As Kerala succumbs to the sea, the Indian government ramps up coastal construction

Mary Punitha Vasantha stands in front of her severely damaged house in Valiyathura, Kerala on 11 September 2018. (Rejimon Kuttappan)

Between June and August this year, the southern Indian state of Kerala experienced the heaviest rainfall it had seen in over a century. More than a million people were displaced, over 400 people died, and an estimated US$3.7 billion worth of damage was sustained. But the environmental destruction of the area around India’s Arabian Sea coastline has been taking place for years.

In 1989, when Mary Punitha Vasantha moved to Valiyathura, a fishing village in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, the sea was about 100 metres away from her house on the shore. “There were three lines of houses in front of us,” she tells Equal Times. “Our children used to play football on the shore. But year by year, the high tide waves started to swallow the beach. Now, all the three lines houses have been washed away.” A few months ago, Mary’s home was partially destroyed by the sea.

According to Valiyathura’s local councillor, some 200 houses have been lost to the sea or damaged in the past year. Even part of the offices of the Valiyathura branch of the National Centre of Earth Science Studies – a government unit focused on environmental conservation and the management of natural hazards – was almost levelled by sea erosion that took place between June and July 2018. The locals, who mainly make their living by fishing, now have to anchor their boats far away from where they have been relocated to, with the increased transport costs affecting their incomes.

Those who lost their houses have been moved into ‘temporary’ shelters in nearby schools. Forty-six-year-old Esabel James watched as her home was swallowed up by the sea on 16 July. Although she says the government has offered her a home far from the shoreline, she has been living with her family of seven in a school shelter camp that houses about 150 people ever since. She has no idea when she will be given the keys to her new home.

“Life is horrible here in this shelter camp. At least five big families must survive in one small class room. Most of the time there is no power or water. I don’t know how long this uncertainty will continue,” she says despairingly.

There are a number of families who have been living in the school for much longer. “We lost our homes some four years ago,” says Meena Rajan. “We were moved to this school by the government, who promised us a better house. But still we are waiting. Our men go for work from here. We cook here and we sleep here. Our children are growing here without proper care.”

Manmade or natural shoreline loss?

Beaches along Kerala’s 580-kilometre coastline face erosion during the South-West Monsoon months of May to September and the North-East Monsoon between December and January.

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During this time, high-tide waves drag soil away from the shore. After the monsoon is over, low tide waves bring back the eroded sediment and soil.

The cyclical process of erosion and accretion should ensure that the beaches remain intact. However, as the sea becomes more and more violent due to climate change and man-made activities, less and less sediment is returned by the waves, which narrows the width of the beach.

According to Dr RS Kankara, a scientist at the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR), beach erosion is a chronic problem across India.

A report prepared by Kankara and his team using satellite mapping and shared exclusively with Equal Times reveals that almost one-third of India’s 6,632km coastline was lost to erosion between 1990 and 2016.

It also reveals that more than 40 per cent of coastal erosion in India takes place in four states: West Bengal has lost 63 per cent of its coastline, while Pondicherry has lost 57 per cent, Kerala has lost 45 per cent and Tamil Nadu 41 per cent.

Quoting MV Ramana Murthy, director of the NCCR, Indian financial daily LiveMint reportedthat coastal erosion has become a major threat for coastal populations and, without immediate steps taken, “the damage will be irreversible. Coastal populations will bear the maximum brunt, especially villages and recent habitations, including buildings, hotels and resorts which are at risk,” said Murthy.

Meanwhile, some local residents and climate experts are laying the blame for coastal erosion in Kerala (especially along the Thiruvananthapuram coast) primarily at the feet of manmade activities.

“The construction of a US$65m international [mutli-purpose] port in Vizhinjam, which is some 15km away from Mary’s damaged house in Valiyathura, is the main reason for shoreline loss around here,” says Joseph Vijayan, a social worker and local activist who fought a case in India’s apex court against the port project.

The construction of the port by Adani Ports, India’s largest private multi-port operator, began in December 2015 despite stiff resistance from locals and environmental campaigners.

The Vizhinjam Port should be completed by December 2019 – but by then, Joseph says, it will be too late. Already his says the livelihood of 30,000 local residents and fishermen is at stake due to the irreversible ecological damage being caused by the project.

“The construction of a small harbour in Vizhinjam some decades ago caused the shore where I once played football to disappear underwater. If building a small harbour caused that much damage, how much damage will an international port cause?” asks Joseph.

Mini Mohan, a fishing community campaigner, echoes Joseph’s views. “I have been a regular visitor to the coast for the last decade, and I am seeing the changes right in front of my eyes. During the last year, the changes have been drastic. A place I visited just three months ago has been eaten up by the waves. Poor fishermen suffer the first causality [of coastal erosion]: they not only lose their homes but they also lose their livelihoods,” she says.

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Although Adani Group were contacted several times via email and social media for comment, they did not respond by the time this story was published.

More erosion due to poor regulations

The publication of a new draft Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) law in April, has also raised serious concerns about the future of India’s coastline.

Issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the 2018 CRZnotification will make way for more construction on the coast and the easy implementation of several new government ventures which had previously failed to get environmental clearances.

One such venture is the multi-billion dollar Sagarmala mega-project, which will create six new mega ports as well as the modernisation a few dozen more in coastal areas across the country.

The project was finally adopted in April and plans to develop at least 14 Coastal Economic Zones (CEZ) and 29 Coastal Economic Units (CEU) are currently afoot.
In addition, the development of mines, industrial corridors, rail, road and airport connectivities to and from the ports is expected to yield an export revenue growth of US$110 billion.

The project is expected to generate over four million direct jobs and six million indirect jobs by 2025. But, activists are concerned that not only will local communities not see any real financial benefit from the project, but that they will also bear the brunt of the environmental degradation it will cause.

A significant modification suggested in the 2018 CRZ draft decreases the buffer zone area from the high-tide line from 500 metres (as per the 2011 draft) to just 50 metres away from the sea.

According to India’s National Fishworkers Forum General Secretary T Peter, this spells disaster. “The new coastal regulations have been drafted only for the easy implementation of the Sagarmala Project that was initially proposed in 2003,” he says, adding that the new CRZ was issued only to help industrialists, especially those in the tourism sector.

Mohan is also fearful of what intensified construction activities on the coast will bring. “In schools all over the coastal areas, there are shelter camps filled with ‘sea refugees’. We are only going to see more of them if we don’t protect the environment.”

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