The Madras High Court and Chennai City Corporation's latest efforts at 'cleaning' the Marina beach is facing stiff resistance from 11 fishing villages in and around the Loop Road. This after, the civic body held a meeting with representatives of the fishing villages earlier this month, asking them to move their business to a complex that they have promised to construct behind the Santhome church.
The biggest issue in this proposal, the fishermen tell TNM, is that these men and women who have traditionally conducted business near the beachside are being grouped with hawkers, who have set up shops without permission on the Marina sands.
The order from the Madras High Court to clean up the beach, including Loop Road, came in December 2018. Justices Vineet Kothari and Anita Sumanth demanded that the Greater Chennai Corporation Commissioner D. Karthikeyan submit a comprehensive action plan on cleaning the beach with the assistance of non-governmental organisations and students. The deadline that was given to the civic body was January 1 but work on the ground is far from complete. A quick visit to the beach shows that hawkers remain largely unlicensed and scattered across the beach, while fisherfolk are fighting for their right over the land.
"In the first week of January, the corporation commissioner and police commissioner met us at Ripon building and told us to shift to a complex that they are going to build for our market," says President of South Indian Fishermen Association, K Bharathi. "This is actually behind the Santhome church and an Open Space reservation, so that means they can't actually have any building there. It is against the laws of the city. So, basically this is just a ruse to clear the 50,000 residents near the Loop Road," he adds.
Over 300 shops that sell produce from the sea, line the Marina Loop Road, which is a 2.5-kilometre-long road that runs from the Marina Lighthouse up to the Foreshore Estate bus stand. Built in 2014, it enables commuters to avoid the congested Santhome church stretch of the arterial Kamarajar Salai (Road), thus helping them reach south Chennai faster. There are a total of 11 fishing hamlets in this area - Mattankuppam, Ayodhyakuppam, Nadukuppam, Nochikuppam, Nochi Nagar, Dooming kuppam, Selvarajapuram, Bhavanikuppam, Nambikai nagar, Mullaimanagar and Srinivasapuram. Those who venture into the sea, sew nets, auction the fish and finally sell them, have been living in these hamlets from even before the country got its independence.
"The land here belongs to the fisherfolk and our traditional rights are being endangered. When our ancestry settled here, there were no roads or platforms. It was only in 2008 that an actual road was laid. This, after they requested permission to divert traffic here during peak school traffic hours. We agreed to this," says Bharathi. "And then in 2014, they expanded it for the Loop Road and forced some of us to move. Now, they want to remove us altogether," he adds.
This is however not the first time that the civic body or ruling government has attempted to displace the fisherfolk. Back in 1962, the Kamarajar government offered to move them to the land where the All India Radio building currently exists in Chennai. The fishermen however resisted this despite pressure from the government. Following this, in 1985, there was a bid by the City Corporation to move them from their existing hamlets, which met with vehement opposition from the community.
"What we want is a right to the land where we actually do our business near the beach, and we will keep it clean. This is the land of our ancestors. We know what will happen if they move us," says Bharathi. "First, if we go near Santhome, schools will complain of the smell. Then they will move us further to Pattinampakkam, where residents will complain. Then they'll tell us find a different place to resume our fishing activities. It will lead to more and more displacement. They worry so much about what tourists coming in would think, but what about your own citizens who are part of the economy?" he asks.
Experts who study coastal laws further make it clear that it is the fisherfolk who have right over the land. Pooja Kumar of the Coastal Resource Centre points out that the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of both 2011 and 2018, protects the traditional uses of the beach. The notification allows, 'construction or reconstruction of dwelling units so long as it is within the ambit of traditional rights and customary uses such as existing fishing villages etc.' The fishing villages, common properties of the fishermen communities, fishing jetties, ice plants, fish drying platforms or areas, infrastructure facilities of fishing and local communities such as dispensaries, roads, schools, and the like, are all required to be indicated on the 'cadastral scale maps'.
"The law protects the customary rights of fishermen. Looking at them as encroachment is a very elite idea of how the beach can be used and who has right over these spaces," she says.
In fact, during the meeting with the corporation, Bharathi alleges that officials tried to misquote the laws to them.
"They told us that the CRZ rules were against us using the beach," he says. "But when we asked them to show us sections of the notification that said this, they had no answers."