The dislocation of 15 million fishworkers and environmental degradation: an introduction to ongoing changes in Coastal Zone Regulations

By Suvarup Saha, Sanhati. Open for comments.

Coastal Zone Regulations in India are currently being changed and manipulated. It is necessary to examine these changes closely and understand the political and economic currents that motivate them. The 8200 km long coastline of India provides livelihood to 15 million people and is one of the richest environments in the world – changes and amendments in protective regulations thus have widespread effects, effects which are being swept under the carpet by political parties, from the right to the parliamentary Left. This is an introduction to the issue.

The Coastal Wealth of India

The urban vision of the sea-coast is twofold – plush hotels and dazzling beaches on the one hand and simple happy-go-lucky fishermen riding the tides on their log-boats on the other.

The truth is, it is these “happy-go-lucky” fishing people who have been the real protectors of the sea coasts in India and its fragile ecosystem. And it is the establishment of large scale sea-tourism centers and diversion of mile after mile of sea-coasts for real estate development that has resulted in their eviction and wrought havoc on coastal environment. The story is the same – all the way from Puri in Orissa to Marina beach in Chennai.

Along the 8200 km long coastline of India, there are 3200 fishing villages. About 3 million people are directly involved in fishing, while another 3 million work in the ancillary industries. The ADB estimates the total number people in India to be in the fisheries industry at 14.66 million. The 2006 estimate of 6.5 million metric tons of fish earned India 80 billion INR through exports. This is 3% of India’s total foreign trade and is second only to IT.

One of the most important functions of the fisher folks has been to maintain the natural ecosystem of the Indian coasts – a coast that is as diverse as can be; from sand dunes, sea beaches, estuaries, deltas, marshland, coral reefs, to salt water lakes, back waters, coastal grasslands and even mangrove forests.

This diverse system is threatened by uncontrolled tourism, unplanned urbanization, overuse, artificial breeding of plants and animals in marine environment, sand mining, building up walls along the coasts and other hazardous activities. It is in this context that one should examine the existing Coastal Zone Regulations.

The Coastal Regulations: CRZ

The exploitation of the Indian coastal regions in the hands of large capital and destructive development undertaken in commercial interests have for long been challenged by various fishing organizations and rights groups. It was in the backdrop of their consistent demands that in 1986 the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ-91) was created as a provision of the Environmental Acts.

According to this, the coastal areas were marked as ecologically sensitive and development of these areas would be allowed to the extent that it did not adversely affect the coastal environment or the people living therein. The regulation split up the coastal areas into 4 distinguishable categories based on the above mentioned principle – CRZ-I, II, III and IV.

Let us take a brief note of the relevant terminology. The expanse of the sea from the coastline to 12 nautical miles (1 nautical mile = 1.852 km or one minute of latitude along any meridian) into the sea is called territorial waters. High tide line is the level to which water rises in spring.


According to the CRZ notification, CRZ-I is that region that has been and must be left untouched in terms of construction activities as it is ecologically sensitive. Coral reefs, salt water plantations or mangrove forests, habitats of crabs and turtles, muddy lands, river mouths, coastal wild-life sanctuaries, estuaries, lakes etc. are all included in this category. This should be treated as ‘no development zone’, where the term development is to be interpreted in terms of the various commercial activities detrimental to marine ecosystems. In a CRZ-I region, the area extending from the high tide line to another 500m is to be considered as ‘no-development zone’. In fact all the islands in the south of Bengal, located in the Bay of Bengal, fall in this category. Nayachar, the proposed location of the chemical hub project of the Left Front government of West Bengal is no exception.


CRZ-II are regions which have seen development to certain extent and have built up structures within 5m of the high tide line. In case of CRZ-II, the area extending from the high tide line to the roadways cannot be developed in any way. Usually, CRZ-II areas are locally managed by municipalities or corporations. Popular sea-side destinations of Eastern India like Puri or Digha, fall in this category.


CRZ-III are areas that have not yet been developed, but can be, subject to restrictions. The restriction being that no construction is permitted up to 200m from the high tide line. Seaside resorts can be developed beyond that zone.

Amendments to CRZ

The CRZ rules have been amended a total of 19 times through recommendations of various committees. These have been done to mostly look after commercial interests, and in only 3 of these cases have the say of the local people been recorded although these have never found a way into the recommendations. The result has been disastrous.

Establishment of tourist centers, parks etc. across the coasts has led to huge amounts of pollutants being dumped into the sea. Destruction of mangrove forests in and around Mumbai has pushed the fish 20km into the sea. Multinationals like the Hindustan Unilever, L&T, ITC, IFB, and AKG all have their huge shrimp farms located along various coastal areas of India and all of them violate the regulations. Supreme Court of India, in a 1996 judgment, had instructed demolition of all illegal shrimp farms that lie within 500m of the high tide line. Clearly, all of these farms are located in CRZ-I regions. With the exception of the government of Orissa, no other state government of India has executed this order. The violators range from close kins of veteran Jyoti Basu to Chandra Babu Naidu and the finance minister P. Chidambaram.

The story is, however, turning even more grim.

From CRZ to CZM

With each passing amendment, the effectiveness of the CRZ regulations has been reduced. And yet, that is not sufficient to satisfy the land –hungry nexus of the land-mafia, politicians and large capital. This is because; CRZ inherently had safeguards that to some extent sheltered the coastal regions and its people.

Herein lay the need to set up a committee in July 2004 under the leadership of the ‘green-revolution’ famed M.S. Swaminathan to review the efficacy of the CRZ. Expectedly, it came up with plans for a new regime – Coastal Zone Management (CZM).

The official notification for implementing CZM was given in 2007. Strangely, the recommendation made by the committee for safeguarding the coastal environment and the fisher folk has not been included in the notification.

A look into the CZM provisions will clearly display why the establishment needed to replace the CRZ with CZM. Just like the CRZ, CZM also categorizes coastal regions into 4 categories, CZM-I, II, III and IV. Just like the CRZ-I, CZM-I has also been designated as ecologically sensitive area.


The catch lies in the fact that CZM-I is ecologically sensitive, but not completely untouchable. And thus, the clause of ‘no development zone’ extending till 500m from the high tide tine is removed.

All constructions in the CZM-I will henceforth be monitored by the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZMP). This on one hand will allow ‘developmental activities’ to take place in hitherto untouched ecologically sensitive zones, on the other hand, will evict fisher folk from their livelihood in over 12 nautical miles (22 Km) as the coastal zone definition has been extended by 12 nautical miles in the 2007 notification. The ICZMP will be governed by central/state government appointed regulatory committees who need some sort of approval of the central forest/environment ministries for the proposed ICZMP.


CMZ-II is economically and culturally important densely populated areas excluded in the CMZ-I. This can have 1.Coastal municipality/corporation. 2.Coastal panchayat with population density of 400 per sqkm. 3.Port and shipyard 4.Notified resorts 5.Notified mines 6.Notified industrial areas 7.SEZs 8.Heritage sites 9.Notified archeological or monumental sites 10.Military areas 11.Power plants.

The CMZ-II has been further classified into CMZ-II A and CMZ-II B. ‘A’ zone is the one which does not have any coastal wall protection, while the ‘B’ zone does have one or more.

The state government has full control on the planning and construction of such ‘protective walls’ and this simply needs a ‘soft approval’ from the central forest and environment ministry (i.e., if no response comes back from the centre within 60 days of submission of the proposal, the state government can go ahead with the proposal).

In place of the old regulation of ‘no development zone’ in the area between the high tide line and the road as was in CRZ-II, a new concept of ‘set back line’ is introduced in CMZ-II. This set back line is to be determined in order to protect the local population from future natural calamities or man-made disasters. A lot of research and meteorological calculations like satellite pictures of the topography of the region, the change of sea-level in the area in the last 100 years, height of tides etc. will go into the determination of this very important line.

Interestingly, the coastal people or the fisher folk will not have access to the area from the ‘set back line’ towards the sea but constructions for promoting tourism can be done there!

So can be done a host of other things which include – fuel loading facilities for ships, ports, shipyards, mining, unloading facilities for fishing corporations, public toilets, light houses and towers, beach resorts and water sports, craters for obtaining sea-salt through evaporation, sewerage lines, railway, pipelines, electrical connectivity etc. – and all these in the stretch between the set back line and 12 nautical miles into the sea. Even more surprising is the fact that the local governmental authority can actually permit all these activities. However, no survey of the geological peculiarity of the area or the wind speed, which are extremely important in case of disasters like Tsunami, has been included in the determination criteria for the set-back line.

In fact, a detailed study reveals that most of the erstwhile CRZ-III areas have been re-christened as CZM-II after being ripped off the protection of no construction within 200 m of the high tide line.


Coastal zones which fall in none of the CMZ-I, II and IV categories are included in the CMZ-III category. Unlike CRZ-III, there is no 200m restriction. All commercial activities including water tourism and SEZs can be supported in this region. However, fisher folk have restricted access here as well.

CMZ-IV includes Andaman & Nicobar, Lakshadweep and such other islands in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Back water islands like the Car, which are neither CMZ-I or II can be included in CMZ-IV if the local authority so desires. Otherwise they will come under CMZ-III.

What is gained?

When one compares CZM with its predecessor CRZ, the motivation for moving on to the new regime becomes clear. In spite of numerous amendments, CRZ somehow had the built in safe-guards that shielded the coastal inhabitants from the clutches of the ‘developmental beast’. This is corroborated by the observation of the Swaminathan committee that most of the fisher folk organizations were satisfied with the CRZ. Hence, the need was felt to move over to the more ‘investment friendly’ CZM.

The Asian Development Bank has already committed 750 million USD to the 4 coastal states including West Bengal and Orissa to implement the new CZM regime.

Not only will fishermen be evicted from their traditional homes; they will lose the right to fish within 12 nautical miles of the sea-shore. Since most of them lack the large capital required to carry out fishing beyond that limit, they are bound to lose their livelihood as well. Some of them will be transformed into contractual laborer with multinational fishing corporations, who will eventually come to control the fishing industry.

Territorial waters too are being served on a platter for unhindered exploitation. Coral reefs, sea-grass and other under-water resources will be opened up to serve the cosmetic industry. In fact, corporations like L’Oreal has already petitioned for setting up an SEZ. A total of 50 SEZs are in line. Unregulated sand-mining will destroy natural habitat of the rare Oliver Ridley turtles. The breeding grounds of sea fish, salt-water vegetation, mangrove forests are being dangerously exposed to the threat of extinction.

Indian Politics

CRZ-91 regulations are still in effect. But once ICZMP, set-back line, sea-wall etc. are notified, CRZ will become obsolete. None of the established parliamentary political parties have come out against the CZM-2007 regulations. Not even the parliamentary left.

In fact, two of the three left-ruled states, West Bengal and Kerala which have extensive sea-coasts, are dangerously exposed to the ill-effects of the CZM regime. Sea-side resorts and unregulated industrialization has already caused immense damage to the mangrove forests in Kerala. The 700 sqkm of mangrove has been reduced to 17sqkm in last four decades. Three districts of West Bengal (East Medinipur, North and South 24 Parganas) touch the sea. A total of 4571.49 sqkm of land in West Bengal fall under the purview of the CRZ. Out of this, 14.25 sqkm falls in the CRZ-II and 392.4 sqkm is CRZ-III. It is a well-known fact that despite the CRZ-91 notifications, illegal hotels and resorts in Mandarmoni and shrimp firms in Bakkhali, Frezerganj and Shankarpur continue to operate. And the next to add is the proposed chemical hub project in the island of Nayachar. The state of affairs in the new CZM regime look grim.

Nayachar – a case study in exploring the motives of moving on from CRZ to CZM

The Nayachar island in the mouth of river Hugli and located in the largest delta in the world, the Ganga-Brahmaputra delta, is actually an ecologically sensitive area, i.e., CRZ-I applies here.

On 29th November, 2007, the State Coastal Regulation Zone Authority recommends to the Central Coastal Regulation Zone Authority to change Nayachar’s status from CRZ-I to CRZ-III. In the decision making meeting, though a few of the members suggested against this change by citing its height above the MSL (only 5 feet), the fact that a large part of the island goes under water during high tide, and the records of high and low tide in the last five years, the recommendation was gladly accepted, thanks to the healthy relationship that the Left enjoyed with the UPA government at that time. What was grossly overlooked is the fact that islands like the Nayachar are formed as a result of the accumulated silt in the mouth of Hugli and they tend to go under water periodically.

Examples are abundant: New Moor near the Bangladesh border, Chuksa near Sagardweep.

Ghoramara island is one such island that came into existence in 1817 which then was named Edmonstone. Large scale construction took place here. This island was badly damaged in a cyclone in 1831 and was completely submerged in 1844. Edmonstone once again came into existence and was drowned. The third incarnation of the same island was recorded as Jambudweep. Even that is also in a path of destruction as the island which measured 8.7 sqkm in 1968-69 now only measures 3 sqkm. Interestingly, a few years ago, the fisher folk living in Jambudweep were evicted citing its CRZ-I status. (However, the actual intention was perhaps to hand it over to the Sahara group, which fortunately did not work out).

The transition of Nayachar from CRZ-I to CRZ-III is actually a move to seek CZM-II status for Nayachar once the CZM regime comes to effect. Then everything can be done as wished by the Salim Group.

Nayachar is being compared to the Jurong island in Singapore which too hosts a chemical hub. There are vital problems in this comparison. While Nayachar is composed of silt which has a high sand content and has very little resistive power, Jurong is actually an extension of the Himalayan range into the sea, and is thus much stronger and amenable to permanent construction. Further, the coastal areas of West Bengal are cyclone and earth-quake prone and have a much higher wind speed of about 180 kmph.

It is being falsely propagated that Nayachar is uninhabited. The fact is that it has about 2500 inhabitants who are mostly local people without any land rights. They will have the same story to tell as the millions of other Indians evicted from their homes.

It is sad that the Salim group, till now known for its support in the anti-communist drive in Indonesia, is being shown red carpet in left-ruled West Bengal at the expense of its local people. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the SEZ built by Salim will boast of industries developed by the infamous Dow Chemicals that refuses to own up its responsibility towards the Union Carbide (a subsidiary of Dow at present) inflicted Bhopal Gas Tragedy. In 6th grade science text-books in West Bengal, one can find mention of the Minamata gulf in Japan which got polluted by lead that was discharged by the Nippon-Chiso Chemicals and how the Minamata disease came into being. The same state is itself desperate to set up what in first world terminology is called a ‘dirty industry’.

A chemical hub in Nayachar will evidently destroy the mangrove barrier to the south of Bengal, in effect the Sundarbans which actually acts as the protective sheath of Kolkata and entire South Bengal from cyclones and earthquakes. The implications will be disastrous.

A chemical hub will pollute the entire area in such a manner that there can be no fishing near the coast. And the existing fisher folks hardly have the equipments for deep-sea fishing. It is being propagated that the proposed PCPIR will create a huge number of jobs. The projected figure is 20,000 at a heavy investment of crores. Interestingly, teachers and scientists from TASAM (Teachers and Scientists against Mal development) have shown that by encouraging co-operative fishing a livelihood of 20,000 can be generated in Nayachar.

This article has been adapted from a study prepared by the SEZ-birodhi Prachar Manch, an anti-SEZ watchdog in Bengal.