The Vishakhapatnam Urban Development Authority (VUDA) has initiated a major programme (The Swarnaandhra Theeram Project) to develop the recreational and tourist projects along the Vishakhapatnam-Bheemili coastal road. For this initiative to go forward, the expansion of the existing roadway between Vishakhapatnam and Bheemunipatnam is imperative. The envisaged development requires widening the 8 meter-wide route to a dual carriage-way 26 meters wide, and an additional 45 meters of accompanying development all along the existing transit connecting the fast growing metropolis, Vishakhapatnam, with the heritage centre of Bheemunipatnam. Construction of 35 tourist facilities is envisaged both on the landward as well as the seaward side of the roadway.
But already, the impacts of development, and in particular tourism, are already visible on the 28.5-kilometer Vishakhapatnam-Bheemili coastal road. There aren't many clean stops at which one can sit on a stretch of the beach and enjoy the sea, and this situation is much worse closer to resorts like Kartik Vanam, where even a twenty-minute walk will seem like one through a garbage dump in the making. A restaurant attendant at the Amoeba Food Park says, "we just throw the garbage in the sea"; it is easy to believe such disregard is typical.
It is within this context that one needs to view what the Swarnaandhra Theeram Project envisages. If what already passes for development along this route is anything like the beach tourism that is proposed for this project, the result will be nothing less than doom of this coastal stretch. In addition to the squalor near the resorts, are concerns over habitat and livelihoods. Destruction of the ecosystem here will severely impact the natural nesting grounds of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles that visit the coast. Also, the traditionally free access of the fisherfolk to the sea might be restricted, and there are real fears of them losing their traditional boat-resting sites. Violations of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, 1991, are also reported in the proposal.
All of these are the subject of an ongoing case before the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, filed on 9th January 2004 by the United Forum for the Protection of Environment and People's Livelihood Rights, a non-governmental organization, and by Bahar Dutt from New Delhi. The application highlights that the Vishakhapatnam urban beach extending from the Naval Coast Battery to VUDA Park is a very important nesting habitat for the Olive Ridley turtle. Ironically the presence of this endangered species is acknowledged on page 68 of the Report on Environmental Concerns commissioned by VUDA itself for the project. The application also presents the real fear of the local fisherfolk association losing its traditional fish drying grounds, an outcome that will have a direct negative impact on their livelihoods.
The legal issues
The petition highlights that cutting and blasting for construction is taking place in Chinagadila village, which includes areas designated as CRZ I in the approved Andhra Pradesh Coastal Zone Management Plan of 1996 (vide No. J 17011/40/95 IA-III Government of India, MoEF Division, New Delhi dated 27-9-1996). This area is popularly known as Kailashgiri. It has been alleged that VUDA has undertaken construction activity, cutting sand dunes and dumping waste in clear violation of the CRZ Notification of 1991.
The VUDA, in its reply, has denied all the allegations and has said that construction activity is being carried out only in a 2 km stretch which is not within the designated CRZ 1 area. The development authority is also attempting to draw its own comparatives, drawing attention away from the actual project. For instance, it has referred to a pending High Court case (W.P. No. 25078/2003) in this matter, and alleges that the petitioners have not included this information in their application. But the High Court matter they refer to does not deal with the Swarnaandhra Theeram Coastal Road project and makes no mention of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles.
The petitioners' rejoinder has raised some very interesting facts, including one from a meeting of the Andhra Pradesh Coastal Zone Management Authority on 24th January 2004. At this meeting, it was noted that the entire length of the road is passing through CRZ III except S.Nos 122 and 123 of Chinagadilla village which is classified as CRZ I. Further, the petitioners point to the CZMA's observation that "the straightening of the road is necessary as the road includes hairpin bends, and fatal accidents are a common occurrence along this stretch of the road. The reclassification into CRZ III is required ... in view of the essential nature of the project for the purpose of public convenience."
The timing of this raises eyebrows. How did the question of reclassification come up just three weeks after an application challenging the road project was filed in front of the Central Empowered Committee? In any event, reclassification will not reduce the fragility of the coastal stretch or wish away the access concerns of the traditional fisherfolk.
When it comes to the question of impacts on people's livelihoods, the expert team's report says the apprehension of the fishing community is that the growth of the tourism resorts and facilities would encroach upon traditional boat resting points and traditional fishing beaches. On this question, the report briefly but clearly points out that areas of community use need to be left out of the proposal for tourism promotion.
The VUDA's scheme is a reminder of a common problem in the development mantra that has taken hold around the country. The legalities of the proposal may be in doubt, the environment may be ravaged, and the livelihoods of the poor may be put at tremendous risk, but it is very rare for any of this to actually holds back this kind of 'progress'. Even in the few instances where courts are eventually able to assert themselves, it is a tedious process to get the checks and balances in the system to function as intended. One wonders how long and why we must live with this sad reality, where environmental and livelihood justice requires a long-drawn battle between nature and its 'developers'.