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April 15, 2019

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Coast clearing threat to livelihoods of fisherman

After generations of trawling the same waters, the fishermen on the coast of Tamil Nadu in southeastern India know where to cast a net or park a boat without resorting to signs or GPS maps. But their customary rights over this common space — a right won by families who have fished it for centuries — are under threat as the demands of modern life threaten age-old livelihoods and their once-fertile habitat.

First, families’ land and precious sea access was usurped by factories and ports. Now, their rights are under fresh attack by a newly amended Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) law.

“Governments have treated the coastline as an empty space that economic actors can take over, forgetting that it is common property of coastal villages, towns and cities,” said Kanchi Kohli, a researcher at think tank Centre for Policy Research. “The changes to the law negate the socio-ecological uniqueness of this space and opens it up to mindless real estate development, mass-scale tourism and industry.”

R.L. Srinivasan, who lives in Kaatukuppam — one of half a dozen villages by Ennore Creek near the city of Chennai — is typical of the fishermen under threat. The Ennore Creek is drained by two seasonal rivers that empty into the Bay of Bengal through a network of canals, wetlands, salt marshes and mangroves, where villagers once harvested salt, caught crabs and filled nets with fish.

Home to about 300,000 people, the area was protected by state and federal coastal zone laws, which banned construction, reclamation or alteration of the course of the water bodies. But as Chennai expanded and industries fled the city, the state greenlighted ports, coal-powered thermal plants, and petroleum and chemicals factories, which destroyed the salt pans, polluted the water and killed the fish and the crabs.

“The Creek has been our life, our livelihood for generations,” said Srinivasan. “Yet for the government, it is just land that can be used as an industrial zone and a dumping ground. The lives and livelihoods of the fishers do not matter.”

With reduced no-development zones, and laxer rules for real estate and commercial projects, the new CRZ opens up common-use spaces such as beaches, salt marshes, and boat parking areas for tourism and industry, according to analysts.

More than 4 million people in India are estimated to make a living from fishing and related activities. They are often among the nation’s earliest inhabitants, yet have few formal rights over the land or the water on which they depend. Amid urbanization and industrialization, India’s coasts have become dumping grounds for sewage, garbage and factory waste, even as they fight the rising threat of erosion and flooding.

The Congress party-led government sought to protect the fishing community and preserve their ecology by enacting the CRZ law in 2011.

But several states diluted it, so as to promote tourism and industry and generate jobs. In 2014, a new government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a review of the CRZ.

Despite protests from coast dwellers and environmentalists, a cut in the no-development zones was announced in January, allowing ecotourism and waste treatment in sensitive areas. The government says the law was amended to “conserve and protect the unique environment of coastal stretches and marine areas, besides livelihood security to the fisher communities and other local communities in coastal areas.”

But life is about to get much harder for Srinivasan and his fellow anglers, said Pooja Kumar at the advocacy Coastal Resource Centre in Chennai.

Their one hope may be the modern mapping methods they once shunned.


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