What if instead of rains and flooding, Chennai had witnessed a cyclonic storm, or worse, two cyclones in a month? After all, as a city on the edge of a high-energy coast, Chennai is as vulnerable to intemperate oceans as it is to overcast skies. Encroachments would have rightly been blamed in that instance too as the cause of turning a natural event into a disaster.
But just as with the > recent floods , where the survival encroachments of the poor are the target of ritual evictions, a storm surge or tsunami will give the Chennai Corporation an excuse to evict the coastal poor. This does little to flood-proof the city. The desperate encroachments of the poor are more a threat to the poor than to the city. Elite encroachers, on the other hand, are the ones with the structural capacity to alter contours, disrupt natural flows and harm vast swathes of the city.
Tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Disasters result in soul-searching, even if only momentary, on what went wrong. In a 2006 review of post-tsunami relief and reconstruction efforts, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) noted that violation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms and the resultant overcrowding of coastal areas “played a major role in loss of human lives and property during the tsunami.” It also noted that the “Ministry [of Environment and Forests] had amended the CRZ Notification and the range of amendments presented a trend that allowed commercial and industrial expansion in coastal areas.”
Chennai is far more vulnerable today than it was in 2004, but the CAG’s findings are a distant memory. The next tidal surge will take a far deadlier toll on the city than the tsunami did in 2004. The architects of that disaster are individuals and agencies, including some that are vested with powers to protect the coast.
Abused environmental law Issued in 1991, and revised and reissued in 2011, the CRZ Notification is perhaps one of the most abused environmental laws. The notification claims to set out the regulatory framework for limiting urbanisation and industrialisation in dangerous areas close to the sea, even while providing for the security of tenure of fisherfolk. District Coastal Zone Management Committees involving District Collectors, the local Pollution Control Board, the State Coastal Zone Management Authorities (SCZMA), and the National Coastal Zone Management Authority are vested with planning and regulating coastal development, and monitoring and enforcing the law.
But without exception, these agencies are nothing more than wasteful rubber stamps — politically susceptible, corrupt, and spineless.
A walk along > Chennai’s southern beaches will give you a sense of the irrelevance of these agencies. Even 15 years ago, the space between any two fishing villages in the southern reaches of the city was just rolling dunes dotted with groves of pandanus and palmyra. All that’s gone, and has now been replaced by unoccupied villas with pools overlooking the sea, gated communities, and weekend getaways. Some properties in places such as Kanathur Reddikuppam have compound walls inside the intertidal zone. If the walls don’t get knocked down by the waves, fishermen knock it down to find safe beach parking for their boats during rough weather.
All along Chennai’s coast, elite encroachers have flattened sand dunes, denuded coastal vegetation, and interfered with natural water courses. Caught between a landward-moving sea and a seaward-moving city, the fisherfolk are being served up for slaughter on a platter. The CRZ Notification specifies that the management plan should incorporate long-term housing needs of the fisherfolk in the vicinity of the coast. But Tamil Nadu has not even begun developing a plan. Meanwhile, large chunks of coastal real estate are being parcelled off for ports, resorts and other projects, leaving the fishers with no future.
The > Corporation of Chennai , which was supposed to identify violations, is itself a keen encroacher of beach space. In October 2015, the Coastal Resource Centre, a non-governmental organisation programme that I advise, reported that the corporation had constructed 5.8 km of illegal roads at or near the high tide line within Chennai city limits.
In North Chennai, a section of water identified as salt pans and mud flats in revenue maps is now being filled with earth dredged from the Ennore harbour. Kamarajar Port, a company owned by the Government of India, is eating into a waterbody where the Kosasthalaiyar river flows into the Bay of Bengal. This will have a direct effect on the lives and properties upstream, when floods or storm tides visit. The SCZMA, the police, the District Collector, the offending Kamarajar Port, and the Union Surface Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkari, have all been informed of this, but even as I write this piece, water is being driven out of its rightful place to create land for warehouses and port-related infrastructure.
Our Environment Ministry will not save us. In June 2015, a little after Chennai’s fisherfolk demanded that CRZ violations should be dismantled and room made for their housing, the Ministry amended the notification to permit real estate developers to construct skyscrapers along the coast.
Courts seldom appreciate the gravity of these violations. Climate change has ushered in an era where the word “unprecedented” would have to be updated every year as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increase as predicted.
Fear of nature, rather than love for it, should be our guiding emotion in dealing with natural processes and safeguarding ourselves. But propped by an unjustified faith in technology, modern humans have lost their awe of nature. This may be the reason why even as we get battered by one disaster after another, we continue to repeat the same mistakes.
(Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.)