While the road eases traffic congestion, it is also acting as a barrier that separates the fishermen from the sea and their livelihood.

Caught in a loop How the Marina Loop Road is affecting fishermens lives in Chennai
Delve Human Interest Monday, November 05, 2018 - 17:19

Saroja B, age 60, is sitting in the line of fire. Displaying her bucket full of sankara (red snapper) for sale, the frail, gray-haired grandmother is crouching on the road, watching for errant vehicles while breathing in the exhaust fumes from every passing car and truck, which pass within inches of her tiny stall. At times, especially in the evenings after school lets out, she has to constantly shift positions to dodge oncoming traffic.

“Earlier, the Nochikuppam fish market was among the best in the city,” she says as she dices a handful of fish for a new buyer. “Now with all this traffic, buyers are afraid to come here and we’ve lost a lot of business. For small vendors like me, it’s a hand-t0-mouth existence—and all the more dangerous nowadays.”

The Marina Loop Road is a 2.5-kilometre-long road that runs from the Marina Lighthouse up to the Foreshore Estate bus stand. It runs on the seaward side of seven fishing villages— Nochikuppam, Nochi Nagar, Duming Kuppam, Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, Mullai Managar, Srinivasapuram and Nambikkai Nagar—home to about one lakh people. Built in 2014, it enables commuters to avoid the congested Santhome church stretch of the arterial Kamarajar Salai (Road), thus helping them reach southern Chennai faster.

Amidst all this traffic, life goes on: children from nearby fishing villages play cricket, as thousands of fish vendors, pavement dwellers and their assorted belongings—a small almirah or a wooden chair—clutter the roadside.

There are also fishing nets stacked up on the side of the road. While most roads are for facilitating movement, the Marina loop road seems to be as much an extension of the fishing villages’ commons, as it is a road for vehicles.

Earlier in the day, I had watched as Lourde B, 58, a weather-worn fisherman, sat under a canopy on the beach mending his net, opposite his fishing village, Nambikkai Nagar. He was just a few kilometres from the state police headquarters, the state secretariat and multiple luxury hotels in the southern Indian metropolis, Chennai. Lourde seemed to care as little about the happenings in any of those places as he did about the blazing mid-day sun.

His proximity to the city’s power centres has left an unmistakable mark on his everyday life though. If he was a man of a fishing village elsewhere, it will be only when he ventures to the nearest ‘main road’ that he sees constant vehicular movement. His ancestral village, Nambikkai Nagar is in the heart of the city. It is because of this that for the past four years, a 15.5-metre wide concrete road, with constant traffic flow is an obstacle that Lourde and his neighbours have to navigate every time they step out of their house. 

“Earlier it was just a simple tar road, not this big. It is only in recent times that it has become such a big problem. In the beginning, the government said they just wanted to open this road for two hours a day. Gradually, two hours became four and then it became all day. Our people need to be really careful now. Just the other day a 12-year-old boy got badly hurt because a car hit him,” says Lourde.

From red mud to concrete

According to the fishermen, it was in the 1960s that a road was built to connect the various fishing villages. “Back then, it was just a red mud road and there was only enough space for one vehicle to pass at a time. It was convenient enough for us to move from one village to the other,” says K Bharathi, president, South Indian Fishermen Welfare Association (SIFWA) and a resident of Nochikuppam.

Bharathi is 51 years old and has been a fisherman all his life. His village, Nochikuppam, is the most populous on this stretch and its people the most vociferous against the expansion of the loop road.

“It was only in the early 2000s that the mud road became tar,” he said, “and it was four years ago when they made it concrete. We have opposed it at each stage but through political power and authority, the city officials have got their way so far.”

Bharathi is the last in his family to be a fisherman. He has two sons, both of whom are completing their higher education and are most likely to be employed in their fields of choice. He hopes that others in the villages will continue their ancestral livelihood.

“For fishermen, our boats and nets are worth more than our lives. It costs up to Rs five lakh (USD 7,000) to purchase a fibre glass fishing boat and fish nets. There are at least 150 fishing boats in our village alone. We have stowed our boats in the thin stretch of beach between the road and the sea. With sea erosion, especially in the monsoon months, we will have no choice but to bring our boats up to the road.”

“If this ends up blocking traffic,” he says, “so be it.”

A plan to evict

A few months earlier, some of the settlements here were demolished with the promise of redeveloping the houses. The city corporation had earlier proposed a Rs 47 crore ‘beach beautification’ plan in 2014, which they stated was aimed not only at easing traffic flow but also beautification of the seafront area along the loop road with seating galleries and a cycling track. Fisherfolk and environmental activists challenged the plan at the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a body created in 2010 to deal with legal cases pertaining to environmental issues. In 2016, the tribunal allowed the corporation to proceed with the plan as long as there is no change in land use.

“They had said there will be no change, but on the ground, they tried building a median and expanded the road’s width,” says Bharathi. “This is not the first time that beautification plans affected our livelihoods. In 1985, the Corporation tried to evict the fishermen from Marina for a beautification project. There were violent protests and seven fishermen died.”

The demolished houses have not been rebuilt and there are a number of families who are living on the pavement of the loop road now. These families are among the poorer on this stretch and are unable to take up any other house on rent. Many of the men are daily wage labourers and the women work as domestic helps. It is they who are worst affected by constant traffic. Sasikala B, 35, who lives with her sister and nephew says, “It’s worst at night. There are many drunk men in cars and two wheelers. We are always afraid our children might get hit by one of their vehicles. We’re just hoping they rebuild our houses soon.”

As the evening crowd increases at the fish market, so does the traffic on the loop road. It is a constant negotiation between vehicles, vendors and fish buyers. Even though her hand is broken, Tamilveni, 50, is setting up her stall with help from her family. “I think their plan is to slowly get us all to move away from this area, so they can build big houses and hotels here,” she says.

She is overseeing the fish and crab brought in to sell for the evening, removing all the ‘damaged’ catch while keeping the ones in good condition in the crate filled with dry ice. “What they don’t understand is that we will never leave. Our ancestors have been here before Chennai was even a city, so why should we leave our sea and land and move to some landlocked suburban area?”

“Besides,” she says, “what will a fisherman do so far away from the sea?”    

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. The writer wishes to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 Journalism Workshop supported the creation of this project.

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