Something Fishy About 500


I was on the campus of IIT Bombay last week. I saw my Professor Friend rushing out of the Central Library.

“What are you researching on Professor?” I asked

“Well Dr. Modak, I have been quite intrigued with the use of number 500.  Many seem to have taken quite a fancy for this number” Professor lit his cigar as we started walking to the IIT Canteen.

“Oh, I don’t think anything deep in the number 500 Professor. Number 500 is an HTTP status code for Internal Server Error. Number 500 also shows up as an SMTP status code meaning a syntax error has occurred due to unrecognized command. There is no other significance”

“Oh, don’t trivialize the importance and mystery of 500”. I could sense that Professor did not like my simple explanation.

So I thought of a better explanation. I said

“Number 500 is a blend of the vibrations of number 5 and the energies of the powerful number 0, appearing twice. Number 5 resonates with making major life changes, spontaneity, life lessons learned through experience, making important choices, personal freedom, auspicious opportunities and being true to yourself” I reeled out this explanation like you read in the Wikipedia.

“Oh Dr. Modak, what kind of world are you living in? Think in the environmental context” Professor said this in a rather disappointed tone while descending down the staircase leading to the Canteen.

We took our seats on the metal chairs around a table with uneven legs. We purchased coupons for two plates of bread and omelet (You may not know but IIT Bombay staff canteen boasts to serve one of the thinnest omelets in the world). We also got some chai.

Professor then explained to me the real implication of Number 500 from an environmental perspective.

“Dr. Modak, you are aware that 500 meters are specified in India’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification. It states that the land area from High Tide Line to 500mts on the landward side along the sea front is in the CRZ. There are development restrictions stipulated accordingly. The number 500 therefore matters to all the builders, developers, government officials. To some Chief Ministers, relaxation in 500 m can mean a land bank that can make money more than Putin and Trump put together ”

I added “Yes, I know, but don’t forget the fishermen”. Professor did not seem to be much bothered about my reminder.

Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests passed the CRZ related regulation in 1991 and defined various zones such as CRZ-I, CRZ-II, CRZ-III and CRZ-IV. Each zone lists what is permissible and what is not with opportunities for interpretation.

The CRZ regulation has become contentious because of growing conflicts between the fishermen and those who want to develop hotels and projects near the coast. Balancing these interests has always been a tough call. The 1991 regulation was amended 25 times before it got comprehensively revised in 2011.

“So how was this 500-m number arrived at?” I asked

“Nobody knows Dr. Modak and nobody questions whether this number ever had any scientific basis” Professor sounded rather exasperated. “Rationally, the distance should be arrived at based the impact potential of the shoreline activities. Ideally the distance should be site specific as vulnerabilities in coastal areas will be different at different locations. Putting a blanket “buffer” of 500 m is like trying to fit one size for all”

“Well, you are right Professor” I couldn’t disagree. I thought it will be worth to develop a Vulnerability Index (VI), using information on our biodiversity hotspots, considering currents and depths, likely sea level rise and satellite imageries with thermal band. This VI may help in setting guidelines for the distance on a more objective and rational basis. I thought of offering this as a Masters dissertation to students at IIT Bombay.

Professor continued

“Dr Modak, the supremacy of number 500 does not stop there. Its now creeping into other spheres intruding our lives”

Last December, the Supreme Court of India ordered closure of all liquor shops along national and state highways if they were within a range of 500m from the edge of such highways, and directed governments to “cease and desist” from issuing excise licenses after March 31, 2017. A bench led by Chief Justice of India J S Khehar reduced the limit from 500m to 200m for “municipal corporation, city, town or local authority” provided the population was 20,000 or less after noting that the entire township might fall within the 500m-range. States of Sikkim and Meghalaya have been exempted from this directive where almost 90 per cent of liquor shops were to be closed because their relocation was not possible due to topographical constraints. These shops have been completely exempt from this directive by the court.

“Oh, number 200m also seems familiar – its stipulated in CRZ-III” I recalled

“Well Dr. Modak, The CRZ notification is so much discussed in the Indian courts that I was expecting schema of DRZs I, II and III on lines of CRZ-I, II and III” Professor said.

“What is DRZ? “I could not resist to ask

“Oh, its Drinking Regulatory Zone” Professor winked.

“This is terrible – why this restriction Professor” – After a long drive, stopping by a dhaba for a glass of chilled beer with egg bhurji was always so heavenly – that I was surely going to miss.

The Supreme court has noted that nearly 150,000 people die due to road accidents resulting from drunk driving. This is a matter of great concern and hence a basis for this ban.

I kept shut. You may know that millions of people in India die due to Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) especially due to the rampantly growing diabetes. I was worried that that one day the Supreme Court will simply ban shops selling sweats within 500 meters’ distance from the schools and hospitals.

“The Honorable Judge should have thought of other options. Like limiting to sale of only low alcohol drinks (e.g. less than 2% alcohol content)”. I suggested.

“Well, enforcement of such recommendations is impossible. You are talking like a typical IIT intellectual who makes impractical suggestions” Professor pooh poohed my idea.

“Note that there is an ambiguity in the definition of 500 m distance as well. It is not clear whether 500 m refers to the direct distance (on the map) or distance travelled by road. Some hoteliers are asking for the latter definition based on road or travel distance”

This ambiguity in the DRZ sounded to me similar to the controversies in the calculation of distances in the CRZ.

Professor continued

“I expect that this imposition is going to Increase the national fuel consumption and hence the GHG emissions making tough for us to meet our pledge in the INDC released in COP21. People will now drive more than 500 m, circle around and search for a liquor bar now. They will eventually drink and so the death toll may not actually reduce”

“You have a point Professor”. I said this while walking towards the car outside the Main Building.

As I was getting into my car, Professor looked at me and spoke in a deep voice – “Dr. Modak – On number 500 again. Remember PM demonetized Rs 500 notes and not 100 Rs”

He was right once again. Indeed, there was something mystic about the number 500 – both to the politicians and judiciary.

Professor turned back and said “Let me get back to the Central Library therefore to research on why 500?

I drove back home wishing him all the best.

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  1. We had similar experience with respect to buffer zone for hazardous industries. Starting with 1 km based on maximum credible loss scenario when we first approached court against builders coming too close it was reduced to 500 meters and later even to 100 meters. Expecting it to become zero we closed shop.

  2. Next time I come across “500”, I will jump up and let my imagination run wild on its abstract “could be” connections.

  3. Thanks Prasad for raising an issue which we environmental professionals find it extremely difficult to defend to our managements. In my opinion CRZ Notification should be scrapped and MOEFCC should come out with Go and No-Go Maps for coastal areas.

  4. The arbitrariness of setting distances that apply to all sites is well known. There is a hint in the article of using vulnerability index which would be site-specific. Will you like to elaborate on this concept further?

    1. Well even that is compromised as you can see from my comments. After all MCLS itself is statistically based compromise from MLS.

  5. i thought this happened only in army….the spouse club can take one to places…..great reading sir

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