The Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, takes pride in the high standards of transparency maintained by his ministry and the quality of its website. He will have less reason to be proud of a key document produced by his ministry, however - the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2011, one of the four pivotal laws that form the mainstay of the environment ministries functions. (PDF file available here).

As a legal document specifying the rules governing use of coastal spaces, the 2011 regulation is a shoddy piece of work. Here are some examples:

  • The area of the coast to be regulated - the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) - is classified into four categories, namely CRZ-I, CRZ-II, CRZ-III and CRZ-IV, which are defined in Section 7 of the document. However, Annexure 1, which provides guidelines for the preparation of coastal zone management plans, refers to a fifth undefined category, CRZ V!

  • Section 3 lists activities prohibited in the CRZ. Section 4, dealing with regulation of permissible activities in the CRZ, states that "(t)he following activities shall be regulated except those prohibited in Para 3 above". What could this mean? A case of bad English or a loophole (for activities that are neither prohibited nor regulated) waiting to be exploited?

  • Sections of the document (referred to internally as paragraphs) are not numbered sequentially. The document starts with Section 2. There is no section 4.1, but there is a 4.2, and Section 8.(i).V.1.(i) is followed by 8.(i).V.1.(iii)! All of this may just be an annoyance, but this purports to be a legal document and the context of a subsection is obtained from the section to which it belongs.

This shoddiness is especially difficult to understand when it is common knowledge that impreciseness and ambiguities in the earlier CRZ rules were exploited to the hilt and that enormous time of the courts has been taken up to dissect the earlier rules threadbare and interpret their meaning.

The history of Coastal Zone regulations

Turning to the substantive issues, in order to appreciate the changes brought about through the new regulation, a recap is necessary of what existed earlier.

Rules prescribing land use along the coast were first imposed in 1991 with the stated purpose of preserving the coastal environment and, in particular, the ecologically fragile areas. The area of the coast to be regulated - labeled the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) - was a strip of land along the coast extending 500m landward from the high tide line and the shore exposed at low tide. Land next to bays, estuaries, rivers and other water bodies influenced by tidal action was also part of the CRZ.

The CRZ was broken up into different categories based on the level of protection required and practicable. Ecologically sensitive areas such as mangroves, coral reefs, sand dunes, salt marshes, breeding and spawning areas for marine life, and heritage sites were to be provided maximum protection and categorized as CRZ-I. The shorefront between the low and high tide lines was also included in this category. CRZ-I zones were to be kept free of any new developmental activity. Coastal areas that were already urbanized and substantially built up were categorized as CRZ-II. Urban communities falling in CRZ-II were prohibited from expanding on the seaward side of their existing limits and from increasing the density of habitats within the zone.

The mainland coast not falling in CRZ-I or II was categorized as CRZ-III and this included the coast adjacent to rural settlements. In CRZ-III zones, the area within 200m of the high tide line was declared a 'no development zone'. New development could take place only in the area between 200 and 500m from the high tide line, was restricted to industries requiring a waterfront or foreshore such as tourism and ports and harbors, and required a clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). Island territories such as Andaman & Nicobar fell in a distinct category, CRZ-IV.

The minister says that "(s)pecial dispensation for Mumbai has been granted after recognizing the enormous pressure on it ... Had this not been done, Mumbai would continue to bleed". The irony is that it is precisely because there is enormous pressure on the coastline and coastal waters of Mumbai that its coast needs greater protection.

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While environmental concerns were clearly the driving force, the 1991 regulations also recognised the right of coastal communities engaged in traditional occupations such as fishing and agriculture to continue to use these coastal spaces to live and work in. These were the broadly the features that the 1991 regulations started with.

Environmentalists welcomed these regulations pointing out that keeping the coast free from construction and industry and protecting its natural features such as mangroves would not only help preserve the coastal ecosystem but also safeguard coastal communities from the sea and preserve livelihoods that were dependent on this ecosystem. (The role played by mangroves in protecting coastal communities was dramatically borne out during the tsunami of 2004).

The restrictions imposed on coastal development however expectedly did not go well with industrial lobbies - tourism, shrimp industry, mining, power, oil and gas, and real estate, to name a few - that were keen to utilize coastal resources. Hostile propaganda by those with vested interests combined with a lack of conviction in the bureaucracy and the political executive worked to undermine the law from its inception.

As a result, the last two decades have seen, on the one hand, large-scale violation of the law condoned by the state agencies responsible for its implementation and on the other hand, numerous amendments to the regulations by the environment ministry diluting its provisions.

The coast has been opened up for mining, oil and gas exploration and extraction, atomic energy projects, storage, bridges and sea links. Neither the 'no development zone' nor even CRZ-I areas have remained sacrosanct. Projects of the Department of Atomic Energy were permitted in the coastal zone including CRZ-I areas in 2001. An amendment in 2002 permitted Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the CRZ spanning the 'no development zone'. These SEZs could host 'non-polluting industries', desalination plants, beach resorts and related recreational facilities. The rules were modified in 2009 to permit the Navi Mumbai airport in a part of the CRZ that included an ecologically fragile zone.

In 2008, the draft of a new regulation from the Environment Ministry proposed to open up large parts of the coast for industry. State governments could declare sections of the coast to be "economically significant areas" and establish sites for mining, tourism, industrial estates, foreshore facilities for Special Economic Zones, power plants, green field airports and so on. The draft was dropped in July 2009 after facing sustained opposition from fish workers, environmental groups, the governments of eight coastal states and even a parliamentary committee looking into the matter.

This is the backdrop to the 2011 regulation. (PDF file available here).

National Fish Workers Forum protests destruction of coastal zones in 2008.
(File Photo by Manju Menon)

More of the same

The present regulation continues the trend seen in the amendments made over the years. It uses the basic framework of the 1991 regulation, with some changes. One is the inclusion of coastal waters and tidal influenced water bodies, and the exclusion of the island territories such as Andaman and Nicobar from the CRZ. (The coasts of island territories will be governed by a different set of rules).

A second change is the extension of the CRZ boundary to a 'hazard' line where this line lies beyond 500m of the high tide line. This line will be determined by the Survey of India "taking into account tides, waves, sea level rise and shoreline changes". The seabed and waters from the low tide line to the territorial limit of 12 nautical miles as well as the water area of tidal influenced water bodies will now be part of the CRZ and subject to regulation.

The dilution of restrictions on construction continues with roads on stilts being permitted along the coastal zone and over coastal waters. The CRZ-III 'no development zone', has been effectively reduced in width with dwelling units of 'traditional coastal communities including fisher folk' permitted between 100m and 200m from the high tide line.

However, the major 'liberalisation' of the CRZ has been reserved for Greater Mumbai, something that has been the demand of most Mumbai politicians. The floor space index (FSI) applicable for redevelopment of slums and dilapidated buildings that fall in the regulated area has been increased, allowing high-rise buildings to replace the existing low-rise dwellings. Koliwadas, once the residential villages of traditional fishermen, would also see construction activity as the more liberal CRZ-III norms will apply compared to the earlier CRZ-II.

Justifying these changes, the environment minister says that "(s)pecial dispensation for Mumbai has been granted after recognizing the enormous pressure on it ... Had this not been done, Mumbai would continue to bleed". The irony is that it is precisely because there is enormous pressure on the coastline and coastal waters of Mumbai that its coast needs greater protection.

The new regulation reads as a compendium of the myriad exceptions to the few rules - of industries and projects that may in general or based on a case-by-case review, use the coast despite the environmental damage they will cause. It represents a further move away from managing the coastal natural resources based on principles to one based on discretion and exigency.