Whose sea is it anyway? The question begs an answer. Increasingly, the coast is under threat from industries like sand mining, tourism and organized fisheries which erode the rich ecosystem and threaten the rights of traditional fishing communities. The only piece of legislation that stands between these forces and the sea is the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification of 1991 which regulates industrial and commercial activity on the coasts. Since its institution, the CRZ notification has been violated or diluted several times and in the wake of globalization, is being viewed as an obstacle to ‘development’. Plans are afoot to replace it with the Coastal Zone Management (CZM) notification, based on the recommendations of the committee chaired by MS Swaminathan in 2005. Fishing communities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who have been struggling to protect their ‘mother sea’ for many years now, are protesting this move for multiple reasons.
KP Sasi’s Resisting Coastal Invasions, a 52-minute documentary film, vividly captures both the magnitude of the threat and the heroism of the fishing communities. It analyzes the ramifications of the CZM notification and the dire consequences it will have on the 10 lakh fisherfolk populating India’s coasts. The film is a bold indictment of the Swaminathan Commission Report. In person, Sasi minces no words either. “The report is backed by a World Bank agenda to fund fishing harbours on the coast,” he says. “The traditional fishing community will be removed from the coast. Already in Allepey district in Kerala, 40 percent of the coast has been taken over by tourism. The same thing will happen everywhere.”
Fishing communities, already reeling from the many violations of the CRZ, are worried that the CZM notification will only make it easier for industries to invade the coast. The notification threatens their land rights and opens up all ‘vacant land’ of coastal panchayats for commercial development. The Swaminathan Commission Report recommends vulnerability mapping to decide how much of the coast should be given over to development in each place. Sasi voices indignance at this: “Who decides what is vulnerable? The state will decide and it will be led by the industrial lobby. The fisherfolk will lose their land rights and housing rights. The dilution of the CRZ creates space for the invasion of tourism and other industries.”
If KP Sasi sounds more like an activist than a filmmaker, it’s because he identifies himself as one. “I am an activist first. The filmmaking is an extension of that.” He goes on to expand on his view of creativity. “I derive my creativity from life. Mainstream views of creativity are set in certain norms. If you write, act, make films, sing, you are creative. But I think life is creative. You need creativity to jump onto a running bus, to hang on in a local train in Mumbai, to cook Sambar well. All protest is also creative. To make an impact, you have to protest in a creative manner.”
Sasi’s engagement with the fishing community’s stuggles has been a long one. In 1985, he directed We Who Make History and That Angry Arabian Sea, which depicted the social and ecological problems of trawling and the subsequent protests and later, in 1989, he made A Campaign Begins on their national march. “I have a very old equation with the Kerala fisherpeople,” he explains. “They have survived the struggle for a long time. We started working on this film soon after the struggle against CZM started. It took two years to make and I wouldn’t say it is a complete film. The problems shown are representative of the thousands of violations on the coast.”
For the film, Sasi traveled through Kerala and Tamil Nadu to capture some of the disastrous effects that coastal exploitation has already had—a depleted coastline, sea water flooding, traditional fisherfolk rendered homeless and landless. The film exposes the sand mining mafia in Kolavipalam and assays the effect of the Sethusamudram project. It talks about how, ironically, the CRZ was used to prevent traditional fishing communities from returning to their homes after the tsunami.
The conflict between commercial interests and the lives of ordinary people is a common trope in Sasi’s work. Many of his films have explored the collision of industrialization and so-called development with nature and the people whose lives are closely intertwined with it. A Valley Refuses to Die (1990) explored the social and ecological problems created by the Narmada Dams and, more recently, in The Source of Life for Sale (2004), he exposed the impacts of privatization of water in India. He attributes this to his beginnings in the highly politicized environment of JNU where he spent nights discussing both “political ideology and action”. “I came from a Left background,” he says, “so I was always interested in people’s struggles. When I started making films, I visited the fisherpeople communities. I used to go and sit with them. It excited me.”
Sasi is optimistic about film as a medium of social change but with characteristic humility, he clarifies that he is not a representative of the movement, merely a supporter. “Different people act at different levels. There are hundreds of ways that people can help. I believe that people respond to stimulus. A discussion is a process. You need several processes like that.” By consistently creating the space for such discussions through his films, Sasi infuses his art with his beliefs—and remarkably enough, does justice to both.
A version of this was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine today.