Marine parks in India – a case for maritime environmentalism

Conservation dichotomies

Conservation stories often encourage the imagination of conservation as a simple exercise in moral dualism – choosing good over bad. It is this facile type-casting and posturing that paves the path for contentious interventions. The central environmental formulations of the Indian state also rely on such dichotomies. These laws largely pertain to terrestrial landscapes and were shaped by colonial practices and western ideologies of wilderness. A characteristic theme underlying these ideas is the separation of ‘conservation’ and ‘development’ as two antagonistic ambitions, thereby creating a wedge between nature and humans. All this is orchestrated by bureaucratic machinery exclusively mandated to sort ‘right’ from ‘wrong’.

Our post-independence attempts at legislating on matters of the environment have significantly contributed to this conservation-development dichotomy. Although there are other laws governing natural resource use such as agriculture, fisheries and revenue laws, with equally significant environmental implications, the attention of conservationists has remained focused on the specialised legislations, namely the Wild Life Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and more recently the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

The economic reforms process undertaken by the government since 1991 began waging a quiet war against any environmentalism that stymied industrial development. The march towards a full-blown neoliberal era saw a new response to rules on nature. In cases where laws like the Environment (Protection) Act and the Forest (Conservation) Act slowed down industrial expansion, these rules were branded as ‘anti-development’.

The result is that our environmental governance is now a fractured and often unjust enterprise. Conservationists focus mostly on wildlife laws, desperately protective of approximately 5% of India’s land designated as protected areas. Meanwhile, environmentalists complain that the remaining laws originally meant to regulate industries end up eventually leading the industry into biodiversity-rich areas under the pretext of ‘reformed’ clearance procedures.

This post-independence rule-making of the state in terrestrial areas left resource-dependent marginalized communities vulnerable. They now suffer the double jeopardy of losing on the one hand to powerful industrial lobbies in a regulatory mirage, and on the other to conservation schemes that isolate them from their environments. With more such conservation and (industrial) development attention trained on coastal and marine spaces where other environmentalists operate, the numbers alienated from such an approach can only swell further.

Small-scale fisheries in Odisha – collective based livelihoods

Spillover conservation

The most popular terrestrial wildlife conservation approach has been the declaration of Protected Areas (PA) and the listing of wild species on protected lists, both facilitated by the Wild Life (Protection) Act (WLPA), 1972. A new category – community reserves – was introduced in 2003, but few community reserves have been declared. Most PAs are either designated as National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries which aim at prohibiting to the extent possible, local human presence and use of resources within their boundaries.

The WLPA is drafted on the singular idea that physically separating humans from wildlife is the appropriate approach to all conservation challenges. The history of wildlife protection through bounded spaces and closed areas is found even in ancient India and was nested in a utilitarian perspective where the priority was to reserve areas for maintaining stocks of big game or draught animals for the future use and enjoyment of the royals, although there was also evidence of preserving nature for ‘its own sake’ during this period. A distinct elitist preservationist view of nature occurred in the post-independence period which persists in existing conservation ideology. This law, therefore, does not offer much of a conservation plan beyond penalties and punishments for human intrusion into PAs and illegal use of protected species. Human-wildlife interactions, socio-ecological institutions, organisations and phenomena and even simple dependence regimes are given short shrift in this law.

Meanwhile, international attention, investment and intervention on marine conservation goals is gaining in priority and India too is compelled to prove her track record in this direction. In practice, however, the terrestrial conservation totems appear to have spilt over to the marine realm, as national and international conservation organisations look towards fortress conservation models to provide solutions to marine challenges. The government’s weakness for resorting to the concept of marine protected areas (MPA) under the WLPA (virtually no-take zones) needs an honest audit as reports of conflict over these styles of marine conservation pour in.

The rigidity of the exclusionist approach in terrestrial area management, specifically through the narrow options offered by the terrestrially oriented WLPA, stands in stark contrast to the context-specific methods that could be applied such as certain local practices of small scale fisher communities. These include fishing gear modifications, craft regulations, spatial and temporal regulations like fishing zones and seasonal bans. The distinction between terrestrial and marine social-ecological systems requires context-specific treatments or environmentalisms.

Podampetta fishing hamlet by the Kantiagarh village

The failure of terrestrial totems

Far more densely inhabited than most forests, the coasts are used by numerous fishing communities concurrently. Traditional community-based systems of fisheries management include fishing gear restrictions, closed seasons in specific areas, or bans on particular forms of fishing such as night fishing or dynamite fishing. In the late 1970s, modern fishing methods threatened the livelihoods of these communities and coastal ecosystems, as mechanised craft and gear, principally bottom-trawlers, severely impacted fishing stocks.

By the early 1980s, many coastal states in India had responded by introducing fisheries legislation (Marine Fisheries (Regulation) Acts) to safeguard the interests of artisanal fishers through a framework of spatial-temporal fishing regulations. For example, the Orissa Marine Fisheries (Regulation) Act (OMFRA), 1982, prohibits mechanised fishing vessels like trawlers from fishing within five kilometres of the shore. In recent years the state has also regulated the use of certain fishing gears and fishing zones that permits only low impact fishing practices in areas where sea turtle congregate to breed.

These laws are not designed to exclude people from their marine environments. It appears that these conservation measures also recognise that humans have historically ‘used’ or consumed marine species. Thus, fisheries management, while prescribing conservation options that allow for the presence of humans and human activity, also call for modifications in the range, intensity and nature of the fishing activity. For example, in Gujarat, the fisheries regulations prescribe prohibitions on the catch of gravid lobsters. The Tamil Nadu fisheries laws prescribe rules on species of shanks that can be harvested and their size.

Despite this, the system of declaring MPAs and implementing these through state forest departments has dominated marine conservation in India. In reality, the environment ministry’s response to demands for marine management has been to create a conservation mechanism identical to the terrestrial PAs as seen in the five major MPAs in the country: the Gahirmatha Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa, the Gulf of Kutch Marine National Park in Gujarat, Gulf of Mannar National Park in Tamil Nadu, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Park and Rani Jhansi National Park in the Andaman group of islands.

In response, fishing communities have objected to the complete ban on human presence in these formerly open access areas, the specific contours of the conflicts depending on the intensity with which these bans have been enforced. The example of Orissa is apt here. For the last two decades, conservationists have been trying in vain to reduce the large scale mortality (> 100,000 in the last ten years) of olive ridley turtles in trawl fishing nets. National and international efforts to introduce turtle excluder devices and keep trawlers out of the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary have failed, in part due to the strong resistance from the trawling community. The 1997 declaration of the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary generated considerable discontent among various fishing communities, as it denied them all fishing rights within a delineated core zone. Some conservationists revised their ideas to focus efforts on the protection of offshore reproductive congregations of mating turtles. They also recognise that within these areas, certain forms of fishing might be benign.

Beach landing at Gopalpur, southern Odisha

Despite the protests against the declaration of additional MPAs in Orissa, the Orissa Forest Department has been reluctant to abandon its plans to declare the other two known offshore congregation areas – the Devi and the Rushikulya rookeries (the only other known mass nesting sites in the country) – as marine wildlife sanctuaries. This would impinge on the rights of even the non-mechanised sector rather than simply restrict harmful fishing activities. Ironically, since most major turtle congregations occur within a few kilometres of the shore, merely enforcing the fishing regulations of the OMFRA, which bans all mechanised fishing within five km of the coast, would help in effectively conserving these turtle populations and also safeguard the interests of the artisanal sector. In contrast to laws governing protected areas, the OMFRA also has the flexibility to formulate creative rules that are area, activity and time-specific.

In addition to being unable to adequately protect marine species themselves, MPAs as envisaged and operated through the WLPA, fail on another count. Since the focus remains on protecting the habitats within boundaries, the law is simply unresponsive to development threats that originate outside the boundaries of the MPAs. All the MPAs of the country have some experience of this.

Take the example of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park (GoMNP). This MPA (measuring about 560 sq km, including 21 islands and their surrounding waters) lies in the core area of the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve measuring 10,500 sq km. Yet all efforts of protection are concentrated only in the islands of the GoMNP. The Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar are considered as distinct water bodies with varied conditions, seasonal cycles and oceanic parameters, although they are linked to each other via Adams bridge and the Pamban Pass. The seagrass beds and coral reefs in the Palk Bay and other areas of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve make this region as fragile and important as the GoMNP. However, since these remaining regions of the biosphere reserve or the Palk Bay (which is home to a number of protected scheduled species such as sea fans, sponges, sea cucumbers and corals) have no legal protection for the habitats, this loophole has been utilised by the proponents of the controversial Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP).

The Sethusamudram project proposed to create a 167 km long shipping canal passing through the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Strait and the Palk Bay between India and Sri Lanka. It involves dredging an 89 kilometre stretch for a width of 300 metres and a depth of 12 metres to accommodate ships less than 30,000 DWT having a draft of 10m. A large percentage of this cargo was projected to be petroleum oil and lubricants. Despite the detailed and informed criticisms levelled against it, this project has overcome the challenges, ridden roughshod over the environment impact assessment notification and obtained environmental clearance. Dredging activity commenced in 2006 without even obtaining the views of the Chief Wildlife Warden for environmental clearance. Park managers of the forest department remained mute spectators not just to the destruction of seagrass beds and coral reefs within the MPA caused by dredging activities but to the loss of flora and fauna all along the canal and outside the MPA as well.

The motorised fishing sector in Gopalpur in southern Odisha.

Similarly, the authorities in charge of the Gahirmatha Marine Wildlife Sanctuary in Orissa have been unable to halt the construction of the Dhamra port, just ten kilometres north of the MPA. Similarly, the Gulf of Kutch Marine National Park in Gujarat is located in the middle of an active shipping route and its fragile islands have been subjected to several oil spills and industrial activity in the Gulf. Our green and brown laws have only exacerbated marine conservation blues. It has been argued earlier that marine wildlife rules, planned through fisheries laws would have more traction with fishing communities, rather than the rigid WLPA, since they have essentially been resource-allocation laws. This view holds that marine conservation could meet with far more success if effected through means that promote social justice rather than those privileging a single endangered species.

Outlier environmentalism

While these arguments may help us steer conservation philosophies and modify policy, we must resist the temptation to replace one totem with another and instead engage with the dynamic perspectives that drive resource use and foster compliance. Although fishery laws approach conservation from resource use and management standpoint, thereby possessing the potential to integrate both conservation and development, the implementation of fisheries laws themselves leaves much to be desired. The record of non-compliance and non-implementation by empowered officials is almost as old as these laws themselves. Importantly, while the approach of inclusion is commendable in fisheries laws as far as resource extraction is concerned, few efforts have been made to make legal spaces for fishing communities to actively participate in their implementation. Nevertheless, however hard it is to distinguish the baby from the bathwater, conservationists (utilitarian or otherwise) must pay equal attention to reforming fisheries management laws as they do its terrestrial counterparts.

Gill net fishers near the Rushikulya rookery

The challenges of managing fisheries is not uncomplicated by any means. Traditional management systems based on restricting activities work well only where fishing communities are an integral part of the monitoring and enforcing mechanisms. The idea of intense resource use was not organic to traditional fisher communities. There is an active effort to promote such a perspective from the hinterland (significantly through technology up-gradation schemes of the state). These rapid technological advancements in fisheries and a noticeable systemic breakdown within the fishing communities make conformity to rules difficult. Only where fishing communities are better organised and the level of awareness and political representation greater have these communities been able to enforce some form of rules (traditional or official).

It is in the ordinary everyday life of fishers and in the political strategies of their leaders that one finds the outlines of a new kind of environmentalism that is fluid and defies water-tight categorisations. This ethic suggests that it is futile to remain wholly preservationist or utilitarian, or entirely biocentric or anthropocentric. This appears to be much more than the environmentalism of the poor. It is an ethic that has drawn in a range of actors, negotiating identity, caste, class and ideology. As new entrants to an old arena, lovers of turtles, dolphins, sharks and other marine creatures must give credence to these environmentalisms that these spaces nurture. Crossing over ideological, disciplinary and pedagogical boundaries is necessary if nature is not to become the outlier.

Further reading:

Gray NJ. 2010. Sea change: Exploring the international effort to promote marine protected areas. Conservation and Society Vol.8(4) pp 331-338.

Rajagopalan R. 2008. Marine Protected Areas in India. Samudra Monograph. International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Chennai.

Sridhar A and K Shanker. 2007. Lessons from marine paradigms. Seminar No. 577 (2007) pp 63 – 68.

This article is from issue


2015 Jun