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The fight to save India's beaches

By A Ganesh Nadar
June 05, 2009 15:54 IST
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Don't we all love spending a day out on the beach? Our beaches are not only spots of fun and beauty but they preserve our eco system, protect us from disasters and are a way of life. But if we don't preserve and look after them all we will be left with is black rocks instead of glistening sand.

On World Environment Day, Probir Banerjee, President of Pondycan, a Pondicherry citizens' action network highlights a road map to fight the loss of beaches.

Banerjee, an engineer recently gave up his various business interests, to devote himself to saving the beaches he once played on during his childhood.

The crusader explains the crisis to A Ganesh Nadar, and suggests solutions which are practical and simple. But will the government listen?

Could you explain the movement of sand from south to north? Does it happen only on the east coast or also on the west coast?

The sand movement depends on the monsoon. It is one of the highest in the world in India and especially on the east coast.

For nine months in the year, the monsoon travels from south to the north. This moves the sand along the coast towards the north. As the sand moves north the balance is kept by nature by bringing sand along with the rivers. If you see the map of India you will see that the eastern terrain is much larger than the west.

The sand outflow on the western side is much lower than the sand outflow on the eastern side. It comes out from the river's mouth and moves north along the beach. The beach is actually a river of sand.

Any obstruction that you create acts like a dam and blocks this movement of sand. So the sand in the north will keep moving. And thus there will be a vacuum north of the obstruction.

It's also happening on the west coast. In Goa, the Taj had a cafe on the beach. Suddenly they saw that the sand was disappearing and one day the cafe collapsed. People thought that it was a natural phenomenon.

It has happened in a village in Tamil Nadu, north of here. They built a groyne into the sea (a groyne is a wall created by dumping huge rocks into the sea). Within three months, 60 metres of the beach disappeared.

In Goa some structures were built south of this beach where the Taj was. They realised that that was the cause only after we explained it. People just say tsunami, global warming or natural disaster without realising the cause.

The beach is dynamic, it is never static. If you stand in the sand in the sea, you can see the movement around your feet. Imagine what happens when you put a permanent obstruction.

The beach has so many functions. It protects us from cyclones and tsunamis. It stops the salinity of the sea water from getting into the ground water inland. It promotes tourism. Festivals are held on it like Ganesh Chaturthi.

The moment erosion happens, the entire ecosystem is lost.

Also people think of development only. They don't look at the economics of the environment. They look at the profits of development. They should also look at the cost of restoring the environment.

What will be the cost of restoring these beaches? What will be the cost of the real estate lost? What will be the loss of agriculture? What will be the cost of restoring ground water to its pre saline days? What will be the loss in tourism? We should look at all this.

Lack of knowledge is why people are doing whatever they want.

In Pondicherry a wall was built into the sea to protect the harbour. Is that the cause of this problem according to you?

Absolutely! The harbour was built from 1986 to 1989. Twenty crores (Rs 200 million) was given for this harbour. We started seeing the erosion in the early 1990s. It has now traveled 12 kms along the beach. You now see a stone wall all along this beach.

It has affected fishing. If you see photographs on Google earth or any satellite picture you will see there is a huge accumulation of sand south of the harbour. But north of the harbour there is no sand. The dividing line is that harbour. That makes it very evident.

The government is aware of this. They dug a submarine tunnel and put up pumping machines to pump the sand from south to north. Why did that not work?

The designers of the harbour were aware of this problem. So they decided to mechanically do what nature does by herself. They put up dredgers to pump it mechanically. They bought two dredgers.

But they did not do this regularly. This was and is a commercial harbour. As there was no revenue, how do you expect them to spend money on dredging?

Actually, the sand has accumulated along the wall and spilt over into the mouth of the harbour. They keep dredging this mouth so that ships can keep moving in and out.

Suppose the central government underwrites the whole thing. They pay for dredging 24 hours a day for all 365 days. Will that solve the problem?

Yes! If they can keep that up perpetually it will solve the problem. It should be for a lifetime. They should have alternatives if the dredgers break down or if there is any other excuse for stopping the work. They can replace nature's work if they do it continuously and forever.

What actually happened in Pondicherry was that they knew what was happening so they put up stone walls all along the coast. This added to the problem by blocking further movement of sand.

But they continue doing it because for the PWD (public works department) it's a big project. The lorry owners are happy. The quarry owners are happy. The panchayat presidents are happy. It's a money-making racket.

It's a perpetual project. Today you throw in stones. By next year it will sink. You continue throwing in rocks. It's a win-win situation for some of the people and a lose-lose situation for a majority of the people.

You have told me what the problem is. What do you think is the solution?

The harbour supports 150 fishing families. To protect these families, 12 fishing villages have been destroyed along the coast. There is a ten feet high wall to protect these 12 villages. Thus their boats cannot go out.

So the government gives them free rice and subsidy for other things. Is this justification? Earlier these Pondicherry fishermen were using Cuddalore port. By holding onto this port the water has become saline in this entire coastal belt.

Nature has a sand bar along the shore to break the waves. Here erosion has removed the sand bar. Now huge waves hit the rocky shoreline and when the water recedes it does so with the same speed. It pulls out the sand from under and in between the rocks further weakening the shore line.

So the shore is sinking as the sand under it is being eroded.

I think closing the harbour is the best solution. Your solution of dredging 24 hours will cost 3 crores (Rs 30 million) a year. Give it to those 150 fishing families. They will find alternative employment.

Photograph: A Ganesh Nadar

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A Ganesh Nadar