Akash Kapur writes a “Letter from India” for The New York Times about lives and livelihoods destroyed by coastal erosion in a small village near Pondicherry. The full text of the article is given below or may be read here.
CHINNAMUDALIARCHAVADI, INDIA — For centuries this village lived in harmony with the ocean. Fishermen earned a reliable, if meager, living off the sea. Boys played cricket on the beach. In summers, while the rest of South India simmered, a gentle breeze cooled its unelectrified huts.
Something has gone wrong in recent years. In 2004, as fishermen sorted through the day’s catch, the Asian tsunami roared through the village, destroying huts and boats. No one was killed, but hundreds of lives — and livelihoods — were devastated.
Then, just as the village was recovering from that disaster, a slower, but in many ways more insidious, tragedy began taking shape. Villagers started noticing that the ocean was drawing closer. The stretch of sand in front of their huts was shrinking. The beach was eroding.
In a matter of months, the waters were entering the village at high tide, infiltrating huts and public buildings. Scores of homes were destroyed. Their owners, many of whom had rebuilt after the tsunami, were forced to retreat to rented accommodations farther inland.
The erosion eating away at Chinnamudaliarchavadi is the continuation of a process that started more than two decades ago, when the city of Pondicherry, about 10 kilometers, or 6 miles, from the village, decided to build a new port. Environmentalists warned that the port would block replenishing sand flows carried by currents from the south. They were overruled in the name of progress: Politicians promised the port would bring investment to the area.
So the port was built, in 1989, and the prediction came true. First Pondicherry lost its beach, a bank of yellow sand that I had played on since my childhood. Then the erosion began creeping north, eating away the shoreline at an estimated rate of 500 meters, or more than 1,600 feet, per year.
In 2007, several groynes — imposing piles of granite, some of which extend around a hundred meters into the ocean — were built in a desperate attempt to halt the erosion. They succeeded in slowing erosion around Pondicherry but only pushed the problem up the coast, dramatically accelerating the process in Chinnamudaliarchavadi and neighboring villages.
A few months after the construction of those groynes, I visited Chinnamudaliarchavadi and wrote an article about its problems. The devastation was evident: uprooted trees, collapsed electricity poles and an ocean that roared dangerously close to homes.
Now, revisiting some three years later, I found the destruction even more pronounced. The entire front of the village, about two or three rows of huts, had been eaten away. The beach was littered with debris: concrete and clothes and bits and pieces of Styrofoam.
A slice of a women’s public latrine, stripped of plaster, reduced to bricks and rusted steel, reclined on the narrow beach, half-buried in sand like some ancient ruin.
Standing on high ground, with waves lapping below us, M. Segar and his wife told me about the loss of their village. They talked about how the ocean had swallowed their house. Mr. Segar said he had grown up in that house, as had his father and grandfather.
They talked, too, about how difficult it had become for fishermen to earn a living. The sea had changed, Mr. Segar said. It had become rougher, more unpredictable. Not long ago, three fishermen died when their boat overturned near the shore. They had been the sole breadwinners in their families.
“The village is disappearing,” Mr. Segar said. “I try not to think about it. What can we do?”
He said that the village had made several appeals to government officials, pleading for assistance. A group of fishermen had traveled to Chennai, about 160 kilometers away, and stayed there for a week before getting an appointment with an influential minister.
Everyone promised, he said, but no one had helped. He asked whether I thought my article would make a difference. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mr. Segar that the village’s situation was only likely to get worse.
Across the country, beaches — and, with them, villages and professions and human lives — are disappearing. According to the Asian Development Bank, 26 percent of India’s shoreline suffers from serious erosion. In Goa and Kerala, hotels and beach resorts (some of them constructed in violation of environmental building regulations) are crumbling into the Arabian Sea. Villagers and farmers along the country’s 7,500-kilometer coast are struggling with rising salinity in their wells.
The scale of the unfolding disaster is overwhelming. Around a quarter of India’s population — some 250 million people — live along the coast. Their plight will be exacerbated by the predicted rise in sea levels due to global warming. Millions will have to be relocated. Millions will lose their livelihoods.
Some of the devastation is being caused by natural forces. Much of it, though, is the result of human activity: unchecked and unregulated construction, the destruction of mangroves and other natural barriers, the relentless pursuit of wealth.
In Pondicherry, the government, keen to be part of India’s rapid development, is now talking about building a new, bigger port. Environmentalists are protesting again, arguing that it will worsen an already grave crisis. Once again, they are being overruled.
Behind Chinnamudaliarchavadi, where a stretch of highway has been upgraded from a country path in recent decades, the pace of development is rapid. Beach resorts and movie theaters have gone up. Thatch huts have come down, replaced by air-conditioned restaurants and guesthouses.
The new money, the evidence of prosperity, is undeniable. Villages along the road have seen their prospects brighten, their horizons widen.
But standing on that dwindling beach with Mr. Segar and his wife, listening to stories of how their lives have shrunk, how their village is literally vanishing, it’s hard not to wonder: What’s a fair price to pay for all this progress?