Hold back the tide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2009, 12:00am

As a child, Probir Banerjee would head off virtually every day to the beach in Pondicherry with his friends to play soccer and swim and then walk home, still dripping wet and feeling happy.

At that time, the beach was 60 metres wide, large enough for children to play soccer and cricket on, with enough space for families to take an evening stroll.

That beach is no more. When Mr Banerjee, now 51, walks along the coast today, there is only a gigantic stone wall where the sand used to be. The water comes right up to the wall and is 2 metres deep.

Pondicherry, a former French colony in southern India, on the east coast, retains a distinctive identity and French 'feel'. It is known as the 'French Riviera of the east', and social life revolves around the beaches - or what remains of them.

'On the beaches that are left in Pondicherry, 1 metre of beach is being eroded every day,' says Mr Banerjee, president of a voluntary group, the Pondicherry Citizens Action Network (PondyCAN).

'In the past few decades, India as a whole has lost between 35 and 50 per cent of its beaches. In another decade, there won't be a single beach left.'

An engineer, Mr Banerjee loves his hometown. He used to have several business interests, including running an engineering design and construction firm, managing a fast-food restaurant and looking after a therapy centre offering reiki treatment and meditation.

But he gave it all up two years ago to prevent disaster befalling his city, which is very popular with Indian and foreign tourists, after friends told him that the authorities had given the go-ahead for a large port to be built.

Knowing how the tiny old harbour, built decades earlier, had eroded the beach that had once been his playground, Mr Banerjee was horrified at the potential havoc that a much bigger port would wreak.

Mr Banerjee set up PondyCAN with some friends and began campaigning full time against the port. He and other environmentalists claim that India's mania for building small ports is destroying the country's beaches.

Beaches are not static; they are rivers of sand, which are constantly moving. When a port is built, it acts as a kind of dam, breaking the natural movement of sand, which is pushed along by the action of waves and the wind.

As a result, sand piles up on one side of the port, unable to move beyond this new obstacle. But on the other side of the port, the sand keeps moving, leaving a hole behind it. Thus the beach disappears, and all that is left is rocks.

In other parts of the world, ports must dredge sand from one side to the other, to preserve the beach. However, this is not the case in India, where developers flout the rules by paying bribes to government officials.

Mr Banerjee says India is on the edge of a man-made and totally avoidable disaster.

'India, because of its triangular shape, is famous for its 'necklace' of beaches. That necklace is becoming a stone wall that will end up bigger than the Great Wall of China,' he warns.

Instead of building a few big ports or expanding existing ones, India currently favours the creation of numerous small ports, probably, activists believe, because of the kickbacks involved in every project.

India's coastline measures about 6,000km and the nation boasts 187 ports. There are applications for 330 more with the Ministry of Shipping. If they are all approved, there will be a small port on the coastline every 30km or so.

Alarmed at this development, NDTV, a national new channel, has taken up the cause. Few Indians were aware that their nation's beaches are vanishing but the publicity has caused widespread consternation.

Ports are the principal cause of the problem, but the coast is also being ruined by developers that flout rules by putting up buildings.

NDTV's 'Save India's Beaches' campaign has revealed that, in Orissa, farther north along the east coast, more than 100km of the state's 480km-long coastline is under threat.

In Kerala, which is popular with foreigners because of its stunning white beaches, more than 65 per cent of the coastline - 386km out of 591km - is now rock rather than sand, according to campaigners. Once the beach has disappeared, if there are no rocks to act as a barrier, local governments often erect stone walls to stop seawater flooding towns and villages on the coast.

But these barriers wall fishermen off from the sea, their lifeline. As a result, in Pondicherry alone, 7,000 families have lost their means to make a living.

Sudarshan Rodriguez, the founding trustee of the Dakshin Foundation in Bangalore, which tracks the impact of these changes on fishing villages, says fishermen are helpless.

'First, they lose the beaches where they used to dry their catch and store their boats. When the wall comes up, they lose their easy access to the sea. To take their boats out, they'd first have to scale a 12 metre wall,' Mr Rodriguez says.

The other consequences are equally grave. The sand acts as a filter, stopping salt in the seawater from going inland. Seawalls cannot perform this function.

So wherever the eroded beaches are replaced by rocks and rock walls, villagers have discovered that the underground water has turned saline, rendering it useless for drinking, or for irrigating crops.

Women in north Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, south of Pondicherry, where the beach has vanished, have to line up every morning to get water from government tankers.

'My wife spends two hours queuing for water. The government gives us subsidised rice and free bicycles, but it has turned us into dependents. We have lost our livelihood and our way of life,' says fisherman K. Sankaram.

Mr Sankaram says the water has turned saline right along the coast, farther south, down to Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu where his brother lives. Hundreds of Indians lost their lives in the 2004 tsunami on this stretch of the coast.

Environmentalists warn that the destruction of India's beaches will not just ruin fishing communities, but will wreck tourism. Who would want to sit on a high stone wall rather than a beach, they ask.

The impact on the social fabric of Indian life will be difficult to quantify. Beaches in India offer that rare and cherished thing in a country packed with nearly 1.2 billion people: the space to breathe, walk and play.

Festivities such as the Ganesh Festival, when people gather on the beach to immerse statues of the much-loved Hindu elephant god, are deeply ingrained in the culture.

Villager Selvi Subramanian, who lives in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, is not worried about tourism or festivals, however. Her fisherman husband has managed to get work as a bus driver. But the Subramanians still live by the coast because they cannot imagine being in a place where they cannot hear the sea. Having lost her two nieces in the tsunami, she is worried about the next one. 'Without a beach, the next tsunami will roar even faster towards us than the last one.'

PondyCAN is still fighting in the courts against the construction of the new port. It lost the last round but has vowed to continue its battle and to keep lobbying the government.

'We have to save our beaches. It will be terrible if we fail. It will be like living in a fort, surrounded by high walls with the sea outside,' Mr Banerjee says.