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Coastal confusion

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Mandarmoni used to be a quiet beach stretch on the Bay of Bengal lined by casuarinas. Today, it is a noisy and crowded vacation spot, dotted by illegally constructed hotels that brazenly violate CRZ norms.

You won't hear the waves crashing on the red stone boulders that line the expansive beach at Bengal's most-touted seaside destination - Mandarmoni. Nor will you hear the rustle of casuarinas swaying by the sea breeze. Or the excited shrieks of colonies of seagulls as they swoop down on the water and make off with their prized catches. All sounds of nature are drowned out by the collective roar of scores of giant generators that provide roundthe-clock power to the 45-odd hotels here.

The electricity supply to these upscale hotels was disconnected more than six years ago. And that's because all of them are deemed illegal. Mandarmoni is, in fact, India's, and perhaps the world's, only illegal seaside resort that has come up over the past one decade in flagrant violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification of 1991 that expressly prohibits any construction till 500 metres of the highest high tide line.

Far from being 500 or more metres away from the coastline, all the hotels in Mandarmoni are on, and some even beyond, the line! During high tide, especially during full moon or when the sea is rough, the waves crash into the lawns of many of the hotels. During spring tide (when the sea level is deemed to be at its highest), the water enters the rooms of some of the hotels as had happened in 2011.

"This itself proves that many of these hotels lie between the low and the highest high tide lines where any sort of structure, even a makeshift one, is prohibited, " said Sasanka Sekhar Dev, an environmentalist with Disha, an NGO that filed a PIL in the Calcutta High Court in 2006 seeking demolition of the illegal hotels at Mandarmoni.

A December 2006 report by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board also recommended demolition of the existing hotels and a ban on construction of new ones. Six years hence, many more hotels have come up, while at least half a dozen more are under construction within the high tide line.

Till early 2000, Mandarmoni, about 200 km southwest of Kolkata in East Midnapore district, was a pristine 13-km stretch of sand lined with dunes and a profusion of screw pines and casuarinas. Beyond the beach were half a dozen idyllic villages inhabited by about a few hundred fishing families. "This beach was once a prime breeding ground for mud prawns and red crabs. They're all gone now, " says Ratna Majhi, a Greenpeace awardee and a fisherwoman herself.

Mandarmoni's tranquillity eventually became its curse. The first hotelier came here to buy land in a village by the sea sometime in the late 1990s. The hotel which came up in 2002 became very popular with tourists and soon more entrepreneurs flooded the area. Sand was mined for construction and that killed the rich flora and fauna of the area. Some even fenced off portions of the beach to make them 'private', says Debashish Shyamal, the general secretary of Dakshin Banga Matsajibi Forum, an association of fish workers.

The beach, in fact, has become the dumping ground for construction debris and has even turned into the main thoroughfare for trucks and other passenger vehicles. The so-called 'beach drive' is touted as the USP of Mandarmoni, not just by the hoteliers, but also by CM Mamata Banerjee. In January, a beach festival was organised to showcase Mandarmoni's fast fading charms.

None of the hoteliers bothered to take the mandatory permission from the West Bengal State Coastal Zone Management Authority, the state pollution control board or the district authorities. "They chose to get permission from the local panchayats which cannot be the authority to grant such permission, " said Disha's Dev.

The beachfront hotels were frequented by bureaucrats, police officers and politicians but it was not till February 2006 that one of the hotels sought a 'consent to operate' from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board. The board asked the hotel to get clearance from the state CRZ authority. The Board conducted a survey in July 2006 and found that the five hotels on the beach had come up illegally. They were asked to shut shop and the state electricity board was told to disconnect their power supply.

One of the hotels appealed against the order to the Board's Appellate Authority, which constituted a committee of experts to conduct an on-the-spot survey. This survey, in December 2006, found that the hotel which appealed against the order was 3, 725 metres on the seaward side of the highest high tide line of 1991. The authority in February 2007 recommended the demolition of this hotel within two months.
The hoteliers then banded together as Mandarmoni Beach Hoteliers' Welfare Association and went to Calcutta High Court to plead against the demolition order and obtain a stay. The court acceded to this plea but also ordered that no new constructions be undertaken. While the case is still pending before the court, many hotels are coming up on the beach.

A two-judge bench of Calcutta High Court passed an order on Disha's petition in April 2007 asking the state Coastal Zone Management Authority and the state environment department to treat it as a representation and take action on various points. "But the Authority simply told us that since the matter of construction of hotels was sub-judice, no action could be taken on them. They are silent on why they do not stop further construction as ordered by the court. We then filed a contempt petition in October 2007, but that is also pending before the court, " says Dev.

This construction boom has had another effect - the sewerage and effluents discharged by the hotels directly into the sea has affected marine life. "Our catch along this coast has dwindled alarmingly, " says Prashanta Kumar Bar, a fisherman.

But the Mandarmoni Beach Hoteliers' Welfare Association is dismissive of all allegations. "The high tide line was to have been delineated within a year of the 1991 CRZ notification. But this was not done till December 25, 2011 when the local BDO and SDO came here and physically verified and delineated it. In the absence of this delineation, the hotels cannot be faulted for coming up where they did. In fact, we are all eco-tourism resorts, " claims association secretary Debdulal Das Mahapatra.

He concedes that sand dunes were removed and beach sand mined, but maintains that this did not violate environmental norms. As for the dwindling red crab population, "there are many other untouched beaches where red crabs can thrive. And one of Mandarmoni's main attractions is that it is the only beach in India on which a tourist can take a long drive, " he says.

Mahapatra's trust in the Mamata Banerjee government appears to be justified. After the hoteliers told the Chief Minister during her visit to Mandarmoni in January this year that the generators were causing pollution, the state power department was asked to carry out a survey on power requirement for the hotels.

Environmentalists say that uncontrolled tourism can kill Mandarmoni. "The sea is advancing slowly and we fear it won't be long before these hotels are gobbled by the sea, " says Shyamal. The hotels, perhaps anticipating this, have dumped red stone boulders and built thick guard walls to save their properties.

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