'Beautification' at what cost?

Published : Feb 28, 2003 00:00 IST

Catamarans and fishermen on the Marina. - SHAJU JOHN

Catamarans and fishermen on the Marina. - SHAJU JOHN

The Marina beautification plan proposed by the Tamil Nadu government is seen as a threat to the livelihood of fishing communities along the second largest beach in the world.

THERE is a storm brewing over the second longest beach in the world and it has nothing to do with the weather. Many residents of the city might consider the newly announced Marina beautification plan to be a much-needed step towards solving the problem of litter and defecation along the beach. But, for the fishing communities along the Marina, the Rs.1,000-crore Tamil Nadu-Malaysian joint venture to "beautify" the beach with corporate complexes and foreign embassies comes at an unacceptable price - eviction from the shore they depend on for their livelihood.

Residents of Nochchikuppam, a fishing hamlet on the Marina, and members of the Tamil Nadu Meenavar Munnetra Sangam (United Fishworkers Association) read the writing on the wall long before Chief Minister Jayalalithaa exchanged a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Malaysian Minister for Works S. Samy Vellu on January 14. In August last year, close on the heels of a high-profile advertising campaign to clean the Marina, `Marinavai maathalaam vaa' (Come let us change the Marina), Nochchikuppam residents charged that the government's beautification plans could endanger the livelihood of some 50,000 fisherfolk.

They feared that the proposed beach clean-up would involve removing all the catamarans between the Light House and Foreshore Estate, demolishing the residential structures on this stretch and relocating the displaced fishing communities to the already congested Srinivasapuram, a fishing hamlet further south of Foreshore Estate. As proof, they pointed to the document `Proposed layout for rehabilitating the slum-dwellers of Dommingkuppam, Selvarajapuram and Nochchikuppam', which, they claimed, was prepared by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) immediately following Samy Vellu's visit to Tamil Nadu in July 2002.

The official response in August was to deny knowledge of this rehabilitation plan. "We are not at all aware of this document," an official from the Fisheries Department insisted. The CMDA vice-chairman stated that she had "no idea" about the rehabilitation document. She said that the CMDA only had a 10-year-old Marina beautification plan, the details of which - beyond proposed improvements to roads, lighting and toilet facilities - she could not disclose. While the CMDA had had discussions with the Malaysian government team about beautifying the Marina, she asserted that "nothing had been decided as yet".

The Chairman of the Slum Clearance Board claimed that the department was only acting on a High Court order to demolish about 1,600 houses in Thideer Nagar - an area of the Marina made up primarily of non-fishing communities. The people there, he said, would be relocated to Okkiyam Thoraipakkam - an area nowhere near the sea. "We are going ahead with the construction of the alternative houses," he confirmed, adding that the houses would be ready by March 2003.

But the Marina's fishing communities are not going to take any attempts at forced eviction lying down. Nochi Nagar Association president Maasilamani says: "This land is ours and we will never leave it. We are ready for any sacrifice. We will organise a huge protest. It will not just be an issue of Nochchikuppam protesting, but a State-wide movement of all the fishing communities along the coast."

Moreover, the logic behind forcing residents of several fishing hamlets to live in a single area is not accepted by the fishermen. "Fishermen from each kuppam (hamlet) fish only in a particular stretch of the sea and moving into another kuppam's territory causes violent fights," explains Maasilamani. Surendar, a fisherman from Srinivasapuram, concurs: "Forcing 60,000 of us from four different kuppams to live in one small area will cause havoc. And if they make us move to Okkiyam Thoraipakkam instead, how will we survive there? We are fisherfolk and fishing is the only occupation we know."

It is not just the issue of forced relocation that angers the Marina's fishing communities. Many of them attack the basic assumptions underlying most beautification proposals. Maasilamani asks why the fishing communities themselves are not mobilised by the government to clean the beach if the intention is indeed "beautification". "After all, we are not the people who make it filthy. Every day about 3,000 people who do not live here litter or use the beach as a public toilet," he argues.

Ramadoss, another fisherman from Srinivasapuram, echoes his sentiments. "If the government or private companies want to clean the beach why don't they tell our kuppam panchayats to do it? This is our land and we can do an excellent job. But it seems their idea of beautification is to get rid of fishermen and catamarans and bring in the tourists and multinational companies."

In the face of such fiery resistance and keen political awareness, any proposal to change the face of the Marina cannot afford to ignore the demands of the fishing communities that live along its long shoreline.

Anjali Kamat is a freelance journalist currently based in New York.

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