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Sunita Narain: Where are the beaches?

Surreal beach sight: Half-smashed houses with fronts wide open, and people still living

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

We were on a beach, somewhere close to Puducherry. It was a surreal sight: half-smashed houses with fronts wide open, and people still living in them. The devastation was caused not by a sea storm or cyclone, but by the eroded beach. The sea had crept up to the village so there was no protection between the sea and the village.

Why was this happening, I asked. My guides were members of the Pondy Citizens’ Action Network (PondyCAN), which has worked tirelessly to draw the nation’s attention to beach erosion.

To understand this, we walked a little distance away from the devastated village. From the beach, I could see massive granite stones piled up to build a groyne stretching into the sea. This structure, constructed to protect villages from erosion, ends up protecting one village and destroying another, explained my guides.

But I could still not see the connection. How could one small structure like this change the coastal ecology? Civil engineer Probir Banerjee and marine engineer Aurofilio Schiavina explained that a beach is not just a lot of sand. “Beaches are rivers of sand” because each year sea waves transport huge quantities of sand from north to south and south to north. During the southwest monsoon, some 600,000 cubic metres of sand is moved towards the north. Also, during the three months of the northeast monsoon (when winds are fierce), as much as 100,000 cubic metres of sand gets transported towards the south across the eastern coasts of the country.

So beaches are living creatures — winds and waves bring sand in one season and take it away in another. My teachers further explained marine science: “Then, think of the groyne as a dam in a river which will block the movement of sand, not water.” In this case, the groyne has stopped the movement of sand to the beach ahead. Thus, the beach does not grow and when the wind changes, the monsoon gets fierce, and the sea moves in. There is no beach to protect the land beyond.

The lesson did not finish yet. Our next stop was the Puducherry harbour, with a breakwater making its way into the sea to protect boats. This structure, which was built in 1986, marked the beginning of devastating changes at the coast. Once the harbour was built, it first changed the beach closest to it — the beach along the city of Puducherry.

“I played on the beach as a child,” said V Narayanasamy, member of Parliament from Puducherry and minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office. “What beach?” I asked. All I could see for miles were black granite stones piled along the ocean promenade. By then it was evening. People had gathered to enjoy the beach and the sunset. But there was neither sand nor beach — only rocks.

All this had been lost in living memory in 15 to 20 years. People had lost their playground. More importantly, a city had lost its critical ecosystem, which would protect its land and recharge its groundwater. And fishermen had lost their livelihood.

But this is just the beginning, explained Mr Banerjee. This structure, small by modern standards of harbours or ports, has spun an entire chain of changes in the beach along the coast. The groyne that we saw earlier was built because the length of the coast stretching 10 to 20 km was now destablised. We could see piles of sand accumulated before the harbour, blocking way to regenerate the beaches. Now every beach needs a groyne and every groyne adds to the problem of the next beach.

Ports are interventions in the natural ecology of coasts. But we neither understand the impact nor worry about dealing with the damage. A few years ago, Puducherry woke up to the reality that its harbour required to be rebuilt and contracts and concessions were awarded to transform it into a massive port (some 20 million tonnes annually). The citizens’ group, which was against the project, went to the court. But the developer – who, strangely, had no experience in ports, and built shops and malls – is not letting go. This is a sweet deal, which brings real estate benefits since the port concession package comes with cheap city land for cost recovery.

In this stretch of some 600 km, you can count seven ports that exist and another three are proposed. This is when each existing port is not used to capacity and is still being upgraded big time. Then why are we building more ports? Is this development? Or land grab?

Interestingly, there is an absence of policy on siting and the number of ports in the country. The Central government knows only about “major” ports and leaves the rest – permission to locate and build other ports – to state governments. There is no distinction between a major port and a state port. It is just a matter of how many one can fit into the coast as fast, and as profitably, as possible. Nobody, therefore, knows how many ports are being built. Nobody cares about the cumulative impact on rivers of sand.

Surely, this cannot be called development. Can it?

sunita@cseindia.org  

First Published: Mon, May 09 2011. 00:56 IST
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