PONDICHERRY - India's coastline is in danger, not because of extraordinary monsoons or devastating tidal waves, but because of erosion, which day upon day, centimeter by centimeter, eats away at the coast. Every year, 75,000 hectares of cultivated earth and almost 35,000 buildings are gnawed or swallowed up by the sea.
If erosion is a natural phenomenon, it is being accelerated by industrial development and construction. Only a few years ago in Pondicherry, a statue of Gandhi looked out over the stretch of promenade running alongside the coast. Today, the Mahatma has only the harbor wall at his feet to protect him from the sea.
You only have to walk a few hundred meters to the south to understand why the beach has disappeared. Thirty years ago, a small port was built, protected by a long breakwater that stopped the littoral drift. Blocked by the breakwater, the sand accumulates at the port's exit, so much so that two dredgers have to continuously pump the sand mechanically and then send it via a submarine tunnel. Every year the operation costs more than one million euros, according to Probir Banerjee, director of Pondycan, an environmental NGO based in Pondicherry.
When the beaches disappear, the coastline loses all form of protection; without the sand, the saltwater seeps into the underground water table. In Tengaithittu, a village close to the port of Pondicherry, farmers have had to change careers: some of them have sold their land to housing projects, others now work as construction workers.
The few that stay to cultivate their land have to pay 2,700 euros to dig wells and access the water deep below. Around 1000 of the village's families have to pay 80 euro cents each month to stock up on drinking water, which is transported to the village by a tanker from the neighboring town.
Some of the farmers who have lost their land have started working for a local politician, who converted his courtyard into an office with a few tables where villagers assemble pens. "At the time, we didn't know what the consequences of building a new port would be, but now we are vigilant," he says.
Pondicherry's government recently announced their plans to construct an even bigger port, but villagers took up arms straightaway (colored powder for women and stones for men), and attacked the building site. The project was immediately suspended.
However, those who live on the coast are not quite as successful in all their battles. Special economic zones, nuclear power plants and even more ports are being built on the 7,525 kilometers of Indian coastline. According to the Indian Minister of Port Authority, the country already has one port every 40 kilometers; however, to meet the growing number of cargo ships (up by 40 percent since 2007), around 20 more ports are under construction.
There is in fact a law to protect the coastline. Set up in 1991, the regulation defined four areas of the coastline where construction is more or less tolerated. However, sanctions are either weak or non-existent, as is the case in Goa where almost 5,000 violations of the law have already been identified.
India's beaches are also victims of the rise of the construction industry. Officially, India uses more than 400 millions tons of sand each year to construct buildings. However, apart from legal mining extraction, unauthorized sampling of beaches still takes place on an enormous scale. This same sand is also used to construct embankments to protect houses from the coast's erosion, as houses are at risk of being swept away if there is a storm. In Pondicherry, almost 7,000 families are exposed to this risk.
To combat erosion and prevent the consequences of rising sea levels, scientists are trying to advocate better management of the coastline. In 2011, the Asian Development Bank loaned $51 million to India to help it better protect the Maharashtra and Karnataka coastlines. Its money could also help fishermen find other jobs.
"India should stop taking the case-by-case approach and adopt a better thought-out plan, designed with the participation of the various actors and with better ecologically designed infrastructure. In any case, the system should be transparent," the Asian Development Bank announced.
There are technologies that exist to limit the effect of coastal erosion, such as artificial reefs designed by the New Zealand company ASR, or "stabiplage" - a technology of artificial sand reserves, commercialized by French company Espace Pur. The state of Pondicherry has taken on this last concept but the central government have yet to give it the go ahead.
"The impact of coastal erosion on the environment and human activity is rarely documented in India," says Probir Banerjee, who is campaigning for the creation of a special fund or an authority to devote itself to the environmental cause.
Along with other partners such as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Bombay Natural History Society, Pondycan has also started to map all of the constructed buildings along the coast on Google Maps. "Nobody is aware of the extent of this illegal activity," says Probir Banerjee. "Not even the Minister of Environment."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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