Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav on September 21, 2021 announced that two more beaches (Kovalam in Tamil Nadu and Eden in Puducherry) in India have been granted the 'Blue Flag' certification taking the total number of such beaches to 10 in the country.

"Happy to announce India now has 10 International Blue Flag beaches with the addition of Kovalam & Eden beaches this year and recertification for 8 beaches which got the tag in 2020. Another milestone in our journey towards a clean and green India led by PM Shri Narendra Modi ji," his tweet read.

The eight beaches that got recertified are: Radhanagar (Andaman & Nicobar Islands), Kasarkod and Padubidri (Karnataka), Kappad (Kerala), Shivrajpur (Gujarat), Ghoghla (Diu), Rushikonda (Andhra Pradesh), Golden (Odisha).

In December 2019, the Ministry for Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC) had identified 13 beaches across the country for Blue Flag certification. The approval for the rest of the three beaches — Bangaram in Lakshadweep, Bhogave in Maharashtra and Miramar in Goa — is still in limbo.

In order to achieve this feat, the MoEFCC embarked on a flagship program Beach Environment & Aesthetics Management Services (BEAMS) which is one of the initiatives under Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) approach to ensure sustainable development of coastal regions of India. The main aim of BEAMS is to reduce pollution in coastal waters, promote sustainable development of beach facilities, protect & conserve coastal ecosystems & natural resources.

It was also focusing on installing infrastructures such as solid waste management system, grey water treatment plant, bio toilets, changing room and showers, security and surveillance systems and daily beach cleaning activity to achieve the Blue Flag Certification for the identified beaches.

What is Blue Flag certification?

The 'Blue Flag' tag is a voluntary eco-label that can be obtained by a beach, marina (dock for small boats or yachts) or tourism boat operators to promote sustainable development in freshwater and marine areas, according to the Blue Flag organisation's website. This programme, which started in France in 1985, is run by the Denmark-based non-profit called Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). It challenges local authorities and beach operators to achieve high standards in the four categories: water quality, environmental management, environmental education and safety.

A total of 49 countries are currently participating in the programme and 4,820 beaches, marinas and tourism boats have been awarded with this iconic tag. Of these, Spain (712) has the most number of blue flag tags. This is followed by Greece (567), Turkey (551), France (525) and Italy (497). To qualify for this certification, 33 stringent criteria must be met and maintained.

Criteria for Blue Flag tag

Under Environment Education and Information, six criteria need to be met and each beach must provide at least five environmental education activities to the public, preferably during its Blue Flag season.

1. Information about the Blue Flag Programme must be displayed.

2. Environmental education activities must be offered and promoted to beach users.

3. Information about bathing water quality must be displayed.

4. Information relating to local ecosystems, environmental elements and cultural sites must be displayed.

5. A map of the beach indicating different facilities must be displayed.

6. A code of conduct that reflects appropriate laws and/or regulations governing the use of the beach and surrounding areas must be displayed.

In the Water Quality section, the programme requires that beaches achieve national standards for bathing water quality. In India, to ensure low sewage contamination faecal coliform and faecal streptococci are considered as they reflect the bacterial pathogenicity in the water, according to the primary water quality criteria for bathing water as per the Central Pollution Control Board.

The pH range of the bathing water should ideally be between 6.5-8.5 pH so that it provides protection to the skin and delicate organs like eyes, nose and ears which are directly exposed during outdoor bathing. Also, the minimum dissolved oxygen concentration should be 5 mg/1 to ensure reasonable freedom from oxygen consuming organic pollution and obnoxious gases.

A Blue Flag beach must have at least one sampling point, which must be located where the concentration of bathers is highest. Samples should be taken 30 cm below the water surface except for the mineral oil samples that should be taken at surface level. The other criteria in this category are:

7. The beach must fully comply with the water quality sampling and frequency requirements.

8. The beach must fully comply with the standards and requirements for water quality analysis.

9. Industrial, waste-water or sewage-related discharges must not affect the beach area.

10. The beach must comply with the Blue Flag requirements for the microbiological parameter Escherichia coli (faecal coli bacteria) and intestinal enterococci (streptococci).

11. The beach must comply with the Blue Flag requirements for physical and chemical parameters.

Under environmental management, 15 criteria have to be met and maintained according to the coastal and environmental regulations in India.

12. The local authority/beach operator should establish a beach management committee. The committee should include all relevant stakeholders such as local authority representatives, hotel manager, beach manager, lifeguard, educational representative and local NGOs.

13. The local authority/beach operator must comply with all laws and/or regulations affecting the location and operation of the beach. The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification was issued in 1991 under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, by the Ministry of Environment and Forest to regulate activities in coastal areas of India. CRZ consists of coastal land up to 500 metres from the High Tide Line (HTL) along seas, bays, creeks and rivers and has been classified as CRZ-I, CRZ-II (villages near the shoreline), CRZ-III(areas that are undisturbed and which do not fall under category 1 and 2) and CRZ-IV (aquatic area from low tide line up to territorial limits) in the 1991 notification.

14. Sensitive areas must be managed.

CRZ-1 zone, consisting of mangroves, coral reefs, biosphere reserves, is considered ecologically sensitive. No new construction is permitted except projects related to the Department of Atomic Energy and Construction of trans-harbour sea link and roads without affecting the tidal flow of water.

15. The beach must be clean. Mechanical sieving and deep cleaning of the sand should be carried out occasionally in highly used areas to remove small size waste, such as cigarette butts, etc. Cleaning of the beach must be carried out with consideration for local flora and fauna (where turtles may have buried eggs in the sand). Use of insecticides or chemicals to clean the sand or surrounding environment is not allowed.

16. Algal vegetation or natural debris must be left on the beach.

17. Waste disposal bins/containers must be available at the beach in adequate numbers and they must be regularly maintained.

18. Facilities for the separation of recyclable waste materials must be available at the beach.

19. An adequate number of toilet or restroom facilities must be provided.

20. The toilet or restroom facilities must be kept clean.

21. The toilet or restroom facilities must have controlled sewage disposal.

22. There must be no unauthorised camping or driving and no dumping on the beach

23. Access to the beach by dogs and other domestic animals must be strictly controlled.

24. All buildings and beach equipment must be properly maintained.

25. Marine and freshwater sensitive habitats (such as coral reefs or seagrass beds) in the vicinity of the beach must be monitored.

26. A sustainable means of transportation should be promoted in the beach area.

Under safety and service standards, seven criteria must be met. The organisation recommends that the beach operator undertakes a safety risk assessment for each designated bathing area. This safety risk assessment is to be carried out by the appropriate national authorities. The organisation also recommends that authorities follow flags and signs prescribed in ISO 20712, which provides guidelines for water and beach safety signs and flags in aquatic environments.

27. Appropriate public safety control measures must be implemented

28. First aid equipment must be available on the beach.

29. Emergency plans to cope with pollution risks must be in place.

30. There must be management of different users and uses of the beach so as to prevent conflicts and accidents.

31. There must be safety measures in place to protect users of the beach and free access must be granted to the public.

32. A supply of drinking water should be available at the beach.

33. At least one Blue Flag beach in each municipality must have access and facilities provided for the physically disabled. Access to the beach must be facilitated by access ramps designed for users with various disabilities. It is recommended that the ramp design and material be environmentally friendly. Additionally, parking areas must have reserved spaces for disabled parking. If access ramps cannot be provided due to the topography (steep cliffs), the local authority must apply for a dispensation for this criterion in the application.

Lastly, If the beach, marina or boat operators fail to comply with these standards ,the flag may be permanently or temporarily withdrawn from the beach, as per the criteria guidelines.