The Madras High Court had recently directed the the Chennai Corporation to pursue the proposal for a beach road connecting Marina to Besant Nagar.

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Voices Opinion Wednesday, February 26, 2020 - 17:17

On 21 February, 2020, Hon’ble Justice Suresh Kumar of the Madras High Court rightly observed that Chennai’s Greenways Road and DGS Dhinakaran Road had become congested due to the residences of VIPs like ministers and judges. They have asked the Chennai Corporation to consider the possibility of rebuilding the Broken Bridge and extending the Marina Loop Road to Besant Nagar.

According to an article in The Hindu, “. . .the judge asked the government and the Corporation to examine the possibility of reconstructing it. When we say examine the feasibility, kindly come up with some positive response. Don’t come back and say that it is an area under the Coastal Zone Regulation and therefore you cannot do anything about it and the road cannot be re-constructed. Show some seriousness and try to find a solution.” 

The order and Justice Kumar’s observations about the CRZ conveys that the court views the CRZ Notification as a hurdle, rather than the law of the land. The court has warned the Corporation against bringing up the CRZ law as a reason why the road cannot be built. 

By making clear its intolerance to the restrictions of the CRZ Notification, and its desire to realise the Marina-Besant Nagar Coastal Road, the High Court has indirectly warned off any persons who may have genuine grounds to contest the proposed road or the Loop Road footpath.

Chennai’s beaches: More than just a pretty place

Fishing communities are among the first residents of Chennai. The villages of Urur Olcott Kuppam, Nochikuppam, Mullikuppam and Dummingkuppam are ancient hamlets that have existed for centuries.

The Madras High Court’s proposal has revived a controversial project for an elevated Expressway connecting Lighthouse to Kottivakkam. This road was to run along the Loop Road, across the Adyar estuary over the Broken Bridge, through the historical Urur Olcott Kuppam fishing village and the beaches in Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur and Kottivakkam to join the ECR. The project, which was to be implemented in two phases, was expected to impact 1 lakh residents, according to the Feasibility Report prepared by Wilbur Smith Associates 10 years ago. The first phase of this proposal was from Lighthouse to 5th Avenue in Besant Nagar.

Yielding to a sustained three-year struggle by fisherfolk, environmentalists and non-fisher residents who came together as ‘Save Chennai Beaches’ campaign, the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa scrapped the project in September 2011.

The Beach Road proposal is not a wise choice for the following reasons.

1) It Will not solve the traffic problem: The current proposal will not solve the traffic congestion. It will merely transfer the congestion to Besant Nagar. New bottlenecks are created around Besant Nagar – such as at the junction of 5th Avenue and Elliots Beach Road, near the Besant Nagar bus depot, the junction of 2nd  Avenue and Kalakshetra Colony, and the inner roads of Kalakshetra Colony. Existing bottlenecks such as on Muthulakshmi Street near Kalakshetra Foundation en route Marundeeswarar Temple will worsen.

2) Does not consider simpler alternatives: By fixing on only one option, the court has ruled out the consideration of other alternatives -- such as staggering the school timings in Santhome High Road to not coincide with peak office hours, improving public transportation or enhancing the carrying capacity of the Santhome High Road. 

3) Will evict fisherfolk: The Beach Highway will cater primarily to the private car owning elite and will come up on the destroyed homes of fisherfolk and coastal poor. According to the Feasibility Report prepared by Wilbur Smith Associates for the earlier proposal of Elevated Expressway, the project will necessitate the “removal of [entire] fisherman villages on a temporary basis.” 

4) Will disrupt fisher livelihoods: As a livelihood space for fisherfolk, the beaches are put to multiple uses seasonally. In the months of Aadi and Aavani (mid-July to mid-September), sardines are caught by the ton close to the shore by artisanal fishermen. Vast expanses of beach sand, exposed to the sun are used to dry the fish for the market.

In the months of January to March, when the seas are still, Chennai's fisherfolk haul the communal Peria Valai (Big Net) to catch mackerel, prawns and perch. The Peria Valai, which is hauled by 50 to 60 able-bodied men requires untrammelled access to beach lengths of 500 metres with sandy stretches extending landwards for at least 200 metres. During and after construction of the highway, use of beach spaces for net-mending, fish drying, shore-seining etc will be affected. A new road along the beach will disrupt these livelihood spaces.

Turning these livelihood beaches into a thoroughfare and tourist zones will rob fishers of their livelihood, and make them second-class citizens on their own land. This is already happening in the Loop Road, where women vendors and fish processors are being edged out to make way for exclusive tourism zones. 

5) Exposes people and infrastructure to cyclones and Sea Level Rise: The Adyar Estuary is a dynamic place with shifting sands and water lines. The mouth of the river is never static, and moves up and down the coast. In the 19th century, the river mouth opened out near Pattinapakkam. It has moved south since, and even now, the mouth shifts significantly from year to year.

Add to this the fact that the coast along the Bay of Bengal is prone to cyclones. The storm surge from a single cyclone is enough to destroy major structures.  With global warming, cyclones are increasing in intensity. Increasing the density of critical infrastructure such as roads close to the sea exposes the infrastructure and its users to the violence of the seas. The fact that the Broken Bridge was broken in a cyclone is a testimony to the dangers of building structures at this location.

Sea Level Rise (SLR) poses a major threat to coastal cities in India. According to emerging scientific projections,  SLR of 1 metre by 2050 cannot be ruled out. A study done by the Government of Tamil Nadu’s State Land Use Research Board found that Chennai will lose 144 sq km of land endangering almost ten lakh lives if the sea level rises by a metre by 2050.  

6) Disruption of Olive Ridley turtle nesting habitat: Marina, Nochikuppam, Srinivasapuram, Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur and Kottivakkam beaches are known nesting grounds for Olive Ridley turtles. Chennai’s Coastal Zone Management Plan updated and approved in 2018 categorises these beaches as Turtle Nesting Habitat earning them the highest protection under CRZ Notification.

Olive Ridleys are listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act and ought to be treated at par with the Indian tiger. Turtle hatchlings are light sensitive, and strike out towards the moonlit-oceans in the absence of any background light. With a busy road running through the beach, the lights are likely to fatally confuse Ridley hatchlings. 

The Wilbur Smith feasibility report for the earlier proposed Elevated Expressway states: “The proposed construction activity has significant impact on fauna. The proposed site is known for the breeding ground of Olive Ridley Turtle (Green Turtle). The construction activities will have major impact on the turtle breeding.” 

7) Environmentally Sensitive Area: The Wilbur Smith report on the earlier proposed Elevated Expressway admits that “the first phase of the proposed road project crosses the marine environmental sensitive place of Adyar estuary. The estuary is also name demarcated [sic] as bird sanctuary by the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. Noise generation arising during the construction activity will drive the birds away and cause an ecological imbalance to the estuary and the fish population.” 

According to the citizen science database ebird.org, 191 bird species have been sighted in and around the Adyar estuary. At least two species, listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, -- namely, Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes) and the White-bellied Sea Eagle  (Haliaeetus leucogaster) -- have been sighted in the Theosophical Society grounds. 

The mudflats and intertidal zone of the Adyar Estuary are home to myriad lifeforms such as Ring-legged Fiddler crabs, Olive Sea snails, Tellin Clams, Red Ghost crabs, Mole crabs and Lugworms. Meanwhile birds such as Kentish Plover, Sanderling, Oystercatcher, Common Sandpiper, Caspian Tern and Little Stint from northern lands fly over from Central Asia and Europe to winter in the Adyar estuary. 

Light and noise pollution, which are likely to increase with increased traffic in the stretch from Srinivasapuram to Urur Olcott Kuppam through the Broken Bridge, will also affect the behaviour and distribution of song-birds and insects. Birds that use song and calls to communicate will be drowned out and confused by noise pollution. Insects, birds and animals that are nocturnally active will be disturbed by the light pollution. 

8) Damage to lungspace: One of the last surviving patches of tropical dense evergreen forests in South Chennai is to be found in the Theosophical Society. The Society has a mix of gardens, orchards and forests, and indigenous and exotic trees. The Saraca indica [Asoka, not Nettilingam] as well as a graft from the Bodhi (Ficus religiosa) tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained his enlightenment are to be found within the lands of the Theosophical Society. The Tropical Dense Evergreen Forests within the Society are different from the vegetation of the Guindy National Park which accommodates large herbivores like the Chital. Absent the grazing herbivore, the ground cover in the Society is intact, rich and abundant, displaying all three layers of vegetation typical of an evergreen forest. The freshwater ponds are home to terrapins, frogs, chameleons, snakes and insects. Jackals and mongoose too are residents of the Adyar-Besant Nagar area.

The edges of the estuary along the Theosophical Society also host the last remaining mangroves. 

9) Harming Chennai’s beaches: The beaches of Chennai are the last remaining open spaces available to Chennai-ites. The proposed road will degrade the recreational value of the beaches.

10) Flood alert: The 2015 floods demonstrated how roads, particularly running parallel to the shore, acted as walls retarding the drainage of flood waters into the sea. Given how construction sites and surroundings are seldom cleaned up after completion, the dumping of construction debris on the beach, even temporarily, will harm coastal ecology and hydrology, and exacerbate seasonal flooding. Filling in of low-lying areas for construction of culverts and embankments will permanently alter coastal topography and aggravate the effects of flooding on vulnerable coastal residents.