On Land And At Sea, Indian Fishermen Fight For Their Future


Sonali Prasad is a freelance journalist based in India.

VASCO DA GAMA, India — On a humid February morning in a port city not far from some of India’s most famous beaches, Dilip Khobrekar stood in the shadow of a partially built highway flyover and looked at what remained of his home: a jumble of sheet metal and fishing nets.

Khobrekar, 37, was evicted along with hundreds of others in his small fishing community after the government determined that their homes were built in a restricted zone too close to the water.

“I feel orphaned,” he told The WorldPost, his gaze shifting from the rubble of his home to the highway construction underway nearby. Khobrekar and his family now find shelter at his sister’s home down the road, hoping for relief or compensation from the government to come their way.

India’s government regulates construction along the country’s coastline, which in many places is eroding because of rising sea levels and storms made worse by climate change. A no-development zone tightly limits what can be built near the shoreline. In January this year, a few months before his party was reelected with a strong majority in parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the coastal development rules to make it easier to build close to the ocean by shrinking the no-development zone to a fraction of its former size. The change opened the door for new construction projects closer to the ocean, in particular for the Modi administration’s ambitious coastal development plan, Sagarmala, which aims to create millions of jobs and boost economic growth through maritime trade and infrastructure over the next few years.

As a part of the plan, the authorities aim to expand a large port here in Vasco da Gama, which will mean more imports of coal and “liquid cargo” like oil and chemicals. The government, which did not respond to The WorldPost’s requests for comment, asserts that the new development rules will “conserve and protect the unique environment of coastal stretches and marine areas” and “promote sustainable development” that takes global warming under consideration.

But fishermen like Khobrekar are furious that the new rules could make it easier for concrete, pollution and infrastructure to take over India’s beaches not long after their own homes were demolished, and they worry that increased port traffic and pollution will threaten livelihoods and the coast’s fragile ecosystems. On numerous occasions in recent years, hundreds of fishermen and others living near the ocean in Goa have been found guilty of violating coastal development rules, even as major real-estate and development projects near the ocean are given the green light. In 2015, bulldozers and a parade of policemen in khaki uniforms arrived to raze Khobrekar’s house and scores of others here in Vasco da Gama. Many families whose homes have been destroyed haven’t received compensation or been relocated.

In February, I joined a bus convoy from Vasco to Margao, a city a few miles from the coast in Goa, where fishermen and activists were assembling to protest the government’s relaxation of the coastal development restrictions. There were separate buses for men and women; on the women’s’ bus, ladies sat scrunched up next to each other, some riding in the laps of others, the metallic trim on their colorful saris and floral headpieces glinting in the sunlight that streamed through the school bus windows. Some held eviction notices. Others stifled sobs with their handkerchiefs. Like Khobrekar, many had lost their homes.

A woman sells seafood at the local fish market in Vasco Da Gama, Goa. (Abijit Vivek for The WorldPost)

Goa, India’s smallest state, is situated on the west coast. It is home to mangrove forests, river deltas, turtle-nesting sites, salty mudflats and ancient low-lying agricultural areas known as khazan lands. In previous iterations of the coastal development rules, Goa had a special provision that restricted development along its coast. Even so, much of it has been developed for tourism or industrial and port operations, including coal and cargo handling. Under the latest rule change, Goa’s special status is gone.

Basavaji Tandel, another fisherman who lost his home, told The WorldPost that he feels caught between the land and the sea. “Here, these guys [the authorities] bother us, and in the sea, the water bothers us,” he said. “We don’t know when and where a storm will come. Everything is changing.” Though reliable fish population data for Goa is thin, the state fisheries department reported a drastic decline in the catch of mackerel, sardines and other marine species in recent years due to overfishing, pollution and the impacts of climate change.

As Tania Devaiah, a policy researcher and campaigner who has been working on environmental and human rights issues since 2008, noted, the government’s enforcement of coastal development regulations is lopsided. Fishermen’s homes are razed even as hotel and other construction proceeds, sometimes in violation of the rules. “The question to ask,” she said, “is if you can demolish fishermen’s houses … why have they not ever done it for, say, a commercial property or a hotel? There are tons of them across Goa doing the exact same thing.”

A brazen case in point is the resplendent Marriott Hotel near Miramar Beach in Panaji, Goa’s capital. In 1993, the Goa Foundation, a local environmental group, sued Marriott, saying the hotel had been built too close to the ocean and had therefore violated coastal development rules. And yet, the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority (GCZMA) twice gave the hotel a clean environmental assessment. It has taken 25 years for the case to make its way through the court. Last August, the court issued a scathing ruling that said the GCZMA had “unduly favored” Marriott by inventing a different way to measure where the high-tide line was.

“The line goes right through the building,” Antonio Mascarenhas, a coastal ecology expert and a former member of the GCZMA, said of the line parallel to the ocean that construction cannot cross without violating the rules. “Which means,” he went on, “it is illegal.” Mascarenhas said he was supposed to be a part of a GCZMA inspection of the Marriott in 2015. But when the day came, he said, the inspection was canceled without explanation and later rescheduled without his knowledge.

Demolished houses at Baina Beach in Goa. (Abijit Vivek for The WorldPost)

Mascarenhas also used to work for the National Institute of Oceanography. “Sand dunes are your first line of defense from the sea,” he said. “If there are stable sand dunes, then the waves break naturally, creating a healthy ecosystem.” If steps to protect those areas are not taken soon, he fears that much of the coastline could become concrete.

Nilesh Salkar, the president of a real estate developers’ association, believes that the impacts of climate change, like flooding in residential neighborhoods, can be tackled by precautionary measures, such as disaster management programs and early warning systems. “By not building or moving your [no-development] line 50 meters away, is it going to stop the water from coming?” he said. “The water will rise anyway.” It is the implementation of the rules, he added, not the rule changes themselves, that is the real problem when it comes to development along the coast. “If it doesn’t fit within your rules, please go and enforce your rules and get them [the violators] out,” he said.

“Such aggressive development in the era of climate change is not logical,” Olencio Simoes, a leader of the National Fishworkers Forum, told The WorldPost.

At the protest in Margao, fishermen and their families held hands and chanted “We want our Goa” in the historic Lohia Maidan, the square that became the nerve center of Goa’s freedom struggle against Portuguese colonialists in the 1940s. They listened as speakers onstage disparaged the government’s coastal development rules and shared woes of living by the sea amid rampant construction. Some of the speakers were opposition leaders who seized the opportunity to rail against the Modi administration. Others were fishermen, homeowners, environmentalists and human rights defenders.

Politicians and activists onstage burned a paper copy of the new coastal rules and vowed to keep the resistance going. Since then, they have continued to push back through rallies and lawsuits against coastal construction and coal pollution from the ports. Other vulnerable states across the country, like Kerala and Karnataka, have joined the fight. “The sea is an angry thing,” one of the speakers, Father Eremito Rebello, said in his speech in Margao. “One day, we will face her outrage.”