Over 50 houses have been destroyed due to the high wave activity over the past one month in Srinivasapuram, near Santhome in Chennai.

This is the home we know Chennai fisherfolk caught between rough seas govt laxity
news Human Interest Sunday, July 01, 2018 - 19:33

“We heard a thunderous sound and ran out of the house. The next thing we saw was the front portion of the next house crumbling down,” 58-year-old Prema describes the powerful waves which, for the past week, have been ravaging the tiny fishing hamlet of Srinivasapuram near Santhome in Chennai.

For the past 2 months, unusual wave activity has been ravaging the lines of the one room tenements, both brick and straw, along the coast. The beach along Srinivasapuram is now dotted not just with shells and plastic, but also with tons of debris, which includes broken roofs, walls, pillars, pipes, commodes along with the occasional furniture and cloth rags.

As much as the fisherfolk here love the ocean, they blame the unpredictable waters for their pitiable situation. Seawater incursion for the past several years has led to their current plight of homelessness.

Pointing to the distant ripples growing into tall waves, 40-year-old Ashok Raj says, “Look there. Just 4 years ago, there were houses there and people used to live there. Now the ocean has eaten into the shore little by little and all of them have relocated.”

 

The residents say that although seawater lapping up the shores of Srinivasapuram inch by inch was not a new phenomenon, it has never been as destructive as it has been this year.

“We have been experiencing intense wave activity during the full moon from May to July for the past few years,” says Rajapattu, who built her house further away from the shore to avoid crashing waves.

Over 60 houses have been ruined due to the high tide wave activity this year alone, with the destruction peaking towards the end of June.

“The high tide usually lasts for 3-4 days. But this time it lasted an entire week,” Prema says. 

According to Prema and Ashok Raj and many other members of the fishing community, the wave activity peaks from 6 am until 11 am and then subsides. It resumes at 6 in the evening and goes on till 11 pm.

“We don’t go back to our houses until 11 in the night. Cooking is becoming difficult. We have just taken all our belongings and moved to the beach,” Prema adds.

Although some families still have their houses intact, many others have relocated to other parts of the city due to the gradual incursion of the ocean over the years which has left them homeless.

The waves, which the locals say are as high as 10 - 15 ft, erode the sand from underneath the houses, as a result of which they collapse due to weakening of the foundation.

“Last year the waves damaged a few of the houses and people relocated to Kasimedu and Kannagi Nagar. Next year the next row of houses might also be wiped off,” says 28-year-old Suriya, a fisherman from the hamlet

Seawater incursion and how it happens

Seawater entry and soil erosion is an inevitable reality in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. According to a 2012 study by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management, 41.4% of the almost 993.39 kms coast in Tamil Nadu is prone to soil erosion.

According to Pooja Kumar of the Coastal Resource Centre in Chennai, building tenements close to the ocean is risky as the coast is an unstable location with constantly shifting sands, winds and currents.“This is not the first time it is happening in Srinivasapuram. It is a common occurrence. The fishing hamlet has been seeing incursions and soil erosion for years together and it has gotten worse over the past 4 years,” she says.

The months of May – July (the south west monsoon period) sees intense storm surges build up in the coastal areas of the state. This increases the tidal action between the sea and the river, Pooja explains.

“Srinivasapuram hamlet is located very close to the Adyar estuary. Estuaries are where the water first enters inland. And they act as flood plains or buffers during high tides and storm surges to withstand the impact on the land. This is the main reason for flooding of the beach and debilitating high tides in Sreenivasapuram. Besides, the hamlet too is developed extremely close to the water,” she says. 

Apart from this, climate change and development activities in coastal areas elsewhere too affect the erosional rate and wave activity in Srinivasapuram.

“Seawater has been gradually rising due to climate change. And when this happens, estuaries and other areas close to estuaries will be at the first line of damage. They get inundated. This is what is happening here,” she says. 

Further, barricades to prevent soil erosion, such as groynes or low lying walls built on the sand, won’t help in the long run as they are piecemeal solutions and will lead to massive erosion in other parts of the coast. However, fisherfolk in Srinivasapuram have been demanding that groynes be built there. 

“Groynes were built on Kovalam beach to prevent erosion. But this resulted in erosion at an increased rate in the coastal areas north of Kovalam beach,” Pooja says.

What the government can and should do

Experts believe that instead of barricades, the government should mark hazard lines on the TN coast and move fishing hamlets that lie inside of these hazard lines.

“Hazard lines are basically those areas on the coast that are susceptible to flooding, erosion and heavy wave activity, resulting in damages to the houses and hamlets in those areas. These hazard lines are mandated in the Coastal Regulation Notification 2011, which India depends on for monitoring of the coasts. However, the government has been lax and has not demarcated the hazard lines within the city’s beaches itself,” Pooja says.

In the case of fishing hamlets in Srinivasapuram and Pattanipakkam, not only are they so close to the river mouth which results in flooding, they are also built extremely close to the water.

 

“Fishing hamlets have to remain close to the coast. It’s how they thrive. But here, they have no space to naturally expand the hamlet. On one side is the Foreshore Estate, the Leela Palace and other buildings, on the other side is the Marina and the Beach Road loop. The community therefore knowingly builds their houses close to the water. They know their houses will get wrecked. But they have nowhere to go but closer to the ocean,” she adds.

This is why year after year, the fishers rebuild their houses after the monsoons in the area.

This helplessness is also, according to Pooja, mixed with laxity from the government’s side.

“When the same soil erosion happens in Kovalam, where big villas and beach-facing bungalows were damaged, repair works have been immediately taken up,” she points out.

‘This is our home, our livelihood’

Even if the government does build hazard lines and rehabilitate the fisherfolk, many in Srinivasapuram are unwilling to leave their beach.

“This is where our livelihood lies. If we leave this area and move to Kannagi Nagar or Semmenchery – which is very far from here – our businesses will suffer. We will have to establish ourselves from scratch there or travel every day to come and sell our catch here. It is a very risky proposal,” Jaisree says while sitting on the natural bund that the waves have created by eroding the sand.

The fisherfolk also believe that the rough waves and damage have become a way of life here, leading to many politicians turning a blind eye to their plight.

“Last year, some of them gave us Rs 1,000 to compensate for the damages,” Ashok says.

This year, TN Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar proposed a study to be conducted to contain soil erosion. His son D Jayavardhan too reportedly visited the hamlet to understand the situation.

“We even had Kamal Haasan coming and visiting the ruined houses,” one of the fisherwomen chips in.

According to reports, those who lost their homes have been given food twice a day by government authorities and those who are willing to relocate are being taken to other places.

But when asked about relocating, most villagers have already made up their mind.

“Next year probably my house also will go. But where else to shift to. This is the only home I know,” Suriya says with a smile.

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