Coastal Displacement in the Indian Subcontinent: Policy Analysis

The anthropogenic forcing of greenhouse gases has turned out to be a dominant force propelling sea level rise. Sea levels in the 20th century have been rising at an average rate of 0.06m per decade.¹ The Indian subcontinent is highly vulnerable to threats arising from sea level rise given its demography. The country has a coastline that runs for 7,500 square kilometres. These coastal regions are home to about 170 million people.² Between 1996 and 2016, approximately 236 square kilometres of land was lost to coastal erosion placing people’s livelihoods in jeopardy. Based on a government report published in 2016, around 45.5% of India’s coastline has been affected by erosion of varying magnitudes.³ The coastal erosion problem is a complex effect of various natural processes working in the coastal zone and sometimes beyond it. According to recent scientific predictions, 36 million Indians are likely to be living in areas experiencing chronic flooding by 2100.⁴ Increasing climate-induced calamities and accelerating levels of erosion have called for intervention and support from the government in securing the livelihoods of coastal communities.  Existing policies in the country address displacement from rapid-onset disasters such as monsoons and cyclones under disaster reduction and rehabilitation policies. However, displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion are yet to find a place at the policy level. With the intensity and frequency of disasters increasing in the future, we require a foresighted national-level policy on managed retreat and adaptation in India. This paper analyses existing policies and suggests possible adaptation interventions that will help the nation deal better with the problem of coastal displacement. 

We realize that coastal erosion is an extensive and multi-dimensional problem for a vast country like ours. The Indian government has put in place policies, laws and committees to tackle climate change and climate-induced disasters. The main policy measures concerning coastal protection and management in India include the Disaster Management Act of 2005 that has a section dedicated to coastal protection and disaster management and the west coast policies to tackle coastal erosion. The Act provides for the establishment of several statutory bodies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, State Disaster Management Authorities and District Disaster Management Authorities. It also includes advisory committees, executive committees and sub-committees under the government. The Act lists out the action plan for governments during or post a rapid-onset disaster. It also puts together provisions that allow for the creation of relief funds and their usage during emergencies. The act is inadequate along several lines. The presence of numerous committees and the overlap of duties among authorities mentioned in the Act greatly reduces accountability. Further, the coordination among these bodies appears to be very cumbersome. Disasters cannot be effectively dealt with only through the government’s administrative setup. Even then the role of local authorities and communities in coastal management and protection has been greatly overlooked. The Indian Act also fails to recognize the need for identifying and using traditional knowledge and working together with NGOs.

Efforts are being made to counter the menace of coastal erosion and protect our coasts using both traditional approaches ( hard structures like Seawall, etc.) and the new, innovative soft measures like dune rehabilitation. Policies to curb coastal erosion on the west coast of the country have dealt with structural or hard measures such as the construction of seawalls, revetment, offshore breakwater, groynes/spurs and soft measures like offshore reefs and artificial headlands. Soft measures are usually more effective in the long run when compared to hard measures. Seawalls and other coastal engineering structures end up obstructing the littoral drift of sand and sediment, thus, causing erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structure. In the end, they do not prevent erosion as they only transfer the problem further north of the east coast.⁵ The impact of these hard options on neighbouring coastlines create a situation where hard structures are then required in these new areas creating a vicious cycle. An example of such a spiralling effect is the seawall construction in Kerala  (a state government initiative to curb coastal erosion) and its impact on Karnataka’s coastline. The Kerala government has spent around 310 crores building seawalls along its coast.6 Of the 560 km coastline of Kerala, the state has constructed a seawall for 386 km. The government had sought funding assistance to wall the remaining 92 km and demanded INR 2.16 billion from the Centre. Seawalls along the coast of Kerala did help in preventing coastal erosion but as mentioned earlier the littoral drift was obstructed, accelerating erosion rates of the coastline along the state of Karnataka. Groynes suffer from a similar limitation. These man-made structures protruding into the oceans are known to cause accretion on the southern side and erosion on the northern side. Beach nourishment has proved attainable by methods of re-vegetation with temporary offshore breakwaters/artificial reefs. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for marine biodiversity to flourish. 

The west coast policies and the Disaster Management Act (2005) focus on mitigation measures mainly undertaken by the government thus alienating local communities from related coastal work. It is important to shift our focus from mitigation to adaptation. Intervention and policies for adaptation are extremely crucial given two main reasons. We cannot mitigate sea-level rise. Even if we drastically cut down emissions, experts concluded that global mean sea-level would rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meters) above 1992 levels by 2100. With high rates of emissions, sea-level rise would be much higher but was unlikely to exceed 6.6 feet higher than 1992 levels. Hence, it is more important to facilitate adaptation than mitigating impacts of sea-level rise. Adaptation policies focusing on alternative livelihoods, social security nets, preemptive retreat and social infrastructure will greatly enhance the resilience capacity of communities thereby enabling better response to a crisis. Existing policies in India address post-disaster management or displacement stemming from rapid-onset disasters but displacement due to slow-onset disasters such as coastal erosion is yet to find a place in Indian policy. Slow onset events are impacting lives and livelihoods leading to the weakening of a community’s resilience. It is important to identify vulnerable areas and build the capacity of local communities to efficiently manage future crises and prevent large scale life and material loss. The second reason comes from the unpredictability that haunts us. Climate change is complex because every system disturbance sets in motion positive and negative feedback. Interactions of various levels create unpredictable events and large scale destruction. The unpredictable nature of climate change and lag is a lesson to build resilience rather than focus on measures that only handle rehabilitation post-disaster. 

Shining a ray of hope on this oncoming crisis is the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, focusing on better protection, conservation, rehabilitation, management and policy design of the coast. NCSCM aims to support integrated management of coastal and marine environments for livelihood security, sustainable development and hazard risk management by enhancing knowledge, research and advisory support, partnerships and network and coastal community interface. NCSCM has the resources for data monitoring and the mission has started on a good note by tackling the issue of defining High Tide Lines (HTL) and putting forward revised regulations for keeping a check on polluting industries/activities and construction activity along critical coastal areas. Though the vision of this institutional regime is applaudable, little has been done on the ground. The notification though uses terminologies like sustainable development, sustainable livelihood, ecologically and culturally sensitive coastal resources, fails to detail the implementation strategies for each of them.⁷ The mission stands great potential in developing into the institutional setup that India needs in developing and implementing adaptation interventions. However, this is conditional on its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals on environmental sustainability and its focus on the long term impacts of all developmental work in the coastal zones of the country. 

Coastal communities are directly impacted by climate impacts causing declining productivity of fisheries and cultivation lands along the coasts. Existing measures do not help communities in dealing with economic losses. Understanding threats to the economic and social well being of the communities underlines the need for adaptation policies that will help reduce the climate vulnerability of communities and enhance their ability to flexibly adapt to changing conditions. Policies which create alternate livelihood opportunities, social infrastructure, planned retreat, and community involved coastal management need to find a place in India’s climate legislations.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

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