Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

86. Ecological Dynamics in the East Coast and the Alternative Approach

Sunny Jose & Gilbert Rodrigo
LRSA, Chengalpattu

The East Coast region of India, which constitutes half of the Indian coast - from Calcutta to Kanyakumari - is known for its mangrove forests and river beds which are rich in biodiversity. Two large brackish water lagoons of India, the Chilka lake in Orissa State and the Pulicat lake bridging Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh States are significant features of this region. Another unique advantage to this region is that 70 per cent of India's total mangrove forests is lying in the east coast. The ever fertile estuaries of West Bengal, thanks to the perennial rivers, add up the biodiversity of this region.

This coastal region is blessed with a number of estuaries, lagoons, deltas, creeks, salt-marshes, sanctuaries and coral reefs which are rare and unique in nature. This coastal ecosystem serves as a natural breeding ground and habitat for various species of fishes, protects the coast from the ravages of storms and inhibits erosion. Further, this coast, wedded to a unique topography, shelters 40 lakhs and feeds millions of people through fishery and agriculture.

The fishing communities, through generations of interactions with the sea and other elements in the nature have played a significant role in protecting and preserving the ecosystems. Over the centuries they have amassed a vast fund of knowledge, about resources in their immediate vicinity and developed a variety of technologies tailored to the specific ecological niches along the coast. This accounts for the lack of a single maritime fishing tradition in India and hence for the immense diversity of the local fishing techniques in the country, the hall mark of which has been their ecological sophistication rather than techno-economic efficiency (1).

Therefore, the close and traditional dependence of many indigenous and local communities embodying traditional life styles on biological resources (2) were universally recognised. It is unfortunate that the Government considers coastal development synonymous to technological development and industrialization. As a result, the new export - oriented development projects mushrooming along the coast endanger the fragile coastal ecosystem and threaten the livelihood of the communities dependent on these ecosystems. Most of these development projects are decided by centralized bureaucratic apparatus and are implemented with the monetary and technical assistance from the multinational agencies.

These development projects are to fetch baskets of foreign exchange by catering to the growing consumer needs of the developed nations in total disregard of the environmental and ecological depletion. The quick profit-making compulsions inherent in the situation juxtaposed over the unchangeable nature of resources distribution at sea, will combine to ensure a ruin of fishery resources. Central to the pursuit of profit is the crisis of ecology (3). It is, therefore a matter of deep concern that the developmental path pursued by the policy-makers for the so-called betterment of local communities depletes their flora and fauna, alienates the communities from the diminishing resources and threatens the very survival of the coastal communities and the ecology as well.

New Development

The fact that India being part of the globalization process, has necessitated the increase of industrial houses, from petrochemicals to aqua farms. The gigantic developments that are coming up at much velocity in the East Coast, as a part of the new development paradigm, have mystified and dumbfounded the local communities. The East Coast Road, a 737 km long coastal highway connecting Chennai and Kanyakumari which is being built as a parallel to NH45 of Tamil Nadu, shrimp farms in 11 coastal districts, licensing the deep sea fishing vessels, chemical and petro-chemical industries, pharmaceutical companies, numerous beach-resorts and star hotels are a few so-called development projects came up along the 1000 km long coastline of Tamil Nadu owing to the liberal licensing and other sorts of encouragement of the State Government. The access to considerable amount of ground water, proximity to harbours and availability of sea to dispose untreated and partly treated effluents are reasons for preferring the sea coast.

It, therefore stands to reason that this new policy is fueled by motivations and considerations which are obviously intended to favour a few but are wrapped up in the packaging of liberalization and free market ideology which is being touted as the only path left to solve our problems (4). It is worth mentioning that the Industrial Profile of Tamil Nadu 1985, Department of Statistics reports that there were 12,000 industries in Tamil Nadu; of this 5,500 were situated in coastal districts and 2500 were situated near the coast. And the ultimate object behind this whole development strategy is to develop the coastal region and the communities from their backwardness.

The Outcome

An efficiency audit is a sine qua non to assess the real outcome of this new development process. The net result of this development strategy, manifested through the appalling scenario of the communities and the resources, questions the very validity of these policies. And the danger signals are already all too apparent.

The rapid development and expansion of intensive aquaculture for shrimp has resulted in wide spread degradation of the environment, alienation of thousands of acres of arable lands, salination of ground water, high levels of toxic pollution of water bodies and destruction of coastal ecosystem. Two of India's best mangroves, in Pichavaram and Muthupet will be threatened by the East Coast Road. Also in danger would be rare evergreen coastal forests near Marakkanam in South Arcot district, which are within 100m of the East Coast Road (5). The pumping of untreated and partly treated chemical effluents, fly ash and thermal wastes by the industries cause irreparable damages to the marine lives and leads to their extinction.

These developments to a meager percentage have been providing employment opportunities and increased the land value. They, on the contrary have been causing havoc to the coastal communities for whom these developments are meant. The marine pollution on the one hand and the large scale exploitation of the fishery resources by the deep sea vessels on the other, lessen the average daily income of the fisherfolk and threatens their livelihood. The large scale conversion of agricultural lands into aquafarms make the agricultural labourers and small peasants jobless and the alienation continues.

Given the state of India's environment and its unequal socio- political context, it is not surprising that ecosystem distress and the handicaps of the people affected are increasingly being expressed in the form of open social conflicts (6). A development pattern which was supposed to have been the furtherance of the poor is now left with the extinction of their common resources and severing the sources of their livelihood as well.

Contributory Factors

The ignorance of the policy makers about the ground realities, undermining the direct and intimate closeness between the communities and their common resources, over-ridding the community's rights to livelihood by the craving for foreign exchange currency, antipathy to environmental concerns and the negligent attitude of the Government in not considering the right of the coastal communities to be integrated in the process of planning and implementation and violating the few established guidelines are a few factors which contribute towards the vulnerability of environmental economics.

Our planners are less concerned about the ecological consequences and the innate implications on the lives of the various communities per se, rather they are far more concerned with the sole aim of promoting the economic growth. Ecological negligence is an integral part of their development perception. Undoubtedly this will lead to dire consequences if we fail to arrest this disastrous trend.

Needed - A Holistic Approach

Huge centralized programs, global initiatives, and other `top down' solutions will never suffice to restore and protect the health of the animate earth (7). Any such constructive initiative of prevention and possible restoration of the ecology should emerge through the active involvement of the coastal communities. A rights-oriented approach would treat them differently as subjects who have rights over their environment and their knowledge, and who should have a decisive voice in any planning process affecting their lives. This would necessarily include the right to veto any commercial exploitation of their resources and knowledge, and where the use of the same is allowed, the right to determine the manner and purpose of such use (8).

It is therefore, our prime responsibility to respect and accord higher priority to livelihood rights than the profit centred commercial activities. Further, the Government on its part should develop a sui generis system of intellectual rights which protects the interests of the local communities and of the nation as a whole which can counter the increasing monopolization of resources and knowledge by the private sector (9).

On the contrary, if we destroy more forests, burn more garbage, drift-net more fish, burn more coal, bleach more paper, destroy more topsoil, poison more insects, build ever more habitats, dam more rivers, produce more toxic and radioactive waste, we are creating a vast industrial machine, not for living in, but for dying in. It is a war that only a few more generations can survive (10). It, however, needs to be echoed that if we are able to conserve the present ecology as it is today for our next generations - let alone develop it, it will be really a no mean achievement. The ethical consciousness is quintessential to ensure that the earth continues to be fit for human survival and perpetuation.

1. John Kurien, Fisheries and People : Usurping the Coastal Commons. The Hindu Survey of Indian Environment 1995.
2. Preamble, Convention of Biological Diversity published in the Vikalp Vol. V.No.4, 1996.
3. John Kurien : Impact of Joint Ventures on Fish Economy, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol.No.XXX, February 11, 1995.
4. lbid.
5. Asha Krishnakumar , Endangered Ecology, Frontline April 9, 1993.
6. Mohan Rao: Whither India's Environment, Economic & Political Weekly, No.13, April 1,1995.
7. David Abraham, Spell of the Sensuous, Earth Ethics, Spring/Summer 1996.
8. R.V.Anuradha, Local Indigenous Communities Under the Convention of Biological Diversity, Vikalp, Vol. V.No.4, 1996.
9. Ashish Kothari, The BiodiversityConvention, Implication for India, and Option for Action, Vikalp, Vol.V,No.4, 1996.
10. William McDonough, Modern Design Systems Unfriendly to Ecology. Third World Network Features, November 1996.
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