The social and economic problems related to acquisition of private property have gained much media attention in recent years. The debates have shown that government decisions over property are not the last word. However, what has been far less stated is how the government deals with lands that are not under individual ownership.
Coastal common lands
A big part of India’s development story unfolds in what is called common lands, popularly known as the ‘commons’. They come in myriad forms such as forests, grasslands, riverbeds or wetlands and have been sustained and used over several generations of communities for grazing, fishing and collecting forest produce and leaf litter for farms. Socio-legal studies on common property resources (CPR) describe the commons as spaces or natural resources self-governed by communities through elaborate rules of allocation, use, management and conservation. The sophistication of these forms of collective property regimes was lost on the government as many of these areas were categorised as wastelands or ‘empty’ lands. Over time, these lands were brought under the jurisdiction of various administrative departments who fragmented and reallocated them to other more intensive uses.
According to Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), various research studies have enumerated that commons constitute 15-25% of India’s landmass. This may be far greater if coastal commons or lands along the 6000-km coastline of peninsular India are added to the database. As V Vivekanandan, an expert on fisheries management puts it, coastal commons begin where agriculture and private property ends. A densely populated zone that packs in 3,300 fishing villages, their boats, nets, fish drying plots and burial grounds, India’s coasts have practically no free space and no boundaries. Even today, fisher communities, salt makers and coastal graziers reside on the edge of land and sea or along creeks and backwaters sharing this vast, complex ecosystem. Coastal governance researchers of Dakshin Foundation emphasise that the use and management of these areas is often “hidden to actors outside the community” as they are undocumented and not codified in formal law. As a result, large stretches of coastal lands have been taken over by institutions such as Maritime Boards, state forest departments and revenue administration.
The present government has evinced interest in these coastal commons like no other before. Their commitment to the ‘Sagarmala’ project aims to bring an investment of Rs 8 lakh crore by parcelling out these lands to over 400 private projects. As of October 2017, there were at least 1,800 infrastructure and coastal projects approved by the environment ministry. Between 2005-16, more than 1.2 lakh hectares of land were officially diverted for 694 projects under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification. Even though the CRZ law is meant to regulate land use on the coast, it has mostly operated as an approval granting system in the absence of any prioritization of land use.
The 2011 CRZ law made it mandatory for all coastal states to prepare revised Coastal Zone Management Plans (CZMPs). CZMPs are critical documents by which the existing coastal land use can be ascertained and recognised. Fisher groups believe that once fishing villages and common use areas are mapped out, they will be able to claim their due rights to these lands. But the government has extended the timeline for the finalisation of these maps at least five times. What is worse, State Coastal Zone Management Authorities (SCZMA) have been approving projects on these lands on a case-to-case basis. The direct outcome of this has been that fisher and other coastal communities have been in direct opposition to these “development” projects.
Mapping coastal lands
On November 22, in response to a petition, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered SCZMAs to submit their CZMPs by April 31, 2018, and the environment ministry is to approve them by July 31, 2018. The NGT rightly observed that granting approvals without such a plan would defeat the purpose of the law. But to hurry through such a crucial exercise would undercut the rights of coastal residents. In Karnataka, villagers and researchers have found that entire villages and mangrove forests are missing from the draft maps. In West Bengal, the state government did not provide enough opportunity to review these plans. In Tamil Nadu, activists have refused to comment on the plan as its language and format makes it impossible to do so.
These first efforts to make visible and officially recognise the thick relations between coastal ecologies and human communities require careful work. The process would also generate profound testimonies of what years of privatisation and extraction of the coastal commons has done to the lives of those who depend on its resources. A short cut process will only legitimise more coastal grabbing, cause more conflicts and the permanent loss of these time-tested social tenures.
The authors are with the CPR Namati Environment Justice Programme. Views expressed are personal