A recent newspaper report noted that the Union Government had gazetted the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification 2011 and received strong criticism from organisations that work for protecting coastal ecosystems and fight for the rights and welfare of fisherfolk. About 20 organisations working in the field of protecting fishermen's rights and lawyers backing them have taken strong exception to the notification. This is on the ground that the new notification, gazetted on January 6, 2011, will cause widespread destruction to the livelihood of the fishing communities and will badly affect the other coastal poor as well. The critics also fear that coastal ecosystems that provide protection to 25 crore people living in coastal areas from natural disasters such as floods and tsunamis may also get damaged owing to the changes proposed.

The 2004 tsunami experience

On reading this, my thoughts went back to the nightmare of the Asian tsunami of December 2004, which hit the Indian coast and devastated the lives, livelihood, and property of many thousands of families.

Needless to say, fisherfolk were the worst affected. As a journalist who toured most of the affected areas for about two weeks in Tamil Nadu for Frontline coverage, I could learn a lot about the coverage of massive disasters of this kind. My interactions with the affected people, especially fisherfolk, enriched my knowledge about the life, work, and plight of the poor and their extreme vulnerability to any kind of setback. I learnt that coverage had to be not just extensive, but also highly nuanced and sensitive, particularly because it had a bearing on the lives and livelihoods of large communities such as fishermen who have an age-old culture and tradition of their own.

Journalism, I felt, should respect their sentiments and traditions.

Even when, after the initial trauma, they could comprehend the magnitude of the loss they had suffered, I found many of them positive about their future. They seemed keener on going back to the sea than in getting immediate benefits. “Food we need, but we would love to resume fishing and earn our daily bread,” one of their leaders told me. Such was their spirit, even at this, the most painful moment of their lives. The tsunami, this leader noted, had swallowed one-third of the sea-faring fishermen in the village but the survivors should resume fishing, and the government should provide full subsidies to buy catamarans, to begin with. “That would help the fishing community come out of the crisis.” (Frontline, January 28, 2005).

Many influential newspapers and news magazines, and some television channels did extremely well in educating their readers and viewers on various aspects of the lives of fisherfolk and the livelihood issues that confronted them every day. They also focused on the extreme insecurity of these poverty-stricken people. Scientists, most importantly Professor M.S. Swaminathan, threw light on the need to protect the ecosystems of the coast and explained how mangroves could minimise the impact of such disasters.

Environmentalist Vandana Shiva declared in an interview: “The first lesson [from the tsunami] is about development in coastal regions. Respect for the fragility and vulnerability of coastal ecosystems has been sacrificed for hotels and holiday resorts, shrimp farms and refineries. Mangroves and coral reefs have been relentlessly destroyed, taking away the protective barriers.” (“Lessons for Life,” The Guardian, January 12, 2005). Recalling a study of the 1999 Orissa cyclone that killed 30,000 people, she pointed out that the destruction was much more severe where the mangroves had been cut down for shrimp farms and an oil refinery. Ms Shiva also recalled how the people's movement against industrial shrimp farming had resulted in a court order to shut down the farms within 500 metres of the coastline and how “the shrimp industry tried to undo environmental protection laws by seeking exemption from the government.” The fisherfolk and their supporters today are particularly apprehensive about the intent and interests behind the central government's alleged undermining of the 1991 Notification. It was seen as the first major progressive legislation to protect the rights that fishermen won after many a struggle; it related to their livelihood, personal security, dwelling places, free access to the sea, the parking of boats, and so on. Even more disturbing to them was the government's other action of legalising about 23 amendments that sought to “dilute” the 1991 Notification, amendments that were opposed by the fishermen and their representatives during consultations organised by the government. The fears that these changes would make the notification ineffective in protecting the fisher people's rights do not appear to be ill-founded.

After Dalits and the tribal people, it is the fisherfolk who constitute perhaps the most neglected community in India. They account for about 15 million households. At least 7.5 million enterprising fishermen venture into the deep sea at odd hours and contribute substantially to the food basket of the country. Yet most of them eke out a miserable, insecure life. The activities prohibited by the CRZ Notification 1991 in its original form, but sought to be created in the new notification, include the setting up of new industries and expanding existing ones, any construction activity between the High Tide Line (HTL) and the Low Tide Line (LTL), setting up and expanding fish processing units, land acclamation, mining of sand and rocks, building industrial, commercial and entertainment units, and so on. In short, the motive behind the CRZ Notification has been diluted to make it more and more commercial and profit-oriented, pushing the rights and needs of the fisher-people back.

The CRZ Notification 1991 was a specialised legal instrument for governing development activities throughout the coastal stretches. As a guiding document, the CRZ Notification remains relevant, particularly at this stage of rehabilitating the victims of the 2005 tsunami. The function of the notification as an environmental protocol for human actions in a sensitive region is evident from the principal legislation from which it draws its powers — the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the relevant rules.

The Act substantially empowers the Government of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to take actions “for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment and preventing, controlling and abating environmental pollution.” This includes the promulgation of specified notifications for the purpose.

The CRZ Notification is issued under Section 3(1) and Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. These clauses outline the powers of the central government to protect and improve the quality of the environment and take preventive measures to control and abate environmental pollution. This includes the power to delineate areas where anthropogenic activities can be regulated and restricted. The importance given to the notification is clear from the fact that considerable powers are vested with the agencies responsible for its implementation.

Attempts to dilute CRZ Notification

The Coastal Regulation Zone comprises the coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters, which are influenced by tidal action (in the landward side) up to 500 metres from the HTL and the land between the LTL and the HTL. The 500-metre CRZ boundary is drawn at a radial distance (as the crow flies) uniformly from the HTL and runs parallel to the coast.

Yet another change: the 2011 Notification added provisions that degrade or dilute the powers of the National Coastal Zone Management Authority and States Coastal Managements Authority constituted under the Supreme Court of India's orders in 1996. This, the fisher people's lawyers contend, is in violation of the Supreme Court's verdict.

In the wake of the tsunami, the news media could sense the growing attempts to dilute the CRZ Notification 1991. The way rehabilitation was sought to be done gave enough indication that big business, real estate interests, hoteliers and the like had their own plans to enter the field in an aggressive way. In other words, the post-tsunami scenario was approached as an unprecedented opportunity to change the face of coastal India. Fisherfolk who could not be persuaded to vacate their houses were forced to accept houses in far off places. Hundreds of households were given houses in many places far away from the sea despite objections that it would be highly expensive for them to go to sea and back and that the shifting would affect their school-going children.

Today much of the press and television seems to treat real life problems and issues of mass deprivation such as these in disappointingly low key. This raises a key question for Indian journalism. Is informative, detailed, nuanced, and sensitive coverage of the conditions in which the losers in the development game live and work relevant only when a big crisis like a tsunami overwhelms them? Does the social responsibility of journalism mean that in normal times coverage of ‘rising India' can be wholly or mostly celebratory or ‘positive'? I should think not.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in