Fifty-year-old Tirumani Srinivasa Rao, a fisherman who passed Class VII and the only man who can read and write in his village, is now the lone soldier who stands between the government’s might and 10,000 trees.
The blue tattered blue shirt and the faded white dhoti he wears might give the impression that the weatherworn fisher who understands the sea and its many moods is tired from the legal battle with much powerful forces going on for more than seven years.
But the high-octane fighter looks triumphantly at the sea, taking a moment to cherish the small victory in a long war he got in the form of a High Court order to halt the construction of a resort, saving hundreds of trees from felling.
Mr. Rao hails from Perupalem, a village located between the sea and a creek in West Godavari Mogalthuru mandal. He and the community of about 2,000 fisherfolk families living in the panchayat had been cultivating coconut trees and casuarina plantations on government land for more than 100 years until State-approved tourism projects cropped up.
As part of its plans, the government leased out land to private players for the construction of resorts, restaurants, and bars and laid a road for easy access to the beach, beginning in 2016. These have violated not only the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules but also land allocation rules. Since then, 1,500 coconut trees and acres of casuarina plantations have been destroyed to make way for a road, resorts, a marine police station and the beach festival.
Mr. Rao, along with others from his village, filed multiple cases in the High Court against the builders for both cutting down the trees and flouting Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms. Many, due to loss of livelihood after the felling of trees, have migrated to cities in search of greener pastures, says Mr. Rao
Despite the recent order to stop a resort, the fisherfolk are worried that their voices might be overpowered. This fear seems valid as a resort, Hamsa Beach Resort,has been completed and is functioning despite a stay order in the year it was constructed (2017).
“When the tsunami hit our coast in 2004, these trees guarded us and our village from inundation,” says Mr. Rao. He points to barren land of, about 150 acres covered in heaps of river sand, where about 1,500 to 2,000 coconut trees once stood.
According to the growers here an acre on the creek, with around 60-80 trees, fetches nearly ₹2 lakh per annum, out of which nearly ₹60,000 is set aside for expenditure. Their profit is ₹1.3 lakh per annum. Each labourer gets ₹600 a day for working on an acre.
Perupalem, spread over 2,659 hectares, has a population of over 12,000 as per the 2011 Census, with a population density of 439 per square km. It falls under CRZ III ‘B’ category, where the area up to 200 meters from the High Tide Line (HTL) is earmarked as a ‘No Development Zone’ (NDZ), meaning construction of any permanent building is disallowed here.
As a result of the legal battle, Gold Coast Beach Resorts coming up on 30 acres, was issued an order by the A.P. Pollution Control Board to halt the construction. However, Mr. Rao says that a third resort is coming up on 116 acres which would result in the felling of over 10,000 trees.
Land rights and more
“The land allocated for tourism projects here is cultivable. Though the fishing community has been cultivating the land for decades, they neither have security nor rights over the land and will not receive any compensation”Gutta RohithState secretary of the Human Rights Forum
Gutta Rohith, the State secretary of the Human Rights Forum (HRF) says, “The land allocated for tourism projects here is cultivable. Though the fishing community has been cultivating the land for decades, they neither have security nor rights over the land and will not receive any compensation.” He added that the community also paid land tax till the agricultural land tax was abolished in the 1980s.
While the dominant caste in the village has been granted pattas (land deeds), these have been denied to the fisherfolk who belong to a so-called lower caste. The handing over of the land for tourism projects will further marginalise the community, he says.
As per the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, a social impact assessment must be done, and a consensus from the people impacted sought before taking up any project, none of which was done, Mr. Rohith says.
In 2020, a two-day beach festival was organised by the tourism department to promote the “beach, local culture, and cuisine”.
Thousands of tourists attended the event, along with district officials and ministers. But, hundreds of trees were uprooted for the event, and no compensation was paid to them, fishermen say.
“What did we get out of this event except for the additional work of cleaning the beach? Liquor bottles were strewn across,” says another fisherman T. Sathyanarayana Rao.
In every household that has a coconut farm, the woman earns ₹7,000 per month by making broomsticks out of dried coconut leaves. They sell them in the markets for ₹30 per kg and also sell fronds at ₹10 per kg. In all, over 500 people stand to lose for every 100 acres of ‘development’ of cultivable land here.
Collector calls the fisherfolk ‘encroachers’
“If tourism projects are coming up, it is the community that will benefit most, as the projects will give many employment opportunities” P. PrasanthiWest Godavari Collector
Referring to the fisherfolk as encroachers, West Godavari Collector P. Prasanthi says the land is not meant for unauthorised activities such as growing trees. “If tourism projects are coming up, it is the community that will benefit most, as the projects will give many employment opportunities,” she adds.
“We know what kinds of job profiles they will be. With no education, we cannot be employed as anything but security guards or cleaners”T. Sathyanarayana RaoFisherman from Perupalem panchayat
T. Sathyanarayana Rao, another fisherman questioning what development means to the government, gives a retort: “We know what kinds of job profiles they will be. With no education, we cannot be employed as anything but security guards or cleaners.”
About 15 people from the community work at Hamsa Beach Resort, according to the resort manager Venkat Rao. Of them, seven are from the village. Three men work as security guards and one as a gardener, and three women do the cleaning. While the manager refused to provide salary details, the fishermen say those working here get around ₹8,000 per month. Since it is under a stay order but functioning, the fishermen filed a contempt case, which is pending in the High Court.
Vulnerable to inundation, warns scientist
Another threat looming large over the Perupalem is that of inundation and the rapid construction activity taken up in the region is only worsening the situation, say the villagers.
V.V.S.S. Sarma, chief scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Institute of Oceanography, Visakhapatnam, explains: “The lifespan of the properties reduces when they are built very close to the sea. It is nothing less than inviting danger. Infrastructural projects also modify the coast, and change the current pattern of the coastline, leading to soil erosion and subsidence,” he says.
R.S. Mahendra, a scientist from the Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), says the destruction of trees leads to the advancement of water into the habitations.
“Much of the eastern coast falls in the low-lying area, making it vulnerable to inundation. The danger is more where there is a creek or a water body nearby. The deltaic region of the Krishna-Godavari districts is the most vulnerable to not just inundation but also to erosion,” he says.
‘Pollution board staff overworked’
Meanwhile, the private players who were shown a red signal by the High Court, do not delay in finding their way around the legal barriers to their growth.
On June 12, 2023, the Eluru Environmental Engineer of the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board(APPCB) submitted a report stating that Gold Coast Beach Resort had violated rules and that it needed clearance from the Board to proceed further.
This is not the first time the resort has faced trouble. Earlier, construction was halted after fishermen filed a case against it in the High Court. The owner sent a new proposal last year, which was approved by both the CRZ committee in the State and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India (MoEFCC). However, while the company mentions survey No. 79 in the form, the construction was happening on unsurveyed land close to the creek, says documents on the official website of MoEFCC, Parivesh.
A CRZ expertise member of the Andhra Pradesh Coastal Management Zone Authority, on the condition of anonymity, reveals that companies are liable for action if what they say in the application does not match the reality. The CRZ expertise member says such discrepancies have become common of late because of skeletal staff at Pollution Control Board’s district offices.
“Earlier, we used to get proposals for new projects at least 15 days prior to the meeting, so we had enough time to go through them. These days, we are sent a bunch of proposals just two or three hours before the meeting. In the given time, we can, at best, give all the proposals a cursory glance,” the member says.
The Gold Coast Beach Resort, while officials and the company say it is well outside the CRZ boundary of 200 metres, the project map shows that the boundary of the premises falls within the ‘No Development Zone’.
So far, 88 people filed a case in the High Court on the upcoming project coming up over the 116 acres on the coast.
Perupalem South Sarpanch, T. Vijaya Lakshmi, admits that they are facing pressure from higher-ups to give approval to projects coming up in the village.
Development is important, says Toursim Authority chief
A.P. Tourism Authority CEO K. Kanna Babu, when asked about the issues surrounding the projects, says: “Thousands are thronging the Perupalem beach when there are no proper amenities. If the place is developed, the tourist footfall will rise exponentially. Development is important.”
Mr. Srinivasa Rao and other fishermen were booked under various sections and arrested more than twice for raising their voice. They are, however, steadfast in their opposition to the projects.
“It is us who will bear the brunt whenever a calamity strikes. Who will come to our help then? By flouting the norms, they are inviting danger and putting us in danger,” say Mr. Rao and the other fishermen, hoping that the High Court will rule in their favour .