ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Whose Seas, Whose Coasts?

Rehabilitation of fisherfolk should be a rights-based exercise and not mere tokenism.


For more than five years now, Mumbai’s local fisherfolk have been protesting against the controversial coastal road project on the grounds that the project will displace them of their generations-old livelihood. The conflict between the modern cityscape with its marginal inhabitants is nothing new to this city. In the 1980s, Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation—brought to court by the pavement dwellers to resist eviction of their habitat by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)—had led to the Supreme Court’s historic finding that the interpretation of the right to life, as in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, should be extended to the right to livelihood for “no person can live without the means of living.” However, within three decades of such a verdict, when uncertainties loom large over the indigenous ecology of several marine fishing communities, the ruling government—whether in the state or at the centre—is apathetic to their situation and has not intervened with any factual clarifications to assuage the tension, while the judiciary’s response to the situation is downright inimical.

At a hearing of the petition against the project filed by the Worli Koliwada Nakhwa and Worli Machimmar Sarvodaya Sahakari Society, the Bombay High Court has held the state government accountable for failing to come up with a rehabilitation plan for the fishers, but, ironically, not for pushing a project that has brought the community to a point of vulnerability that has necessitated their rehabilitation. While the fundamental issue at this hour should be to explore those checks and balances in the democracy that can restrain this aggressive capitalist encroachment on people’s lives and livelihoods, the high court’s earnestness for rehabilitation is an implicit acceptance of the inevitability of such aggression. This is not only a violation of the spirit of democracy, but also of the essence of “rehabilitation,” which should be a safeguard against the expedient contravening of people’s constitutional rights by governments and not a sop for allowing it.

Here is the most expensive infrastructure project of the country, with a record high unit cost of ₹ 1,200 crore per kilometre (km), but no functionality beyond electoral rhetoric. Whether this corridor can “decongest” the city roads is a black box given that the proposal of this project is not based on any extensive transport survey. If decongesting road traffic is the real intention, then why not first expedite the completion of the metro rail work across the city? The coastal road cannot be considered a silver bullet for the city’s infrastructural issues, which are not only varied but often mutually exclusive. For instance, if citizens must benefit from easy connectivity via the coastal roads, they must endure the degradation of their city’s inter-tidal ecology almost as a natural corollary.

These hard choices, however, cannot be explained away simply as dilemmas of development. Evidences of coastal development in this country over the past two decades, and particularly in the last five years, indicate that such trade-offs are the result of an emerging partisan politics of welfare, which is characterised by a brazen display of corporate clientelism. From Gujarat to Kerala, vast stretches of the coastal lands are under corporate control through the state-abetted circumvention of regulations, especially in the name of special economic zone (SEZ), and the coastal regulation zone (crz) or the coastal management zone (CMZ) schemes. On the one hand, this encroachment has ousted traditional fishing communities from their ancestral lands, while on the other, a number of extractive industrial and construction activities in these zones are jeopardising their conventional livelihood.

Simultaneously, it is hard to dismiss how the government policies, camouflaged by the rhetoric of “blue economy,” have “de-commonised” the sea and displaced the traditional (local) institutions of fisheries management. With the corporate-friendly policies framing the seas and the coasts as the new frontiers of economic opportunity and growth, private takeover of the marine resources is progressively squeezing out traditional fisherfolk from their native fishing grounds.

Yet, be it the CMZ or the SagarMala, all schemes of the current government having to do with the fishery sector either make cursory or rhetorical references to the “blue economy.” Neither do these schemes or policy documents provide any comprehensive guidelines for the promised breakthrough, nor do they recognise the inherent heterogenity of the sector, for in doing so the government will have to face disconcerting questions on the eviction of the original inhabitants of the land in the name of “development.” In such a context, “rehabilitation” can gag those voices of concern that hold the government accountable for its failure to ensure the fundamental rights of its citizens.

Updated On : 19th Mar, 2019


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