CRZ Notification 1991-2010: Anti-people? Anti-environment? Or anti-climax?

Seldom do ‘environmentalists’ and ‘local communities’ demand the same reforms in legislation. But fishworkers today are at the forefront of the struggle to retain the integrity of the original CRZ rules. Aarthi Sridhar documents the history of the Coastal Regulation Zones law, which both environmentalists and fisherfolk are critiquing despite five years of engagement on its reform

Read Part 1 of this series
Read Part 2 of this series
Read Part 3 of this series

Here is a taste of the headlines that dominated newspapers over the past few days:
‘CRZ: Fishermen to boycott indifferent parties’
‘Fishermen for stir against CRZ draft’

A common cause? 

Looks like ‘C R Z’ is the most popular acronym in coastal India. India’s marine fisherfolk are leading a national campaign to salvage one of her landmark environmental laws from being mutilated into a new avatar – the Draft CRZ 2010.

As one among several notifications issued under the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986 – a sort of mother Act that begat many a subordinate legislation – the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991 (or just plain CRZ) is turning out to be most prodigious.

At Azad Maidan, Mumbai, 50,000 fisherpeople gathered to reject the Draft CRZ 2010

This phenomenon of widespread popularity that it now enjoys especially among fisherfolk, was not the case even 10 years ago, when really only Mumbaikars and Goans were familiar with the idea of the CRZ. This exclusivity was due in most part to the presence of active environmentalists in these two areas, whose organisations fuelled scores of local and national public interest litigations highlighting violations of the CRZ’s rules, either angering or endearing themselves to their fellow citizens. The stories from these areas were to later inform many others about this unique coastal law, the functioning of its legal edifice and the heartache surrounding its implementation. Slowly the CRZ gained a strong conversational foothold along the nine coastal states and four union territories, though mostly among specialist environmental groups and only later, the fisher community.

Seldom does one hear of instances where ‘environmentalists’ and ‘local communities’ demand the same reforms in legislation. Often seen as working at cross-purposes, fishworkers today are at the fore of the struggle to retain the integrity of the original CRZ rules. Since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, at virtually all fishworker and NGO public gatherings and deliberations in the country, the letters C, R and Z dominate plenary topics, group discussions, public slogans, public petitions, training programmes and legal drafting. By itself this is quite remarkable considering that none of the other celebrated environmental legislations (barring the marine fisheries regulations) can boast of capturing the fisher community's attention in this manner. Fisherfolk and environmental groups otherwise differing in their conservation ideologies and viewpoints, today, together, form the National Campaign for Protection of Coasts (NCPC). The NCPC, led by the National Fishworkers' Forum, has spearheaded numerous campaigns and protest actions since the MoEF decided to ‘reform’ (read relax) the CRZ 1991 Notification, into the contorted and controversial Draft Coastal Management Zone Notification, 2008. This revised notification was an unabashed green signal for all kinds of development activities in the absence of guarantees for community rights, or protective mechanisms for ecologically sensitive areas.

Gopalpur: Tourism, edging out fishing commons

Denouncing the MoEF's Draft CRZ 2010 introduced in September 2010, as the 'last straw', on  October 29, 2010, the entire country witnessed mass agitations by fisherfolk across each coastal state, where they picketed one or the other government office. What interest does the fisher community see in safeguarding the CRZ 1991 – an ‘environmentalist’ law? Has the CRZ been pro-environment, pro-people, or just a prolonged promise of both?
Pro- / anti-environment? 

The blueprint for the CRZ was the brainchild of Indira Gandhi, and began as an environmentalists' law, drafted by them, catering to their concerns – aka 'pro-environment'. She wrote a letter in 1981 addressed to all coastal chief ministers, highlighting the 'mis-utilisation' of beaches, suggesting that an area 500 metres from the high tide line along the coast be kept free from all activities with a view to stemming unregulated pollution. An audacious desire for a politician of today's reckoning, but not unusual coming from her, and in an era of different politics. The Mumbai-based Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) shared her concern and was determined to see these wishes turn into law. BEAG’s founder, Shyam Chainani, finally chronicled the mysteries around this effort in his book, Heritage and Environment - An Indian Diary, providing a nail-biting account of BEAG’s assiduous follow-up on Gandhi’s letter. This began with an exchange of a torrent of letters, conversations and drafts between environmentalists and bureaucrats, which gradually meandered up the corridors of the newly formed Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to culminate in the thrilling moment when the capricious Environment Minister, Maneka Gandhi, finally signed the files, breathing life into the CRZ Notification, 1991. Then things simply halted, to a mortifying silence for the next few years. The beginning of a drawn-out anti-climax.

This hiatus was rudely shattered by the Supreme Court in April 1996, when it resolutely called for the proper and detailed implementation of the law, condemning the act of legislating and not implementing a law as worse than not having a law. Unmindful of these judicial observations, the MoEF has subsequently amended the notification about 25 times, each time ushering in more relaxations such as permitting all projects of the Department of Atomic Energy, permitting sea links, SEZs, IT industries, service sector industries, repeated extensions to sand mining in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), reducing of the No Development Zone (NDZ) in CRZ -III areas (rural areas) in the ANI and Lakshadweep Islands, desalination plants, large housing projects catering to the builder lobbies in Mumbai and a host of activities that do not really need the foreshore or the waterfront. Except in three instances, all of these amendments were introduced without any public notice. In response to each amendment, environmentalists and community groups recorded their objections and protests. The constituency of people, who wanted a pro-environment and pro-people law, was growing. 

Fisherfolk leaders protest against the draft CRZ 2010 in Tamil Nadu

The MoEF however, was functioning in another orbit altogether. Its balancing act between environmental and developmental imperatives dictated that it announce the reform of the CRZ into a 'scientific' law. This effort came close on the heels of its controversial 'reengineering' of the EIA Notification, 2006 and the equally contentious National Environment Policy, 2006, both of which drew immense condemnation from environmental groups and community-based organisations throughout the country. The protests that followed, led by the NFF and the NCPC debunked the 'science-based' committee recommendations, exposed the politics of reform processes and lay bare a trojan horse, full of dilutions.

Pro - / anti-people?

You'd be wrong if you reasoned that merely by virtue of its debut as a pro-environment law, the CRZ meant to be ‘anti-people’. Truth be told, it wasn’t really about fisherfolk. When it was finally introduced in 1991, the CRZ was based on a simple design that permitted only those activities along coastal stretches that absolutely needed the coast, and kept out the rest, based on the nature of the coastal location (categorised into various zones). Of course this ‘yes / no’ clearance procedure was not marinated in and drenched in scientific logic, but evolved from a pragmatic, even if somewhat exclusive, process of negotiation over what might be environmentally sound, between environmentalists and bureaucrats.

V Vivekanandan, the Convenor of the NCPC and Advisor of the South Indian Fishermen’s Societies says, “Fisherfolk houses in many areas are located about 20 metres from the shore. Fishers weren’t really concerned with this law when it was introduced, but in many instances there were reports of water, electricity and other facilities being denied to fisherfolk by panchayats faulting the CRZ’s rules for the same. Fisherfolk viewed the CRZ as an annoyance.”

However, they began seeing the CRZ Notification as useful only in the mid-‘90s. In these early years it proved a shot in the arm to people's organisations that were struggling against the impacts of development activities in coastal lands and resources. The resistance against the shrimp industry in Tamil Nadu is a good example of this. Community groups came together under the banner of People’s Alliance Against Shrimp Industries and the High Court of Tamil Nadu issued a ban on all the shrimp farms violating the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court (SC) of India in 1996 (the ‘Jagannath case’). Risking a distraction, the update on this is that the Coastal Aquaculture Authority (CAA) Act of 2005, neatly overlooks this landmark SC order and its draftsmen instead candidly inserted a clause in the Aquaculture Act, that reached far out and amended the CRZ Notification, allowing aquaculture on the coast! But that’s another story, let us return…

India has a coast that measures approximately 8,000 km, if we remember to calculate the Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The CRZ in its 1991 design forms a parallel 500 m wide (measured from the high tide line) strip along this length. The notification largely dealt with a number of development-related activities that wanted to establish themselves here – ports, oil and gas, hazardous substances, aquaculture, hatcheries, sewage, pollution, resorts, hotels and so on.  Dotting this length are at least 3,202 fisherfolk hamlets recorded by the latest Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute census (2005). Some of these fishing hamlets are centuries old, and artisanal fisheries here have developed a fascinating material culture that is practically founded on the beach. The beach space was necessary to dry fish, salt fish, net mending, recreational and social activities, storing and building boats and nets, studying the sea and winds to name a few basic needs. According to the notification, these fishing activities could be termed as ‘requiring the foreshore and waterfront’, and therefore, yes, permitted. But, limits were imposed on the freedoms of these relatively independent and self-organised communities.

Overlooking fisher access to commons

Space defines the fisher. The 1991 notification did not wax profound on this subject, but merely stated that aside from permitting foreshore- and waterfront-requiring activities, construction or reconstruction of dwelling units would be permitted beyond 200 meters from the high tide line, for the ‘traditional rights and customary uses’ of fishing communities and goathans (village common spaces) in the zone called the CRZ –III (rural areas). But the CRZ was ambiguous about rights for dwelling units and these traditional rights and customary uses of fishing communities in the 0-200 m zone and in the CRZ-1 areas. This explains the hesitation of the panchayats to provide facilities to the community, pointed by Vivekanandan. Another major concern is that the CRZ only recognised 'authorised' constructions. In almost all areas of the coast, the fishing community neither possesses individual titles nor collective land rights. This ambiguity has translated into several court cases and the identification of fisherfolk homes as CRZ violations – as noted in the ongoing case in the Goa High Court.

As a state-made law, the CRZ inherits all the assumptions of modern post-independence state law. The most inescapable aspect is the exercise of eminent domain -- the power of the state to acquire and extinguish rights of an individual. The Constitution and the EP Act provide sanction and the path to achieving this, and thus the CRZ is able to restrict activities along specific areas, over private and public lands. However, in the case of community rights over common spaces, particularly of the fishing community, this state power does not translate favourably. Specifically, since fisher community rights over common lands are not recorded and since their land titles do not exist in many cases (see Infochange article Challenging the Tourism Juggernaut -- Fisherfolk claims over coastal spaces), this notification with its 25-odd amendments, actually provides a legitimate way for industry and commercial interests to nudge out fisher and other coastal communities from these areas.  


Whoever designed it or whatever be its intent, what is clear over the last two decades is that the agencies responsible for implementing the CRZ 1991 seem to have found no reason to maintain it either as 'pro-environment' or 'pro-people'. The grand 'scientific reform' process proved to be nothing but the MoEF’s defence against this truism.  

Fishworkers have consistently protested against the MoEF's CRZ reform process. They stood strong and resolute in their rejection of the Swaminathan Committee report of 2005, the draft CZM Notification, 2007, the CMZ Notification, 2008, with the MoEF even receiving a record 8,000 objections in response to the latter. At each stage, the same demands were placed by fishers – a) revert to the 1991 notification without its amendments b) take stock and action against all CRZ violations on the coast c) recognise the rights of the fisher communities over the coastal space d) work towards a process to bring in a Coastal Fisherfolk Land Rights Bill.

The MoEF corridors now began seeing a new set of lobbyists. The NFF leaders met with Minister of State for the Environment Jairam Ramesh, personally briefing him on their concerns with the entire reform process and their objections to each draft manufactured by the MoEF. He promised a series of consultations to actually strengthen the CRZ notification. In earnestness, at each of the 35 total public consultations held on the subject, fisherfolk placed their detailed demands for a strong and undiluted pro-environment, pro-people law.

The response: The MoEF's introduces the Draft CRZ Notification 2010 in the official gazette. This version does not guarantee explicit land rights to the fisher community. It retains all the regressive amendments made to the CRZ 1991, which had diluted its protective functions. It contains one sentence on the complicated issue of monitoring and compliance. There is a complete and unimaginative void on the involvement of fisher communities or environmentalists in planning, decision-making, monitoring, or implementation.

The irony is clear for all to see. Maneka Gandhi, who launched the 1991 notification, unwittingly fulfilled her estranged mother-in-law’s wishes of 1981. As Chainani noted, “February 20, 1991 was a 'red letter day', …. Maneka Gandhi had finally delivered what she promised less than 3 months earlier”. Albeit by means of a laborious and 'unscientific' process, environmentalists in the country were euphoric.

Nearly 20 years later, the cautious and methodical Jairam Ramesh made a promise to another constituency  -- the fisher communities, to bring in a notification that looked into their interests, through a scientific process. Both environmentalists and fisherfolk are crying foul after 5 years of engagement over this reform and the Draft CRZ 2010 edition.  

By disregarding the detailed submissions and objections to the content and process of reform, and by hiding behind an untouchable set of experts and bureaucrats, this ministry seems intent on letting down those who believed the minister, but also those who believed in the legacy of the Congress family.

(Aarthi Sridhar is a trained social worker and environmental researcher-activist. She heads the Dakshin Foundation. This is the fourth in her series on coastal commons, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)

Infochange News & Features, January 2011