Displaced by the Sea, Failed by the State

Hassan Sab did not expect to lose land twice. Standing on Kasarkod beach, in Karnataka’s Honnavar taluk, Sab pointed out to the Arabian sea. There, he explained, “my family owns three acres of land. It was accessible till about four decades ago”. Over the years, however, the mouth of the river Sharavati, which met the sea near their village, Mallukurva, shifted northwards, submerging the village. By the mid 1980s, nearly the entire village was underwater, and most of its residents had relocated.

But after a decade, the sea began to deposit sand back towards the south, and created a sand pit approximately three km long and 600 metres wide, close to where Mallukurva lay submerged. “The sea deposited sand back on the Kasarkod side of the river,” Sab said. “At some places it was only a few 100 meters away from my original village, at some it was about a kilometer away.”

The former residents of Mallukurva believed that the newly emerged land was part of their old village.

“There is no other way about it,” Sab said. “Mallukurva was submerged, and now if land is reappearing close to its original location, it has to be Mallukurva.”

But as information on the state government’s website on land records makes clear, the revenue department treated the newly emerged land as part of Kasarkod, and named it Tonka, the Konkani word for tip or tail.

This was the mid-1990s, a time during which the number of trawlers and persin boats in the region’s sea waters were increasing, and with this, the amount of fish being landed on the coast. Surplus after fresh sales was also growing – the only way to store this surplus for later sale was by drying it. Since there was now an increased need for space for drying fish, Sab and over 150 other locals, who belong to the fisher community, began to use the newly formed land. “We divided land among ourselves,” said Sab. “We used natural identification marks on the river bank, such as a mango tree, light house and the bridge to identify approximate boundaries of our individual land shares.”

The loss of Mallukurva and the accretion of new land near the village is part of a much broader phenomenon of coastal erosion, which affects all of India’s coast, and is particularly pronounced in Karnataka. Between 1990 and 2016, India lost 235 square kilometres of land to coastal erosion, of which, 28%, or 66 square kilometres, fell in Karnataka.

Researchers predict that such erosion in coastal Karnataka will intensify. “Warmer temperatures are leading to stronger and wetter storms,” explained MD Subhash Chandran, an ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and a member of the Karnataka Coastal Zone Management Authority. “These, combined with sea level rise, lead to more destructive storm surges with unusually high tides that can cause coastal flooding. Due to sea level rise, the waves can go further inland on beaches and erode them.”

The change in the coastline is already quite stark: one study of changes in coastal land between 1990 and 2016 found that more than 22% of Karnataka’s 300-km coastline was “under erosion”.

Residents of villages like Mallukurva experience further distress and confusion as a result of conflicts over new land formed by material deposited by the sea. The phenomenon is not unique to the village: government reports note that between 1990 and 2016 India gained 231 square km of land through a similar process of accretion.

But, Indian policymakers have yet to fully address these complex problems that result from the interplay of coastal erosion and accretion.

This is a summary. Read the full article on Scroll.in.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Scroll.in on December 20, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: An illustration of the Indian coastline / Credit: Divya Ribeiro.

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