Roads on Stilts: exploiting an ambiguous CRZ notification

Chennai: Selvi, 35, who ekes out a meager living by selling milk to the residents of Besant Nagar, feels threatened by the proposed elevated expressway from Chennai’s Marina Beach to Kottivakkam. Her fear is that the proposed road will force her to vacate her house, which is in the slum on the fringes of the Eliot’s beach, and complains that there is no proper rehabilitation plan in the sight.

This elevated expressway also faced opposition from various social groups. The shop owners and residents of Besant Nagar complain that because of this project, sound and air pollution will increase. Apart from pollution, Sanjeevan Suryanarayanan, who owns a garment shop on the beach, is apprehensive that real estate prices will fall drastically, as the beach front property will be devalued due to the disturbance created by vehicles, plying on the road throughout the day.

Another notable community that opposes the proposal consists of environmental activists. Siddharth, an active member of ‘Reclaim our Beaches’ (ROB), says that this project threatens the fragile estuarine ecosystem along with the endangered Olive Riddle Turtles which migrate annually to Chennai’s beaches. He is of the opinion that the main benefactors of this venture are the ones who can afford to buy a four-wheeler, as public transport will not be allowed on the road. With a construction of this magnitude, which hugs the seashore, the process of the construction is bound to pollute the sea, and the migrant workers who have to camp on the beaches, will only aggravate the situation to the detriment of the environment. “With the track record of Chennai authorities in constructing mega projects, we can safely assume that this project will wreak havoc to the fragile ecology for five to ten years at least” he laments.

Vaishnavi, of ‘Transparent Chennai’ says that the major source of the problem in this issue is the lack of clarity in the existing regulations. The present guidelines which are published under Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ) notification in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part-II, Section 3, Sub-section (ii) of dated the September 15, 2010, does not help clarify the issue. The exemption provided in the notification says that ‘Roads on Stilts’ can be allowed to be built in the CRZ area. The initial exemption was incorporated by the policy makers to allow roads on stilts to avoid disturbing/ destruction of mangroves. But since the regulation is not specific about the exemption, it is being misinterpreted.

The problem of lack of clarity is endemic to the CRZ notification since its inception in 1991. Since the guidelines are only published in the Gazetteof India, and not enacted as a law, there was hardly any discussion on the subject. Manju Menon with her co-authors, in an article in Economic and Political Weekly, says that even though the 1991 notification was welcomed by all the stakeholders, lack of administrative will and pre-occupation with economic reforms resulted in government neglecting the implementation of this notification in good faith. This lack of clarity resulted in a flurry of public interest litigations in various courts.

The Supreme Court in an Order dated April 19, 1993 in Writ Petition No.664 of 1993, directed the Central Government and the coastal States that ‘there is 6000 km long coastline of India and it is the responsibility of coastal States and Union territories in which these stretches exists to see that both the notifications are compiled with and enforced.’ This and various legal litigations forced government to amend the notification time and again along with the setting up of various committees which finally resulted in Draft CRZ 2010 notification. But Menon in her article says, “…. The notification is misleading since the Swaminathan Committee report (on which the present notification relies heavily) is not a widely accepted document devoid of controversy. It falls short on several counts and the absence of citizen participation in its drafting has been a serious concern since its objectives have far-reaching implications. Pro-industry influences are evident in the Swaminathan Committee report.”

When contacted by this correspondent about the proposed elevated expressway, a deputy director in Department of Environment, Governmentof Tamilnadu, was reluctant to identify himself, but shared some information off-the-record. He said that his department did not receive any proposal to build an elevated expressway, nor was any clearance ever granted. Instead, he said that a 169 km circular road, parts of which are elevated and would cover the land falling under CRZ, covering Chennai is under consideration.  He was of the view that it is highly impractical to refuse development projects on the grounds of ecological considerations, particularly in Chennai and that there has to be a balance between both public welfare and ecological concerns.

But the problem of uncertainty in the notification still exists. The information that there was no expressway proposal, as conveyed by the official, on the one hand and the misinformed activists on the other, shows the lack of clear dialog between government and the stake holders. With increasing population, the pressure on the natural resources is bound to increase. Enacting a law by the central government after wider consultation and citizen participation, may remove the ambiguity and potential conflict between various stake-holders, resulting in better management of the fragile ecology.

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