Chennai based competitive surfer Utkarsh S was riding the waves on Saturday morning when he heard a loud siren blare. Suddenly, a few marine police officers rushed towards him in an all terrain vehicle (ATV), and dragged him out of the sea.
"Before I knew what was happening, I was asked to leave the beach," he says. The 36-year-old was among scores of surfers who were enjoying the waves at the Covelong beach, a surfer's hub located 20 minutes from the historic temple town of Mamallapuram - which will host a high level summit between Chinese premier Xi Jinping and PM Modi in the second week of October.
Ahead of this meeting, the Tamil Nadu Coastal Security Group (CSG) has imposed a 20-day ban on surfing and other water sports, citing security reasons. Sources told TNM that the security protocol was a regular one and Indian security apparatus also had to work in tandem with Chinese security manuals.
On Tuesday, ADGP of the Coastal Security Group K Vanniya Perumal confirmed that 'near shore' water activities have been stopped as they cannot afford mishaps ahead of the visit. He also added that some of the surfing schools in the area are illegal and have been asked to stop operations for the time being.
The sudden ban comes as a big blow to surfers and surf schools in the locality, as they say it will affect their livelihood.
"Within a matter of minutes, the entire beach was cleared. Surfing schools were asked to stop their classes and recreational surfers were asked to leave. The reason offered by the officers was the high level meet scheduled for October 11-13," Utkarsh adds.
Surfers allege that the ban has been placed arbitrarily and that police officers refused to show them any government order or official announcement before ousting them from the beach.
Ban is a blow to livelihood
"It is not just us, even ocean swimmers, paddle boarders and catamaran services along the 20 kilometre stretch between Mamallapuram and Covelong have been banned. Why should we stop our livelihood because of a meeting? This is peak season and I had at least 10 students signing up for surfing classes everyday. I have cancelled all their classes, turned down bookings and lost money. I won't even be able to pay the 10 instructors I have employed," says Showkath Jamal, who runs Bay of Life, a surf school located in Covelong.
Mamallapuram is undergoing an extensive facelift to play host to PM Modi and Xi Jinping during the October summit. Roads have been relaid, pavements painted and tea shops vacated from the temple town's streets. Security and CCTV surveillance have been tightened, with senior officers charting the best routes for the delegation to take when they visit.
So far 3 surf schools - namely Bay of Life, Coco surf club and Ocean delight surf school in Covelong - have stopped classes. These schools provide employment to several local fishermen who are trained in surfing, paddle boarding and ocean swimming and who in turn hold classes.
"We are around 12 local fishermen who surf and train students. Fishing is our main livelihood and we receive an additional income from surfing which helps us make ends meet. If they are banning near-shore activities, then the government should compensate us for our losses," C Rajesh, founder of the Coco surf club tells TNM.
"I am a competitive surfer representing India. I cannot go 20 days without practicing. When I asked the police where else I can practice if there is a ban on the 20 km stretch, they had no answers for me," says Utkarsh.