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Demands on the Indian Coasts: opportunities and conflicts

R Metha
Development Commissioner, Goa
Government of India


Indian is a country of sub continental proportions and has a 5700 Kms long coastline and 2 million square Kms of EEZ. It has a federal system of governance and as many as 9 states and 3 Union Territories (Islands environment) share the resources of the coast. It’s long history and culture, the life of whose people was unbroken by the political upheavals of the past is now changing fast due to the impact of growing global trade and integration with the world economy. Hence the earlier faith that the society had in its inherent strength to adapt to a way of life which was sustainable for the environment, is no longer true. The impact of technology and trade is a powerful factor. The coastal belt is perhaps the most threatened by the rapid changes taking place in the country.

The watchword today is balance. How to have a Balance with nature and at the same time ensure greater economic opportunities. In other words how to ensure sustainability. This has become the central theme of planners since the World Environment Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992. Since two thirds of the world lives within 50 Kms of salt water, the pressure on coastal and island systems is increasing. These demands arise out of the increasing urbanisation accelerating industrialisation as developing countries race to catch up with the developed world in search of new frontiers of science and technology. Development of improved infrastructure for ports, tourism and recreation centres has contributed its mite. There has been a consequent growth of pollution, destruction of wet lands, lagoons, mangroves, estuaries, beaches, and erosion of the coastline. Any approach towards understanding and tackling these problems has to do with people’s lives and livelihood.

The complexity of the coastal environment is difficult to understand. Since human activity encompasses the coast as well as the hinterland, impact of coastal activity can be felt at considerable distance in time and space. For example, export of wood from the port has an impact on deforestation; discharging pollutants into the sea has impact on fish resources, and even impact on movement of sea currents, which in turn affect the air currents and rain bearing clouds and temperatures. The interdependence of the various factors is apparent but needs greater study to establish the linkages.

The demands on the coast are governed by a conflict of interests, which are within groups and between them. For example CONFLICTS occur between the following uses and users:

sqb.gif (46 bytes)Mangroves are destroyed for fuel wood, settlements and fishing, but their existence is essential for preserving the coastline.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)Small, medium and large fisherman have conflicts over the areas in which fishing can be done and the quantity, which should be allowed.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)The exploitation of the various resources of the sea, viz. gas, oil, minerals and prawns cause conflict over space. The belief in unexplored resources of the coastal sea bed, has added a new dimension in defining the EEZ through the law of the Sea.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)The possibility of future potential which may be discovered though yet not known, has escalated territorial conflicts in many countries e.g. Spratly islands, yet unexplored Arctic and Antarctic Circles.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)"Traditional" culture conflicts with the "development" culture among people residing in coastal areas. E.g. The fate of the Tribes in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the settlement of settlers from the mainland to "develop" the potential; of the Islands. The controversial North-South Highway that was meant to bring the fruits of development to the local tribals became a major source of conflict between the local tribals and the encroachment of their habitat by the settlers.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)The diversity of the coastal environment conflicts with attempts at imposing a single "model" of growth as seen in the exploitation of the commercial potential of the coastal areas.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)Needs of a consumerist society for new goods and services conflicts with the increasing inability to accept the pollutants caused by the very system of production, which meets these needs. The principle of NIMBY, namely Not In My Back Yard, has been beautifully elaborated by Al Gore in his book " Earth in the Balance".

Coastal areas will see greater conflict of interests due to the fact that they are located at the confluence point of the land and the sea. With water scarcity on land becoming more intense, the need to exploit water resources of the sea will bring the conflicts top the shores of the nations.

These conflicts of interest raises a number of issues:

sqb.gif (46 bytes)The need for Management of the coastal region has to be comprehensive.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)The policy must be transparent and based on data.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)There is need to have conflict resolution mechanisms to ensure that "might" is not always "right". The claim must be established based on the criteria which acknowledges the diversity of the coastal environment.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)The recognition of diversity of the coastal environment would preclude a single "model" management plan to fit all types of cases.
sqb.gif (46 bytes)It is important to ensure participation of local communities in any management plan or it would marginalise the local communities in any management plan or it would marginalise the local interests as is seen in the case of Andamans.

Opportunities: While there are challenges, there are opportunities as well. The history and culture of India of an unbroken civilisation has a lot of lessons for us. There are communities living in India in harmony with the environment because they have evolved and elaborate system of enculturation of environmental values over hundreds of years. I am referring to the Bishnois of Rajastan who have learnt to live in perfect harmony with the wild beasts and suffer no economic deprivation on that account. They have recently caught a film hero shooting the protected black buck while at the same time appearing in an ad film for WorldWild fund for Nature! So our culture will tell us the way if we search for it.

We should learn from the mistakes of the world and not repeat them. The conflict between the small fishing trawlers and the large trawlers is a case in point. It was an example of how conflict resolution mechanism could focus of the fears of the local fisherman and the policy of GOI to grant trawler licenses was cancelled.

The great challenge is how to involve people in the process of sustainable growth. This calls for a complete overhaul of the policy formulation methodology. We should try to have a " bottom up" approach to planning, instead of the "top down" approach being followed hitherto. This would ensure that diversity of the environment is recognised and included in the planning process.

In conclusion I would say that there is urgent need to address the challenges to the coastal environment in India. Since there is interdependence between the coast and the hinterland, the dynamic relationship needs to be studied while looking at a resolution of the conflicts and the answers to the Sustainability question. In the developing countries like India the race to "catch up" the missed years of growth may lead to less importance being given to issues of sustainability. The choice for them is whether to follow a known model or discover a new one. The developed countries need to ponder on the question of Balance and find the solutions to save the Environment.

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