Wedged behind towering skyscrapers is the 800-year-old Worli Koliwada, the home of the Koli community in Mumbai. A lively fish market typically awaits visitors at the entrance of these settlements. However, behind the charm of such “artisanal fishing” is a tale of threats to their very source of livelihood, fish, to a receding and restricted shoreline. The upcoming coastal road is built on land reclaimed from the sea and the long-term impact of the reclamation on availability of fish stock hasn’t been assessed.

Worli Koliwada is just a tiny blip on the 7,516 km long jawline of the country that abuts the sea. This long coastline was the subject of a performance audit conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India last year. By its very nature, a performance audit goes beyond conventional audit to evaluate the key challenges in, say, a programme and provide actionable recommendations to the government. This audit on conservation of coastal ecosystems in India covered ecological, societal, and economic issues on the coastline under the larger gamut of blue economy. Blue economy emerged as one of the two priority areas (the second theme being Responsible Artificial Intelligence) for collaboration amongst Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) of G20 nations — the SAI20 — in the meeting in Guwahati in mid-March under the Chairmanship of the CAG of India. The coastline of G20 countries account for 45 per cent of that of the world’s, and India’s theme found an encouraging resonance among member SAIs.

Blue economy encompasses a wide range of cross cutting sectors ranging from fisheries and aquaculture to maritime transportation and renewable energy, making it a complex and labyrinthine landscape to navigate in audit. But it also holds tremendous value. The World Bank pegs the economic potential of ocean resources at $24 trillion to provide livelihood to over three billion people. India has 1.85 lakh licensed vessels for industrial fishing, besides small scale artisanal fishery that bears a significant footprint of fisherwomen.

Question of sustainability

Thirty-four per cent of global fish stocks are currently overfished, and another 60 per cent are fished at their maximum sustainable level. Ocean ecosystems are under threat from many directions. For instance, ballast water of large shipping vessels have brought along alien invasive species like Mytella Strigata, a mussel of South American origin, which has wiped out populations of green mussel (Perna viridis) in the Ramsar site of Ashtamudi Lake in Kerala besides threatening the survival of indigenous clam and backwater oysters.

The enormous potential of the blue economy cannot be realised without addressing critical issues such as marine biodiversity conservation, gender equity, and effective coastal spatial planning. Spatial planning divides the coastal map into thousands of bite-sized squares. For instance, the Worli hamlet falls in grid number 75 in a 100-plus grid for the coastline in Maharashtra. Each grid demarcates an ecologically sensitive zone, supported by management plans that specify the (permissible) activities that it can sustain— fisheries, tourism, infrastructure projects, etc

One of the areas examined in the performance audit was the extent of compliance to management plans for grids along 6,100 km of the coastline, which would have been impossible to check but for the use of a technology-enabled toolkit. Using a GIS software, the grids were assigned geographical attributes that transformed the management plan maps to dynamically active spatial files with grids colour-coded on the grade of their ecological sensitivity.

By transposing on this base (of “what should be”), the images from Google Earth (of “what is”), the auditors could see how far the on-site reality differed from what is mandated. The toolkit revealed, among others, a racetrack in a CRZ1 area in Pattipulam in Tamil Nadu, CRZ1 being the ecologically most sensitive in the hierarchy of regulated areas. While resorts and shopping malls dotted “no development zones” along the coastline of Kerala.

This toolkit is not just an audit resource shared by the CAG of India at the SAI20 meeting. It can be adapted for use by the government for oversight on compliance with the coastal management plans. And since it uses open resources, the same tools can be put together in an app that allows communities to partner government in conservation as “blue marshals”. Imagine if the kolis were to be drafted to monitor activities in grid number 75? And what if the kolis could join hands with other fishing communities along the coast — just as auditors and governments join hands under the G20 banner — to protect the waters which in any case, recognise no grids or boundaries?

The waters bind us on one earth, one family and one future and as Amitav Ghosh reminds us “no place was so remote as to escape the flood of history”.

The writers work at the CAG of India