New CRZ Rules Ignore Coastal Concerns, May Trigger Disaster

The new Coastal Regulations Zone 2018 notifications threaten to wreak havoc across India's coasts, along the Western coast of India, particularly along the Konkan coastline, directly affecting Goa and Mumbai all set to succumb to the greed of a profit-driven real estate industry.

Ironically, in December 2018 itself, the Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Mahesh Sharma, in a written reply in Lok Sabha, to queries on whether rise in sea level owing to global warming was posing a threat to the coastal villages of the country had admitted that, "The most vulnerable stretches along the western Indian coast are Khambat and Kutch in Gujarat, Mumbai, and parts of the Konkan coast and south Kerala. The deltas of the Ganga, Krishna, Godavari, Cauvery and Mahanadi on the East Coast may be threatened, along with irrigated land and a number of urban and other settlements that are situated in them."

And then, within days, arrived the new Coastal Regulation Zone Notifications, that changed things almost overnight. Realty industry players struggling for 'clearances' for coastline projects mired in environmental controversies were tumultuous and those in Mumbai, Goa and Konkan seeking CRZ clearances and/or contesting issues with the NGT saw it as a window of opportunity. The new notifications permit construction in a newly-coined intertidal zone throwing it open to the realty industry and caution to the winds.

While the ecstasy among Goa’s coastal regulation zone offenders was palpable, in reality, the going remains tough for those in violation of CRZ norms for over two decades. Estimates indicate that there are more than 7,000 structures erected since 1991 by breaching CRZ regulations. And, while the Goa government may try to regularise the existing illegal structures that may now fall within the ambit of new legislation, it will have to face an imminent hurdle: A public interest litigation filed by green activist Kashinath Shetye challenging the notification before the High Court of Bombay at Goa.

Mr Shetye has maintained the finalisation of the notification without hearing stakeholders and without passing reasoned orders has violated Article 21 and Article 14 of the Indian Constitution thereby directly attacking the "fundamental rights of the citizens and litigants from Goa who fight the issues". The matter is scheduled to come up for hearing on January 29, 2019.

In a far-reaching finding in September last, the National Green Tribunal in New Delhi had held that dwelling units belonging to traditional coastal communities protected under the CRZ notification 1991 cannot be used for commercial purposes. The order came as a blow to those buying dwelling units in CRZ areas belonging to the coastal communities in Goa and then using it for commercial purposes including hotels and restaurants.

The defendant’s contention before NGT that the said structure was in existence prior to 1991 and had been used for commercial purposes and hence did not violate the notification was struck down by the NGT which said, "a structure being used for commercial purposes whether prior to 1991 or subsequent to it cannot be regularised or allowed to be continued to run."

Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the new CRZ notifications could help builders get floor space index (FSI) up to 3 for the island city of Mumbai, up from present 1.33 depending on road width. For suburbs, it could go up from 1 to 2.7. The Notification also permits real estate activities up to 50m of the high tide line and the creation of temporary structures like shacks, change rooms, toilet blocks on the seaward side of the road in CRZ III if a national or state highway passes through it.

India’s financial capital, locked by the sea on three sides, is a fragile zone bolstered by mangroves and at direct risk by a realty lobby set on maximising profit to the detriment of the city’s future. A string of greedy resident lobbies in pagdi settlements in South Mumbai could offer their ‘private properties’ on a platter to developers for ‘redevelopment’ without a thought about the cost the city would have to pay for it. Mumbai’s fragile coastline is just not equipped to handle the load.

The government has failed to have reasoned consultations with 'other stakeholders' as is the norm before any law is passed. The amendments were opposed strongly by the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF) since their announcement in June 2014 by the Shailesh Nayak Committee. Members of more than 3,000 fishing settlements, existing along India’s coasts and conducting fishing-related activities, do not comprise a sizeable vote bank in any one state, owing to the nature of their spread across India's coasts and concurrently obtain no support from governments in the form of subsidies.

The CRZ notification brought about in a closed-door exercise with the State governments now exposes the fishing and other coastal community living along the 7,500-km long coastline of India to the hugely undocumented impacts of climate change-related coastal damages.

The High Court of Mumbai at Goa’s possible ruling against the notification and an order striking down the Notification as ultra vires on grounds of constitutionality could save the city and the zone, leading the way to a reasoned, consultative approach: the only way ahead.

A version of this story first appeared here.