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Vol. XXXIV No. 4, June 1-15, 2024

NGT puts a halt CMDA’s 100 crore shoreline restoration project, asks it to obtain approval

-- by Varsha V.

Following concerns of environmental damage, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has prohibited the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority from proceeding with its shoreline development project without obtaining an approval from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The mammoth Rs. 100 crore initiative was conceived to enable the city to make better use of its long, natural shoreline by connecting fragmented portions of beaches through esplanades that would serve as public spacesto nourish art and culture. However, the project has given rise to concerns at its onset. According to media reports, activists have criticized it for levelling sand dunes and conducting digging in the nesting grounds of Olive Ridley turtles; it is also said that construction debris is being dumped on the site. The NGT has now set a mandate that the Union Ministry of Environment must first identify the beaches that are to be developed under this project, and that no further project activity is to be undertaken until such time. The CMDA is also to receive Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) clearance from the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Disaster Management as the beaches fall under the CRZ II category.

The turn of events are a bit of a surprise given that sustainable development has been touted as a key component from the project’s very beginning, going by news reports. Chennai Shoreline Renourishment and Revitalisation Project Ltd, the special purpose vehicle created to execute this project, states that its aim is to develop a 30 kilometer stretch from Marina beach to Kovalam beach so as to qualify for Blue Flag certification – a highly sought after credential for high environmental and quality standards in beaches and marinas. A report about the project in The Hindu back in 2022 mentions that apart from creating infrastructure along the coastline, the plan would also focus on environmental concerns such as pollution mitigation and the preservation of flora and fauna; in fact, the initiative seems to have been publicised following the Blue Flag accreditation of Kovalam beach in 2021. Given the above, the allegations of environmental damage makes one wonder.

It must be noted at this juncture that the CMDA is denying that sand dunes were levelled at all. The Times of India carried a statement from CMDA Member Secretary Anushal Mishra asserting that the coastal dune landscape was not levelled, but only flat terrain, and that the work was undertaken under the Integrated Coastal Community Development project to create public facilities such as pedestrian walkways, play areas, seating, toilets and food courts. The construction material too was declared to be eco-friendly and approved by the technical evaluation committee and the district coastal zone management authority. Mr Anshul added that the beaches already qualify for Blue Flag certification with regard to water quality, safe swimming zones, cleanliness and safety. CMDA is in the process of seeking approval from the MoEFCC as mandated; it is said that they expect to receive a positive response soon.

As for the CRZ approvals, past media reports show that the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Management Authority had returned the proposal with a note that these activities were not permissible in the area; activist K. Saravanan has been quoted saying that the body went beyond its statutory mandate when it suggested that CMDA makes an attempt to qualify for Blue Flag certification.

For the moment, the CMDA has been given permission to clear encroachments and engage in cleanliness drives.

In all, the shoreline development project appears to be a bit of a jumble. An unskeptical evaluation of the matter suggests a disappointing lack of planning to identify and align stakeholders affected by the project. Not only are there a plethora of government bodies to coordinate with, but there are also key public groups that seem to have been left unconsulted at the planning stage – environmental experts could have been given a seat at the table given the ecological sensitivity of the project; so too could members of the fishing community have been accommodated, given that they depend on the coastline for their livelihoods. As activist G. Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal points out in a quote to the Times of India, the project must clearly demarcate fisherman areas to ensure that their residences are unaffected, and areas remain to park their nets and boats, and dry their fish. He asks for a public consultation, which is a more than reasonable demand.

As always, neither the complaints nor the demands are startingly new when it comes to civil projects. It is a mystery as to why planning – especially in big ticket, sensitive projects – is conducted without making the effort to involve members of the public, affected community and field experts. Part of the criteria for Blue Flag certification seems to be environmental awarness and education, as well as sutainable tourism practices; one would think that public engagement is necessary to meet these standards in any case. It remains to be seen if the project will open itself to public concerns and suggestions.

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