34-year-old Saravanan, the secretary of the Urur Kuppam Fishermen's Co-operative Society was a part of the delegation that confronted authorities of the Kamarajar Port in August 2015. The cooperation of all fishing villages in Ennore had demanded the dredged sand that was dumped on saltpans to convert wetlands into real estate, be removed. It was an uphill task but the fisherfolk used the 2011 Coastal Regulation Zone notification to prove the encroachment was illegal and win this battle in 2016.
But now, mere months after this citizens' victory, a new coastal regulation zone notification which is reportedly on the anvil, will snatch away the empowerment that these fishermen found through the CRZ 2011 notification.
According to a report in the Indian Express, the union government is planning to bring changes to the way the country's coasts are governed. A draft Marine and coastal regulation zone (MCRZ) notification is reportedly in the offing to replace the CRZ 2011 notification which is currently in use. The 2011 notification not only made reclamation of wetlands illegal but it also ensured that fishing communities' traditional rights over coastal areas were â€śgiven precedent over commercial activitiesâ€ť.
The new order, however, aims at removing the ban on reclamation of land in coastal areas for commercial or entertainment purposes. This will also, eventually, allow for tourism activities in ecologically sensitive areas along the shores.
Another Neduvasal like anarchy?
â€śJust like in the case of the Neduvasal hydrocarbon project, here too the government is choosing to look at monetary gains instead of the fishermen's livelihood," says Saravanan. "They want to snatch away land that we have traditionally used as a community. The CRZ 2011 notification had been introduced with the aim of protecting the coast and securing the livelihoods of the communities that is dependant on a healthy coastline. Why change it now?" he asks.
According to an Indian Express report, the justification offered by the environment ministry for this move is the â€śneglect of development in coastal areas due to CRZ 2011â€ť. The Ministry reportedly argued that these areas are being destroyed, neglected and turned into dumping grounds. It has further realised the â€śtremendous tourism potentialâ€ť in these ecologically sensitive areas across the country.
"Our livelihood is being put at stake by the government just to create recreational spaces for the elite," laments Saravanan.
A notification that encourages exploitation?
The decision to open up these areas for tourism activities is in line with the recommendations of Shailesh Nayak Committee. The panel submitted its report on changes that need to be made to the existing CRZ regime in 2015. The report was compiled after consulting state governments and other stockholders. The committee additionally recommended relaxation of restriction for creating infrastructure for local communities.
State governments meanwhile, according to media reports, have already been directed by the Centre to prepare tourism related development plans.
"Acres of our livelihood spaces and area along the coast are already being lost to illegal development. When are fishing grounds remain unprotected even with the existing rules, one can't imagine the damage the MCRZ will cause," says K Bharathi of the South Indian Fishermen's Federation. "What the government should be doing is strengthening the existing notification to ensure violators are immediately punished, to deter illegal encroachments," he adds.
The Coastal Resource Centre which is coordinated a press conference on the MCRZ notification on Thursday, states that allowing reclamation of water bodies and other wetlands for commercial purposes will increase the vulnerability of coastal communities to cyclones, heavy rainfall and drought. "No lessons have been learnt from the 2015 floods. Reclaiming land for construction or building on floodplains can only cause problems in the future. ," says Pooja Kumar. "If the thrust on tourism is put into practice, then buildings that come up in the area will bore into the ground for water and it is not advisable to do so near a coast," she adds.
The fisherfolk meanwhile, are already gathering support from across the state to oppose the Centre's move. " Fishermen in Tamil Nadu will not take this lying down. We will fight like the farmers did in Neduvasal," says Saravanan. "If necessary we will contact fisherfolk across the nation and hold country wide protests against this move," he warns.