Shack operators desperately try to stop their beachside restaurant from being washed away by building a wall of sand bags in western India's Goa state, where the government has relaxed the rules on allowing buildings along the coastline. (Photo by Bosco Eremita/ucanews.com)
Wheelchair-bound Aninha Rocha, 94, submitted an application to have her mud house in the Indian state of Goa rebuilt over a decade ago, but her file was mysteriously lost.
An inquiry report subsequently found she had been granted permission to have the reconstruction work done, however state officials in the former Portuguese colony now claim they are prohibited from proceeding due to rules imposed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
"These kind of games are played to harass locals who are not flush with funds," Rocha told ucanews.com.
"The regulations are twisted for the convenience of officials and to harass poor folk like me. While I await the next set of legal procedures, the number of illegally-built properties around my house is flourishing," she added.
Other victims who find themselves in the same camp as Rocha lament how laws that were enacted to protect the nation's coastline are used to persecute residents of those areas by delaying permits to rebuild their dwellings.
Thousands in Goa have joined protests and demonstrations to protect their ecologically sensitive farmland and water sources from real estate developers.
Catholics, who make up a quarter of the state's 1.4 million people, say the Church has been trying to support them in their struggle.
But on Jan. 18 a federal notification opened up the coastline for the development of real estate, ports and tourism activities, causing widespread resistance from fishermen's organizations and other groups.
The notification from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change relaxed the designated "no development zones" to just 50 meters from the coast, from 200 meters previously.
"This will enable developers to build properties closer to the coast and sand dunes," said Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation.
Olencio Simoes, general secretary of the Goenchea Ramponkaracho Ekvott (Goa Fishermen's Forum) said the ministry ought to be safeguarding the environment, not working against it.
The move was designed to appease the corporate lobby, with an eye on national elections in May, Simoes said.
His organization organized a protest against the ruling on Feb. 23 in Margao town, in collaboration with the National Fishworkers Forum.
They demanded the new rule be scrapped and that the stricter demarcation points be reapplied, in line with the 2011 Costal Regulation Zone rules.
Father Eremito Rebello, an activist who addressed the gathering of protesters last week, said reducing the non-development zones "would prove dangerous" due to the inconstancy of the high tide line.
And with tsunamis and storms becoming frequent in the grip of climate change, the government should be moving buildings away from the coast not closer to it, he said.
"The key is in your hands as the elections are coming soon," he told the assembly of rights defenders and potential voters, hinting that they should not cast their ballots in favor of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP runs the state government in Goa and New Delhi, among other strongholds across the nation.
Activists said the relaxed regulation threatens the livelihood of coastal communities like fishermen, toddy tappers and farmers.
At the same time, it opens up the coastline to wind farms, new ports, warehouses, logistics parks, transmission lines, and tourism projects, they added.
Goa's coastline has been under threat for over a decade with repeated incidents of water ingress, trees being uprooted, sand erosion, even water rushing into beach shacks.
More than 200 meters of beach have already been consumed by the sea in some places.
Simoes said the latest move stems from the federal government's "Sagarmala" project, which aims to modernize ports across the Indian peninsula.
The project has identified over 400 projects related to the development of new ports, enhanced port connectivity, and port-linked industrialization that are scheduled to be completed by 2035 at a total cost of US$114 billion.
The nearly decade-old former zoning rules were enacted to protect coastal communities by preserving the unique coastal environment and promoting sustainable development.
Rocha told ucanews.com people like her were suffering to protect the environment. But as they continue without proper homes, more multinationals will set up their pet projects along the coast, she added.