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The Silent Conquest — Coastal Governance in the Blue Economy

– Stella James and Nayana Udayashankar*

Mandarmani is a small village on the coast of West Bengal. The story told is that it got its name from the Mandar, bright red flowers of the coral tree (gen.: erythrina) — the beach, the locals say, was so heavily populated with red crabs that from a distance it looked like a large garden of Mandar. But with the rapid growth of tourism from 2010, the garden of crabs has been replaced by a garden of tourists. The tall and lofty dunes of Mandarmani were flattened to make space for more than seventy-five hotels and resorts in the area.[1] The beach that was once used extensively by fishworker families for fishing, sorting out the day’s catch, docking boats, and drying fish, now has only one small hut and a few boats left for the fishworkers.

Unfortunately, the story of Mandarmani is hardly different from the stories of other beaches and their residents across the country. In the last two decades, with global shifts in the use and governance of oceans, fishworkers and other coastal communities globally have been rapidly losing access to traditionally used and managed commons. We look at this loss of access in this article, using the tourism industry as an example to explore the changes in coastal governance and management in India that have led to this. We start the article by looking briefly at the historical governance of coastal commons and trace the changes to the governance systems that accompanied the Coastal Regulation Zone notifications. We then look at the massive industrialization of the Indian coast through global governance approaches like ‘integrated coastal zone management’ and ‘Blue Economy’, implemented in India through projects like Sagarmala. Finally, we give examples to show how laws and policies have been framed to support industrialization while violating fundamental rights. Throughout the paper, we argue that fishworkers have been systematically excluded from rightful access to, and governance of commons, on the justification of economic development.

Coastal Governance — History and Changes All along the coast of India, more than thirty-nine lakh people are part of the fishing community, directly or indirectly dependent on the coasts for their lives and livelihoods. Large parts of the coast have been traditionally used and managed as commons. ‘Commons’ is a term used to refer to a resource base used and managed by a community rather than an individual. Our usage of the term derives from the understanding of commons by Elinor Ostrom, who challenged the earlier theory of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ by Hardin, and redefined how private and common properties and resources are viewed. Contrary to the earlier theory, it is now well established that common resources, i.e., commons, do not necessarily suffer from a free-rider or overuse problem because of a variety of reasons, including the presence of various forms of traditional governance systems. One can get a deeper understanding of the socio-ecological systems and their governance from Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel speech and the International Journal of Commons. In India, other than the open waters used for fishing, beaches and other coastal areas have been used as commons for generations by fishworkers to store their boats, repair their nets, dry their catch, auction their fish, etc. Additionally, coastal commons like intertidal areas, coral reefs, and shallow waters are used for subsistence fishing, catching crabs, collecting clams, molluscs, and seaweed. Other commons are used for horticulture, salt pans, and street vending among others.

The lives and livelihoods of these communities living on the edge of the land have been intrinsically connected to the ocean. Living in and out of the sea over generations, the fishing community has accumulated intimate traditional knowledge of the ecosystem. Such traditional knowledge has allowed fishing communities to not only develop highly specialized craft and fishing gear suited to the ecosystem, but has also led to the creation of traditional institutions of governance embedded in that knowledge. Institutions and systems like the Kadakoddi (or ‘KadalKodathi’ literally meaning ‘sea court’) of Kerala and the Ur Panchayats of Tamilnadu had a huge role in determining the rules and norms that guide the community’s interactions with the commons. For example, the Kadakoddi consisted of village elders as functionaries, and met on the open beach. All fishermen participated in the discussion on issues related to access, conservation, and conflict resolution. The decisions made by the Kadakoddi were considered final and monitoring became the responsibility of the whole community.

A majority of these community institutions have weakened over time or become defunct. As Kurien explains, a significant reason for this was that fishing was industrialized for the first time in the 1950s, bringing in trawlers and investment in fishing from outside the community. With the industrialization of fishing, the government became more closely involved with the regulation of fishing, introducing ‘fishing leases’ for example. This was done without acknowledging the existing traditional systems of governance like the sea courts. With the control of coastal commons going to the government, these local institutions were systematically made irrelevant. This was then followed by increasing industrialization of the coastal land, which began to be used for establishing ports, agriculture, power plants, tourism, and more. The industrialization phase also saw the vast stretches of the empty coast as viable lands for industrial development, leading to unregulated development on the coast and consequent ecological impacts like pollution, loss of biodiversity, and erosion.

As a response to the environmental issues, the first Coastal Regulation Zone notification of 1991 (‘CRZ 1991’) was brought in under the Environment Protection Act 1986 to protect the coastal ecosystem. The CRZ Notification was initially welcomed with relief by fishworkers, who had till then borne the brunt of unplanned and unregulated coastal development. At the same time, the CRZ 1991 marked the transformation of a community governed coastal commons to property managed by the State. This also meant that the community was relegated from being the primary steward of coastal spaces to fighting to maintain the legitimacy of their needs against more powerful industrial actors.

At the same time, there were global shifts in the manner in which oceans were viewed. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio (Earth summit), first proposed the approach of ‘integrated coastal management’ (‘ICZM’). The ICZM was conceived as the recognition that coastal spaces constituted complex ecological and social systems, and therefore, required an approach that ensured industrial development along with ecological protection, disaster management, sectoral integration like agriculture, tourism, fisheries, and ports. Contrary to the ‘regulatory approach’, which was based on prohibiting certain activities (like the CRZ in India), ICZM advocated for a ‘management approach’ that accommodated all needs. The ICZM got an impetus from 1998 when the World Bank (‘the Bank’) funded several projects for implementing ICZM approaches in Georgia, Mozambique, Albania, and other countries. By 2005, the ‘management approach’ had become a significant global approach for the governance of coastal systems.

Around this time, India also began its transition to this approach. A key difference in the management approach in comparison to the regulatory approach is the flexibility given to local authorities to determine development projects. So, while the regulatory approach explicitly permits and prohibits certain activities in certain areas —for example, CRZ 1991 says “no new construction shall be permitted within 500m of the High Tide Line” in CRZ I (or ecologically sensitive areas) — the management approach has no hard lines and instead bases development activities entirely on management plans prepared by local bodies. While on paper this sounds like a creative and dynamic way to manage coasts, in reality, in the absence of a strong framework that recognizes fishworkers’ rights and environmental protection, financial interests and corporate lobbying are likely to gain favour. The management approach has been an important governance tool for the industrialization of coastal and marine spaces.

In India, the management approach was introduced in 2004, when the Ministry of Environment and Forest (‘MoEF’) set up a committee chaired by MS Swaminathan, which proposed a Coastal Management Zone (‘CMZ’) notification to replace the CRZ 1991. In 2008, when the draft CMZ notification was put out for public comments, the country saw widespread protests against it, with fishing communities, environmental organisations, and state governments rejecting the management approach, convinced that the kind of flexibility given to local authorities could lead to the complete destruction of the coastline. Taking the objections and protests into account, in 2009, the MoEF formed another committee, also chaired by MS Swaminathan, which reversed the recommendations of the previous committee. Instead, it acknowledged the rampant destruction of the coast due to CRZ violations and recommended that the CMZ notification be allowed to lapse and that instead the original CRZ 1991 be made stronger. In 2011, a new Coastal Regulation Zone notification was brought out, but fishworkers and civil society continued to have several concerns about the new notification.

Governance Approaches or Industrialisation Projects? Even though the CMZ notification had been allowed to lapse, and the CRZ 2011 was passed as a confirmation of the regulatory model, the management model was brought in through other channels. In 2010, India started the implementation of a World Bank project called the Integrated Coastal Management Project (‘ICZMP’), with the explicitly stated aim of moving from the regulatory to the management approach. The ICZMP was funded by the Bank as a pilot project to be initially implemented at the central level and in three states of India — Gujarat, Odisha, and West Bengal.

As environmentalists and fishworkers had warned, rather than being a comprehensive and participatory system of governance, the ICZMP (which was the practical implementation of the management approach) was largely an infrastructural project. For example, ‘tourism’ is one of the sectors that the project focused on in the three states. But while claiming to be about ‘comprehensive development’, ICZMP plans were almost entirely for infrastructure construction, ignoring local needs. For instance, Rs. 28.2 crores were allocated under ICZMP for the construction of a promenade for tourists in Digha, West Bengal. This promenade passed through traditionally used fishing commons. This meant that there was no space for fishworkers anymore, who were forced to sort their fish on the promenade while tourists walked by, and were forced to change their fishing times to suit tourist needs. In Chilika, Odisha, while the tourism component of ICZMP was supposed to be about ‘participatory ecotourism’, the entire focus of the tourism was on infrastructure, with a proposed allocation of Rs. 4crores for water sports infrastructure, food courts, amusement parks, and more. With space in the lake and its surroundings being taken up increasingly for tourism, spaces for fishing activities are rapidly shrinking.

Issues like this with the investment and infrastructure driven ICZMP abound in all three states. Nevertheless, in 2020, the World Bank started another project in India called ‘Enhancing Coastal and Ocean Resource Efficiency’(‘ENCORE’), a USD 180 million project, essentially to extend the approaches under the ICZMP pilot project to other states and union territories. But similar to the ICZMP, it appears that ENCORE is also largely an infrastructure project. For example, one of the initiatives undertaken under the ENCORE project is to aim for the ‘Blue Flag’ certification, a Danish eco-label for beach systems supposedly for environment protection and safety of beach users. However, an examination of the tenders given out for the project shows that they only involve infrastructural development — construction of promenades, toilets and drinking water, artificial lighting, CCTVs, and parking.

The Blue Flag certificate has been given for eight beaches in India, but there are plans reported to target 100 beaches. The project has made beaches accessible only to tourists, delegitimizing the use of these spaces by all other actors. In Puri, Odisha, the Golden Beach was barricaded, vendors selling trinkets and food near the beach were evicted, and entry tickets costing Rs. 20 for three hours were put in place.[2] Fishworkers no longer have any space here at all, nor do tourism service providers like vendors, local informal lifeguards, or any locals or tourists who cannot afford to pay the ticket charges. Explicit evidence of this approach to delegitimize the use of coastal commons by other actors in the image below — a slide from a presentation by a body under the MoEFon Blue Flag beaches in 2018, which categorises fishing nets as ‘litter’. In the last decade, the industrialization of oceans has also been speeding up with the introduction of the ‘Blue Economy’, the latest buzzword in global economic growth. The ‘Blue Economy’ approach was introduced in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 in 2012. The Blue Economy approach was articulated along the lines of the Green Economy but was modified for oceanic countries whose economies are dependent on oceanic sectors. In principle, it seeks to create sustainable development through investment in ocean resources, in a way that is environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive. Under this approach, international organizations, including the World Bank and other international financial institutions, national governments, and private companies have been investing heavily in several oceanic sectors. This includes expanding investments in existing sectors like fisheries, tourism, and maritime transports, as well as exploration of new sectors like deep-sea mining, blue carbon, and deep-sea exploration. According to the principles of Blue Economy, these investments are meant to lead to a win-win situation that creates economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. In reality, however, research from different countries shows that the Blue Economy is simply a model that massively expands the industrialization of coastal and marine spaces through systematic and large-scale private investments. The rationale, as explained by Dr. Himanshu Damle, is that ocean resources are valued at twenty-four trillion US dollars, but only 1% of it is being invested in. Or as one fishing leader from Kerala succinctly puts it—“They first destroyed the forest and land, now their eyes are on the water. There are crores worth of wealth in the sea which they want to sell to corporates”.

The Blue Economy approach was adopted by several oceanic countries including India. As seen in other countries, in India too, the Blue Economy narrative is simply a way of ‘bluewashing’, which is essentially a way to Expand, Explore, Exploit ocean resources. Drawing from the Blue Economy approach, India launched several projects geared toward investment in ocean resources, including Sagarmala for port-led development, SwadeshDarshan scheme for coastal and marine tourism, and Neel Kranti mission for fisheries.

The Indian government launched the massive Sagarmala project in 2016, with the main objective being to ensure ‘port-led’ development. As part of the aim to focus economic growth through ocean resources, the Sagarmala envisages major and minor ports for maritime transport, manufacturing clusters in Coastal Economic Zones, and harbours to promote deep-sea fishing. More than 150 projects have been identified with an infrastructure investment of Rs. 4lakh crores and investment in industry of Rs. 7-8 lakh crores. Similarly, for tourism, the SwadeshDarshan scheme envisages eleven circuits for coastal tourism, connecting all the coastal states. The Ministry of Tourism has invested Rs. 770 crores in the coastal circuit. Contrary to the way the Blue Economy has been projected and promoted, an examination of the Detailed Project Reports (‘DPRs’) submitted by the states for SwadeshDarshan (accessed by us through RTI) shows that fundamental issues with tourism, and the social and environmental costs of tourism, are barely looked into. Rather, much of the investment has been used only for infrastructure development —‘last mile connectivity’ projects, toilets, drinking water, lights, and promenades on the beach. Other investments in tourism drawn from the Blue Economy approach include the ENCORE project mentioned above, which expands ICZM approaches in India to all states, the Blue Flag certification, and the development of infrastructure for cruise tourism.

Essentially, what this has meant is that coastal industrialization which started in the 1950s in India has been deepening and widening at an unprecedented level in the last two decades. Surrounded by ocean on three sides, with a coastline of about 7,500 kms, and an Exclusive Economic Zone (‘EEZ’) of 2.1 million sq. km., investors in India stand to gain significant monetary benefits from the Blue Economy framework. In 2019, the budget speech included a Vision for New India 2030, which among other things, envisaged development through the Blue Economy “to ensure better standards and quality of life for a large number of people living in the coastal areas”.It proposed the expansion of the Sagarmala and Inland Waterways to achieve this aim. More recently, in February 2021, the Ministry of Earth Sciences released a draft Blue Economy Policy for public comments. The Blue Economy policy recognises the vast oceanic resources in India and points out that:

“…the country has 12 major ports and 187 non-major ports, handling about 1400 million tonsofcargo every year, as 95% of India’s trade by volume transits by sea. India’s Exclusive Economic Zone of over two million square kilometres rich in living and non-living resources and holdssignificant recoverable resources of crude oil and of recoverable natural gas”. However, so far, that ‘better standard and quality of life’ has remained elusive for coastal communities. Between 2020 and 2021, several civil society organisations and unions came together to examine the implications of the Blue Economy for coastal communities, particularly fishworkers. The research was captured in a series of ‘People’s Tribunals’ which included detailed case studies from each coastal state in India, testimonials by coastal community leaders, and presentations by experts. Along with other colleagues, we have also undertaken research on tourism under the Blue Economy, documenting our findings from extensive desk research along with findings from primary research undertaken in five sites across three states. All of this has led to the conclusion that “the result of such a development paradigm is that only 5% of the people hold the entire wealth of the country, which is gained at the cost of 30-35% of the lower margins who suffer for this”.

Legalities and Illegalities for Resource Capture An important aspect of the industrialization of the coasts has been the legal system that has been constantly modified to suit industrialization. Since it was brought out in 1991, the CRZ 1991 was reportedly amended more than 25 times until 2005. As mentioned above, there was then an attempt to move to a management approach through a new notification, failing which the management approach was brought in through side channels like the Bank-funded ICZMP project. The CRZ 2011 which was brought out to placate fishworkers and environmentalists was neither adequate nor did it curb violations that continue to be rampant. With the entry of the Blue Economy, the CRZ notification was further diluted and a new Coastal Regulation Zone notification, 2019 (‘CRZ 2019’) was brought in. The CRZ 2019 made serious dilutions to the 2011 notification, negating almost every prohibition on industrial activity put in by the CRZ 1991 and 2011. For example, dilutions for the tourism industry alone included, inter alia

  1. reducing the no-development zone from 200metres to 50metres, thereby allowing construction of beach shacks, toilets and showers, and other ‘temporary structures’ on the beach;

  2. allowing for ‘eco-tourism’ activities in eco-sensitive areas without any acknowledgement of the issues with eco-tourism;

  3. dilution of regulation on groundwater withdrawal and waste discharge, thereby making it easier for hotels to continue to pollute the oceans and deplete existing freshwater sources.

The CRZ 2019 notification was also brought in with little consultation, and without considering citizens’ objections. According to one article, there were more than 3600 objections to the CRZ 2019 from the general public, which were disregarded, and the draft notification was finalized anyway.

Since 2010 when the CZM notification was rejected, there has been no legal acknowledgement of the shift to the ‘management approach’, nor is there any recognition of the consequences of the rapid industrialization on the environment or communities. Other than the 2019 notification, no Bills have been tabled in the Parliament. Rather, ‘policies’ like the draft Blue Economy Policy 2020, the draft National Tourism Policy 2020, National Inland Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy 2019, and ‘plans’ like the Coastal Zone Management Plan, the Sagarmala Perspective Plan, and the Detailed Project Reports under the SwadeshDarshan scheme have driven de-facto governance of the coasts.

This approach of governance through policies, plans, and projects has largely also been followed by states. For example, in 2016, the Odisha Tourism Policy was brought out which, among other things, promoted the creation of land banks for tourism. A year later, the Odisha government launched GOSWIFT—Government of Odisha Single Window for Investor Facilitation & Tracking to facilitate land acquisition, clearances, and licenses for private investors. By June 2018, the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (‘IDCO’) had reportedly filed for and acquired possession of more than 69 acres, of which about 1000 acres were set aside for tourism projects. Several of these land banks are in coastal areas, including several clusters in Jagatsinghpur, Konark in Puri, and Ganjam. This kind of ‘land banks’ creation is, simply put, the capture of public land for private use, and has seen severe conflicts with local communities. This proposal has been continued in the draft Odisha Tourism Policy 2020, along with a slew of other incentives.

Similarly, the West Bengal Tourism Policy of 2016 focused on encouraging large investments in tourism and provided incentives for star hotels, amusement parks, cruise boats, and others. This approach has been continued in the 2019 policy of the state, which envisages the role of the State as responsible for:

  • Approval of projects, incentives, policies, and monitoring of the implementation of tourism projects;

  • Assisting potential investors and removing bottlenecks in project implementation;

  • Facilitating training of human resources needed for the tourism sector.

The policy essentially sees the role of the State as limited to promoting tourism and facilitating the investment environment of tourism. The 2019 policy continues this approach. Needless to say, this kind of rampant industrialization and privatization and the changes in coastal governance to accommodate it, go against several constitutional principles and established environmental jurisprudence. It blatantly violates the right to livelihood under Article 21 of the Constitution, established in several cases, for example, Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation (1986 AIR 180). The loss of livelihood can be seen consistently across states —for example, the loss of space for fishworkers in Digha and Mandarmani and the displacement of fishworkers for Blue Flag certification in Puri, as mentioned above. In Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, a one-kilometre stretch of beach that was used by twenty-one fishing villages was sold to various private players for resorts and other tourist centres. In Maharashtra, the Wadhwan port, and in Karnataka, the Karwarport are likely to take up large areas of land and water used by the fishing communities. As one community leader pointed out about the Wadhwan port—“There are about ten-thousand women fishworkers … this project will affect the intertidal area, which will affect women a lot, because women collect oysters and shells from these areas and catch small fish.” She further pointed out that, unlike farmers who are compensated for land acquisition, there is no compensation provided for fishworkers.

This kind of development also violates the right to the environment under Article 21, established in landmark cases, including the Indian Council for Enviro­Legal Action v Union of India (1996 AIR 1446) in the coastal context. The ecological impacts of tourism are massive and often unrecognized. For example, in Kanniyakumari, projects for coastal tourism include a new road built to connect two important tourist attractions, Triveni Sangam and Sunset point. Kanniyakumari is one of the most highly eroding coastlines of the country, with experts saying that even a small change can deplete the shoreline and submerge villages. The road cuts through dunes and destroys important beach vegetation, both of which are critical to shoreline stability and the survival of the people of Kanniyakumari. Importantly, this form of industrialization represents a conversion of public lands to private lands. In some cases, this has been done through the direct transfer of public land. For example, in Gorai, common lands, called Khazan lands, which were being used by the community for fishing activities, were handed over through an executive order to Essel Group. The order was stayed only after the community went to court.

In other cases, this is done indirectly, like in the Blue Flag beaches as mentioned above, where barricades and entry fees are used to create exclusionary and restricted access to public beaches. This kind of direct and indirect privatization goes against the Public Trust doctrine which guides the governance of natural resources, as laid down in MC Mehta v Kamal Nath (1997) 1 SCC 388 —

“Public at large is the beneficiary of the seashore, running waters, airs, forests and ecologically fragile lands…. But in the absence of any legislation, the executive acting under the doctrine of public trust cannot abdicate the natural resources and convert them into private ownership or for commercial use.”

Coastal governance, once rooted in community systems and traditional knowledge aimed to balance ecological security and claims of different users, is now simply a process to ease the capture of space and resources by a few private companies.[3] As Dr Aparna Sundar puts it — “Not only do they undermine the traditional rights of fishing communities, but they are premised on the weakening or undoing of hard-won legislations that gave communities some form of protection”.

Conclusion The consequences of the massive global industrial expansion under the Blue Economy are being borne by the most marginalized communities — small-scale fishworkers, coastal and riverine farming communities, and other coastal communities which depend on the oceans and coasts for their lives and livelihoods. As a fishing leader from Tamil Nadu said to us — “The government wants to tidy up the coast – tourists on one side and fishworkers on one side. That’s why they are pushing us out of our villages”.

What does it mean for a democracy if fundamental shifts in governance, as the coasts have seen, are done entirely through executive decision making? What space does it leave for the citizens to determine the course of their own lives and the lives of their communities? One of the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Committee in 2009 was to have separate legislation for the protection of the rights of fishworkers, along the lines of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (more popularly, the Forest Rights Act 2006). Although some initial discussions were done around such legislation, it never did materialise. The Blue Economy is making it clear, however, that although coastal communities have a different landscape, history, and context, there is a great need for legislative protection of the rights of fishing and coastal communities. Equally importantly, the incessant amendments of the CRZ notifications also show us that it is time to take coastal environmental governance out of the executive and bring out a statute for coastal protection. This becomes particularly important in the context of the increasing impacts of climate change. Coastal and ocean commons (including mangroves, seagrass meadows, and others) play key roles in climate adaptation, working to absorb carbon, regulate temperatures, wind patterns, rainfall, and protecting shorelines against the worst impacts of cyclones. Governance systems must be ecologically sustainable, and secure equitable sharing of commons, to protect the commons from the ongoing climate crisis which could soon push millions to poverty as climate refugees.

Such legislations need to come from and respect the voices of fishing and coastal communities. Coastal commons like beaches are not only where fishworkers and others practice their livelihoods, it is also where coastal communities come together to gossip after work, read newspapers and walk dogs. Beaches are where we play and where we pray. It is not coincidental that the NagoreDargah, the Velankanni church, and the Ramanathaswamy temple are all situated on beaches. Importantly, coastal governance systems have to be based on an understanding that coastal and ocean commons are not just a physical resource base to stake claim and share —it is not a pie that can be cut up into neat little slices. It is a system that determines access to food security, livelihoods, and a life of dignity for lakhs of fishworkers and other coastal communities. Commons are not marketable products, commons are for the community.

* At the time of writing, Stella James and Nayana Udayashankar were affiliated with Equitable Tourism Options (EQUATIONS). EQUATIONS is a research, campaign, and advocacy organization, working on supporting environmentally sustainable and people-centred forms of tourism. The examples given in the article are based on primary research (observational information and key informant interviews) done by EQUATIONS staff, including the authors, between 2018 and 2020 in 4 states – Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal, and Maharashtra – as part of a larger study on ‘Blue Economy’ in collaboration with 25 other fisher unions and civil society organisations in 5 countries. For more information on the entire research, and the final conclusions of this research on the Blue Economy, see <> accessed 29 March 2021.

[1] Based on a visual site survey done by EQUATIONS between November 2012-June 2013, and an additional site visit in August 2018. [2] Based on anecdotal and observational on-site information received from Saswata Mohapatra. [3] Globally, approx. 78.9% of the Blue Economy investment is from the private sector, mostly by companies based in Europe.


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