Religiosa) tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained his enlightenment are to be found within the lands of the Theosophical Society. The Tropical Dense Evergreen Forests within the Society are different from the vegetation of the Guindy National Park in that the latter accommodates large herbivores like the Chital. Absent the grazing herbivore, the ground cover in the Society is intact, rich and abundant, displaying all three layers of vegetation typical of an evergreen forest. The freshwater ponds are home to terrapins, frogs, chameleons, snakes and insects. Jackals and mongoose too are residents of the Adyar-Besant Nagar area.

The edges of the estuary along the Theosophical Society also host the last remaining mangroves. The state of the estuary calls for massive efforts to rehabilitate the water body, rather than activities that will degrade it further. Reviving the estuary would go a long way in improving fish population in the coastal waters, thereby improving the fishing economy. The Wilbur Smith report too concludes that: “The estuary is also name (sic) demarcated as bird sanctuary by the Tamilnadu Forest Department. Noise generation arising during construction activity will drive the birds away and cause an ecological imbalance to the estuary and the fish population.”

g) Disturbance to places of learning and cultural importance: The second phase of the proposed highway will run through or alongside important cultural centres like the Vailankani Shrine, Ashtalakshmi Temple and the Kalakshetra Foundation. The last one, declared 'an institute of national importance' by an Act of Parliament, promotes the arts, houses two schools and a unit for weaving and natural vegetable dyes, and is recognized worldwide for its integrity in upholding the highest values of India's artistic traditions. Phase II of the project will run through the Central Government-owned Kalakshetra Foundation's estate that stretches right up to the beach.

These beach stretches – in Thiruvanmiyur and Kottivakkam – are bereft of roads and light pollution, and are undisturbed and beautiful. The proposed road will irreversibly alter this stretch.

h) Destruction of one of the last remaining open spaces in Chennai: The beaches of Chennai are the last remaining open spaces available to Chennai-ites. The prospect of losing the beaches as recreational spaces will coalesce not just Chennai residents, but also tourists and other visitors who frequent these areas.

i) Levelling and altering topography: Dumping of construction debris on the beach, even if temporarily, will alter coastal ecology and hydrology and exacerbate the effects of seasonal flooding. Filling in of low-lying areas for construction of culverts and embankments will permanently alter coastal topography and aggravate the effects of flooding on vulnerable coastal residents. Construction of the expressway will also involve the labour of hundreds of workers. Their accommodation needs, and sanitation requirements will put a massive strain on an already stressed coastal environment.

j) Violates Masterplan and National Urban Transport Policy: The Elevated Expressway project was not presented or even mentioned in the Draft Masterplan published for public consultation. As a result, this project has not been subject to any public scrutiny and does not find any legitimate mention in the the 2nd Masterplan. Indeed, it is only during the Meeting of 31.8.2007 to finalise the 2nd Masterplan under the chairmanship of the Chief Secretary does the Elevated Expressway magically make an entry into the Masterplan through a minuted decision stating: “the proposed elevated road linking lighthouse, Srinivasapuram and ECR should find place in the Draft Second Master Plan.”

Bypassing public consultation for a project that threatens to displace at least 10,000 people, mostly fisherfolk, is a perversion of the principles of natural justice. This is especially so, when the proposal is for an elitist intervention – to facilitate the speedy movement of private vehicles, while excluding public buses from the expressway.

We ask not only for removal of any exemption for “roads-on-stilts” from any proposed legislation, but also for a legislation in the form of an Act of Parliament so that destructive activities are not subsequently permitted by amendments to a Notification.

Sincerely,

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