01 / 1998
The severe environmental and socio-economic consequences of unregulated shrimp farming in India prompted Gandhian, S. Jagannathan, to file a petition before the Supreme Court of India.
The petition sought the enforcement of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ)Notification of 1991, under which all activity in the coastal zone, i.e. within 500 metres of the High Tide Line (HTL)and near creeks, backwaters, estuaries and other water-bodies influenced by tidal action, was regulated. The petition also sought the stoppage of intensive and semi-intensive type of shrimp farming in the ecologically fragile coastal areas and a ban on converting wastelands and agricultural lands to shrimp farms.
On the 11 December 1996, the Supreme Court of India handed out one of the most radical decisions in recent times. The order directed the demolition of all shrimp farms set up within 500 m of the HTL and alongside creeks, backwaters, estuaries, rivers, etc, and within 1000 m of the Chilka lake in Orissa and the Pulicat lake in Tamil Nadu and Pondichery, by 31 March 1997. The Court further directed the setting up of a Special Authority to protect the coast.
This Authority alone would licence all aquaculture industry outside this area. It would also be empowered to assess the loss caused to the ecology and to the villagers and collect damages from the prawn farms.
In the 110-page judgement the Court noted that: "...While the production increases and export earnings of the industry are well publicised, the socio-economic losses and environmental degradation affecting the well-being of the coastal population are hardly noticed." It further observed that: "...In fact, shrimp farms are developing at the expense of other agriculture, aquaculture, forest uses and fisheries that are better suited, in many places, for meeting local food and employment requirements. Intensive and semi-intensive types of shrimp production
hardly seem to meet these requirements."
The court reiterated the principles of `precaution’ and `the polluter should pay’. Simply put, the precautionary principle means that environmental regulation should anticipate and prevent environmental degradation, and not merely attempt to provide relief after the damage has occurred. This implies that the onus of proof is on industry to show that its operation is benign and that even if there is a threat of serious and irreversible damage to the environment, immediate steps should be taken to prevent it, without debating over scientific certainty.
According to the `polluter pays’ principle, the industry is absolutely liable to compensate victims of pollution, and also to reverse environmental degradation. The Court stipulated that:
"..The authority shall, with the help of expert opinion and after giving opportunity to the concerned polluters, assess the loss to the ecology/ environment of the affected areas and shall be liable to compensate individuals/families who have suffered because of the pollution and shall assess the compensation to be paid to the said individual/families. The authority shall further determine the compensation to be recovered from the polluters as cost of reversing the damaged environment."
Concepts such as `sustainable development’, `the polluter pays’, the `precautionary principle’ and `inter-generational equity’ have thus been indelibly stamped on to Indian environmental jurisprudence. This will enrich other ongoing struggles to protect the environment as well as the access of marginalised segments to natural resources.
The most progressive part of the judgement lies in its articulation of inter-generational equity, the central tenet of which is the right of each generation of human beings to benefit from the cultural and natural inheritance from past generations as well as the obligation to preserve such heritage for future generations.
The judgement by the Supreme Court of India, banning all but traditional forms of shrimp culture in the sensitive coastal zone, cannot but strengthen the environmental movement in India. It has been hailed as historic by environmental and people’s groups, including fishworker organisations. However, the response from industry has been more muted. It has been alleged that the judgement is biased and efforts are being made to appeal against it. In this, industry has found support from political groups and other vested interests.
The final fate of the judgement remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, however, the judgement has clearly spotlit the shrimp aquaculture industry in India and put it on the defensive. The industry will find it difficult to ignore the pressure to conform to environmental standards. It will have to take into account the social
consequences of its activities. People’s organisations need to continue to play the vital `watchdog’ role to ensure these changes.
Artículos y dossiers
MOHAN, T., A welcome noose in. Samudra Report, 1997/03, 17