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."