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Indira Gandhi’s concerns about protecting the ecology of India’s coasts, which held sway for almost 20 years, are being subverted under a regime supervised by her daughter-in-law and grandson.
Who remembers? In November 1981, Indira Gandhi issued a stern letter to all the chief ministers of India’s coastal states stipulating that nothing should be allowed within 500 metres of the high tide line (HTL) in order to maintain the beauty and ecological integrity of the nation’s beaches.
As long as she was alive, no one dared to challenge the directive. It was finally replaced in February 1991 by a special notification under the Environment Protection Act which defined the stretch of 500 metres from the HTL as “coastal regulation zone” and introduced severe restrictions on new developments.
Within a year of the notification, then Union environment minister Kamal Nath was ready to bring it down. As is usually done, a committee was appointed headed by B.B. Vohra. Kamal Nath abused the committee’s report to notify changes, some as drastic as allowing construction of resorts within 200 metres of the HTL. Several of us moved the Supreme Court, and got the infamous amendments struck down. But the environment ministry was relentless. By the time Jairam Ramesh had arrived, the notification had been amended 25 times in less than 20 years, each amendment diluting it further. (If you want something to compare this with, the Constitution of India was amended 90 times in the space of 60 years.)
Through the 25 amendments, almost everything that Mrs Gandhi frowned upon was gradually allowed in the coastal areas, including SEZs and IT parks in a classic illustration of the fable about an Arab, his tent and a camel. In the fable, after seeking the Arab’s approval for bringing its feet into the tent, then its head, then its hump, the camel finally edges out the Arab from the tent altogether.
It was the NDA regime that decided to do away with the CRZ law altogether (it was Mrs Gandhi’s initiative, after all). So, one more committee was formed under M.S. Swaminathan. When it was done, the Swaminathan report castigated the environment ministry for the 25 amendments and said they were all in the nature of unwarranted dilutions. Nevertheless, rather mysteriously, it recommended scrapping the notification altogether and substituting it with a fresh notification called the Coastal Zone Management (CZM) notification.
We found out later through RTI applications that the final chapter proposing the CZM notification had been inserted by a separate sub-committee after the last meeting of the Swaminathan committee!
The replacement of the NDA government with the UPA regime made no difference to the move to dismantle the CRZ, even though the leading lights of the UPA were, as we all know, daughters-in-law or grandchildren of Mrs Gandhi.
When the CZM notification was notified in 2008 for receiving objections, the revolt against it was huge. More than 8,000 letters were received, including objection letters from the chief ministers of almost all the coastal states. Several consultations were held in various cities by the environment ministry through the Centre for Environment Education (CEE). The CEE filed a detailed report saying that the public opinion expressed in all the consultations—especially from the fishing community—was unanimously against the new draft that sought to replace the 1991 CRZ notification.