Environmental disasters highlight the efficacy of good rules and regulations in minimising harm to people, and loss of economic assets. Thetsunami of 2004 highlighted the vulnerability of coastal zones to a catastrophic event, and the need to keep communities safe through scientific planning. Clearly, any set of rules regulating human activity along India’s 7,500 km coastline has to ensure the long-term welfare of the millions of people who live in harmony with a fragile ecosystem. That must be the guiding principle for the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, as it considers the suggestions made by the Shailesh Nayak Committee after its review of the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2011. The exercise has begun badly, given that the Ministry had to be ordered to release the Committee report under the Right to Information Act. Now that it is in the public realm, questions relating to the lifting of development restrictions in designated sections of the coastal zone — notably those that already contain habitations — have to be discussed transparently.
The Committee acknowledges, for instance, the ambiguities that exist in key baseline data, including the demarcation of high and low tide lines and the coastal zone boundary, which has affected the preparation of Coastal Zone Management Plans. Such plans are central to the implementation of any new CRZ notification. Transferring control of development in the CRZ-II zone, the existing built-up area close to the shoreline, from the Environment Department to State Town Planning authorities, as proposed, would mark a radical shift in governance. Also, the suggestion that construction and other activities could be taken up in CRZ-III zones just 50 m from the high tide line in densely populated rural areas under State norms (with the responsibility to rescue and rehabilitate during natural calamities left to local authorities) could be based on an over-estimation of the capacity in such bodies. Proposing new, lightly regulated tourism in “no development zones” is extraordinary in such circumstances. The proper course would be to identify specific areas for such activity, assess its environmental impact, demarcate the area under the State’s management plans, and fix responsibility for enforcement, particularly for pollution control. Changes to the CRZ notification should also mark an end to the half-hearted attempts made over the years at participatory governance involving local communities. Ensuring economic development and a better quality of life for them is unexceptionable as a goal, but it must pass the test of sustainability.