Environmentalists oppose the government's plans to build 'mini-harbours' along India's coastline

India's sandy beaches in such tourist spots as Kerala and Pondicherry, fringed with swaying coconut palms and dotted with fishing villages, have been traditionally popular with holiday-goers.

But environmentalists have warned that as India's economy continues to expand the country's beaches may be shrinking.

They estimate that almost half the beaches have disappeared and the other half will vanish in a decade or two.

Across India's 6,000km coastline, the erection of small ports is playing havoc with the natural movement of the sand, inexorably eroding the beaches to a narrow strip or nothing at all – the waves crash right up against the land.

The beach at Pondicherry in the east has shrunk to a slender strip.

Running out of space

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A short distance away, at the beach at Periya Kalapet village, Francis Anandarayar used to pull his boat onto the sand and release wriggling 'nethili' (anchovies) which his wife would spread out to dry.

Once the fish had been dried and sold, he used to "park" his boat on the beach. At night, he slept on the beach with his family. Ten years ago, the beach was 30 metres wide. Now it is just two metres.

"There is not enough space," said Anandarayar. "About 40 fishermen used to gather on the beach to pull the shore nets from the boat, but there isn't enough space for them to stand so we don't use those big nets any more. That means a smaller catch."

Anandarayar is among 7,000 fishing families whose livelihoods have been affected, says activist Probir Banerjee, founder of Pondycan, a group set up to save the beaches of this picturesque heritage town.

Banerjee, 51, is an engineer and former businessman with nothing in common with Anandarayar except a shared sense of loss.

He remembers the vast expanse of beach – about 60 metres wide – where he used to play as a boy every day; first football, then a swim and then the trek home, still dripping with water.

When he walks along the coast now, there is a gigantic stone wall, erected to keep the waters of the Bay of Bengal from flooding the town, where the beach used to be.

Building small ports

Banerjee is campaigning against the construction of new small port near the town. He says India's mania for building small ports is destroying an estimated 35-50 per cent of the country's beaches.

Instead of building a few big ports or expanding the existing ones, the Indian government favours numerous small ports.

The country already has 187 ports and applications for another 330 are pending. If approved, a port will dot the coastline every 30km.

"Beaches are not static. They are rivers of sand, constantly moving. When a port, or any solid structure, is built, it breaks this natural movement of sand, acting as a kind of dam," said Banerjee.

As a result, sand piles up south of the port. But north of the port, the sand keeps moving, further north, leaving a vacuum where the beach used to be.

In other parts of the world, it is mandatory for ports to dredge the sand from one side and place it on the other side to preserve the beach. But in India, some developers stand accused of flouting the rules by paying bribes.

Walled in

Some fishermen say proposed walls will keep them from launching their small boats
With no beach to stop the ocean bursting onto hamlets, villages and towns, the local authorities build high stone walls to keep the waves at bay.

These sea walls remove fishermen's easy access to the sea. To take their boats out, they have to scale the boulders.

"As the beaches vanish, more stone walls will come up. We will end up with a wall along the entire coast that will be longer than the Great Wall of China," warns Banerjee. 
 
A study conducted recently by the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa confirmed that 23 per cent of India's shoreline is eroded with four states - Maharashtra, Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala - the worst affected.
 
"We are concerned at the erosion caused by man-made activities. That's why we have just started a new study to see exactly what has happened over the past 30 years," says Vikas Murali, marine scientist with the Institute.  
 
In Kerala, where Kovalam Beach is popular with foreigners, environmentalists say over 65 per cent of the 560 km coast is now lined with stone walls instead of sand.  
 
Counterclaims

Sudarshan Rodriguez, head of the Dakshin Foundation which tries to protect the coastline, says that small ports are mushrooming because of the gigantic kickbacks involved in every project.

Three kilometres from Kovalam Beach, a new port at Vizhinjam has been approved.

"It's a land scam," says Rodriguez. "The rules forbid any building coming up on the beach except a port. So once developers get permission to build a port, they can sell parts of the beach to hotel-makers or industries."

Responding to allegations of kickbacks given to officials in return for approving small ports, Rajesh Shrivastav, the joint secretary in the ministry of shipping, dismissed the charge.

"We drew up a blueprint years ago that involves favouring small ports to promote coastal shipping because they are more efficient than big ones. The process is open and transparent with no parties being favoured," Shrivastav told Al Jazeera.

The thinking in Kerala state government circles and among some fishermen themselves is that "mini-fishing" harbours are beneficial.  

Some are being constructed by the state government as part of the tsunami rehabilitation works along the coast.

The fishing harbours are expected to provide safe anchoring and act as trading centres for the fishermen apart from acting as a wall against tidal waves.

The harbour projects generally comprise breakwater structures and wharfs.

John Dennis, a fisherman operating from the Poonthura beach in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, said mini-harbours help fishermen sell their catch without having to go long distances to reach the few crowded fish landing centres along the coast.

"When we face rough seas, it now takes hours to reach a safe place. Similarly, if we land a good catch, we will be able to sell it within hours instead of sailing for hours to land it or incur additional expenditure of taking it by road," said Dennis.

'Terrible damage'

Nevertheless, concerns persist.

On Kovalam Beach, the manager of Coconut Bay Beach Resort, James Mathew, said that 95 per cent of his guests are sun-worshippers who come purely for the beach.

"The port will spell doom for us and everyone else. There can't be any tourism here without any beaches," cautions Mathew.

Retired naval officer John Jacob Puthur has been tracking beach erosion in Kerala and talks of "terrible damage" to the coast.

"We'll soon be left with only stone walls and these will collapse in a tsunami," he says.

In the 2004 tsunami 8,000 people died when the first waves hit Pondicherry and the coast further south.

Rukhmini, a 50-year-old fisherman's wife in Pondicherry, says that the sea is just 10 metres away from her hut.

"In five years time, the water will be rushing into the first homes in my hamlet," she warns.

"If there is a tsunami, we won't stand a chance."

Source: Al Jazeera