Every amendment made to the CRZ without public debate undermines a social contract between the central and state government, unions and interest groups to protect the social and ecological future of our coastlines.
The much-altered Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) has been altered once more. This time, an amendment does away with the requirement of prior environmental clearance – which means that construction can begin without clearance as a “violation,” and clearance can be sought later to “regularise” the violation. This however is possible only for permissible activities.
This relaxation has unsettled many environmentalists, but such amendments to the CRZ, a law originally created to protect the sensitive coastal areas, are notoriously commonplace.
In 2016, the Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) designated the Mahim and Backbay areas in Mumbai as “bays” rather than as “shoreline”. In one stroke, this semantic innovation reduced the 500-metre CRZ in these areas to 100 meters, clearing the way for numerous luxury residential and commercial projects that were otherwise disallowed.
In a city surrounded by water, this reclassification increased permissible development intensity on thousands of hectares of coastal land. Environmentalists decried it as a “bonanza for builders” as the construction of millions of square meters will now be possible, with all its associated ecological impact on the city. Semantics often have real-world implications.
The CRZ can be traced back to the Environmental Protection Act of 1986. Introduced in 1991 to regulate activities along the coast, the zone includes intertidal areas as well as a rather arbitrary 500-meter landward stretch beyond the high-tide line. It also includes 100 meters on both sides of rivers, creeks and backwaters that experience tidal effects of the sea. One of the communities that wholeheartedly supported the notification when it was introduced were the fisherfolk, who had undertaken numerous campaigns at the national level to resist commercial developments along the coast that impacted their livelihoods.