a fresh controversy has lashed the 7,500-kilometre-long Indian coastline with the Union ministry of environment and forests (mef) seeking to water down stringent laws governing the Coastal Regulation Zone (crz). A draft notification was issued recently to relax restrictions on construction activity within 50 metres (m) of the high tide zone as against the 500m stipulated in the original February 19, 1991, regulations.
The 1991 notification had imposed curbs -- within 500m of the high tide zone -- on construction and industrial activities, mining, dumping, storing and discharging of industrial waste and effluents, drawing groundwater and any other activities which could disturb the coastal landscape. "The move to drastically reduce the limit to 50m is antithetical to environmental concerns. It will defeat the very objective of the original notification," says Hari Babu, programme coordinator of Coastal Zone Watch, Bangalore. Significantly, this is the fourth attempt by the mef to dilute the crz restrictions. Earlier, it was forced to retreat in the face of massive countrywide protests.
The recent draft notification permits construction of dwelling units and development of infrastructure for local inhabitants. It also allows housing schemes of urban development authorities approved prior to February 19, 1991. The document further seeks to approve setting up of non-polluting industries in Special Economic Zones (sez). "It has, however, failed to define an sez and is also ambiguous about its interpretation of the term local inhabitants. This leaves enough room to appropriate the rights of coastal communities," points out Debi Goenka of Bombay Environmental Action Group.
On its part, the mef defends its decision citing difficulties faced by inhabitants due to a lack of infrastructure in crz areas. The notification specifies that the Centre had consulted coastal state governments before embarking on the exercise. Subba Rao, additional director, mef, says: "We have nothing more to add to what the notification states."
Another contentious section in the draft notification pertains to giving the go-ahead to mining activities and exploration of natural gas. "The government seems to have succumbed to pressure exerted by the aquaculture mafia, builders and tourist industry," feels Ajoy Bagchi of the People's Commission on Environment and Development, New Delhi. Noted lawyer Rajeev Dhavan is of the view that, if effected, these changes would destroy the Indian coastline.
Quite predictably representatives of the tourism and hotel industry have welcomed the move. But for now, the government is testing the waters and hoping to get a positive feedback from all sections affected by the decision.
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