THE original coastal regulation zone (CRZ) rules passed in February 1991 had seven sections. They have been amended nearly twice that many times in the past decade, and the government, if recent evidence is to be believed, is still interested in flogging this horse to grim death. The Prime Minister has magnanimously agreed with BJP-controlled state chief ministers to further weaken the rules for the sake of 'regional development' (see: Costly sops). In the pre-election mania for doles can this manic handout be allowed, given that it impacts thousands of lives?
The CRZ story has a simple plot-line: pure collaboration between an aggressive industry and an ever-bending government. Coastal communities have been expertly kept outside the story. When they appear, it is only as a flaccid prop for vested interests. Most of the controversy has always raged around the CRZ-III areas that comprise most of the coastline (areas neither ecologically sensitive nor developed). It is the development activities along such areas that have become a powder-keg in all debates on CRZ. The reason?
India's coastlines were almost always a common property resource. The community along the coast and the general public used the coast without worrying about ownership rights. Whatever land was used permanently was for small hutments. The coasts were primarily workspace -- free and exclusive. With the CRZ notification, coasts became part of a land classification regime that has never taken stakeholder participation seriously. The regulations have created centrally legislated and imposed user-rights on different groups along the coast. It has brought about constant conflict. And as any economist will tell you, in these battles the winner always is the one with greater information -- in this case the knowledge of who needs to be lobbied at a suitable time at Delhi to get a suitable amendment.
As long as the rules get framed in Delhi -- now at the behest of a prime minister looking to return to power, or his party chief ministers egging him on -- this imbalance will not alter. Notifications will fall at sweet will into industry's plate. If what was once common property has to be governed with at least some semblance of democratic norms, decision-making will have to shift to a gathering more democratic than the coterie of a ruling party's chief ministers gathering over tea at their leader's house, plotting 'development' for the next five years.