For the past several decades now, any new government that takes charge in TN takes up certain standard projects to showcase their concern for the city as well as to grab headlines. Two such projects are cleaning up Cooum River and beautification of the Marina beach. Both, ironically, seem to be never-ending assignments and continue to draw flak from public, activists and everyone concerned as the age-old debate of aesthetics vs livelihood crops up and confuses everyone concerned.
The Marina beach, according Chennai Metropolitan Authority Master Plan of 1975, is as fascinating as the beach itself. Apparently, there was hardly a beach between the shore and land until the harbour was built. To facilitate trade, the harbour was completed in 1896 just to the east of George Town. The building of the harbour was responsible for sand accretion to the south of it and the sea, which was washing ramparts of the fort was then 2.5 km away with a wide beach between the land and the sea. A number of public buildings were constructed fronting the beach in the 19th century.
Beautification of Marina beach has been a favourite activity of both the AIADMK and DMK and a significant amount of money has also been spent on the same. Anyone who has visited the beach recently on even driven by it would know the difference. The long promenade is swept and mopped regularly, lawns bordering the promenade are lush and neatly maintained, trees and shrubs pruned, the walkways cleared of food waste and other debris and the entire stretch from MGR Samadhi to Lighthouse and beyond are sight to look out for, day or night. Yet, as one crosses the lawns and reaches the beach, serious issues continue to surface. Garbage is strewn on the sands, food outlets let out used water into the open and open urination and defecation continue to be a problem as one goes away from the main beach area.
Smart plans that get stalled
Recently, reports surfaced in media that Smart Kiosks purchased by the Greater Chennai Corporation with proper drain and sanitation facilities to replace the private vendor carts at the beach had been vandalized and dumped elsewhere after the move was resisted by the local vendors and got stalled. The beautification project, taken up at the behest of the Madras High Court, which slammed the Greater Chennai Corporation for not doing anything towards making a Blue Flag beach despite having such a lovely coastline, also remains incomplete.
Madras High Court
In December 2019, a division bench of the Madras High Court gave the civic body and city police six months to make the Marina beach world class. The bench sought the commissioners of Greater Chennai Corporation and city police to work together to make the beach neat and clean. It also directed the corporation to furnish its development plan for Loop Road, including shifting of fish vendors to the two-acre market place, steps taken to creating a footpath, walking track on the seaside of the Loop Road with metal barricades besides identifying fish vendors falling under the provisions of Street Vendors Act and issue fresh license for sale of fish.
While most of the beautification works continued as planned, the proposal to replace existing vending carts with Smart Kiosks and the beautification of Loop Road projects have been faced with stiff resistance from local fishermen who claimed that it was a direct hit on their livelihood. Even as the civic officials were having an ongoing tiff with the fishermen, the Madras High Court, in July 2021, again pulled up the Chennai Corporation for not completing the beautification projects and claimed the beach was full of garbage and litter.
Livelihood of the fishers at stake
Anyone observing the HC developments and reading media reports might wonder why the fishermen resist development and beautification of their neighbhourhood? But there is more than what meets the eye at the Marina beach. According to fishermen from Ayothikuppam, Nochukuppam, Triplicane and Nadukuppam, the development urged by the MHC and pursued by GCC does not include improving their lives.
Residents of Nochukuppam, a significant number of whom operate vending carts at the beach, claim that while the welcome the proposal to beautify the beach and provide better sanitation, it comes at the cost of their livelihood. Fisherfolk claim that most visitors at the Marina beach prefer to eat steamed chickpeas, fried fish, bajjis and other cooked food, which they have been selling for years. “But according to the beautification plans by the corporation, these items are not to be sold. They specify a list of items that can be sold and cannot be sold which are not practical. We have been catering to beach goers for years and know what they go for. Changing the edibles we sell is just unnecessary imposition and thus we rejected the Smart Kiosks given to us as we cannot cook in it,” said K Bharathi, president of South Indian Fishermen Association.
K Bharathi, president of South Indian Fishermen Association
Besides, while allocating licenses for these vending carts, corporation was open to receiving outside applicants i.e. those who did not own stalls at the beach currently even though the number of licenses issued was far lesser than that actual number of vendors making a living at the beach. The fisher-folk argue that these proposals that do not benefit them in anyway cannot be accepted and improvements to the beach should go hand-in-hand with improvements to their lifestyle. They insist that they too be consulted before any plans are drawn to beautify the Marina beach and are currently preparing a petition to make their representation to the GCC in this regard.
The coveted Blue Flag certification
The GCC’s attempts to make the Marina as a Blue Flag beach has also been resisted as the locals claim that such proposals were impractical for a beach of the size visited by lakhs of people every weekend. They cite the Kovalam beach, which is a Blue Flag beach, has an entry fee of Rs. 50/person which is used in the upkeep of the beach and charging such huge entry fee would turn away the poor and middle-class who are the most common visitors to the Marina beach to enjoy some fresh air.
The city corporation attempting to beautify the beach without roping in the fishermen and meeting stiff resistance has a bloody precedence. In November 1985, veteran fishermen vividly recall, similar attempts made by the state government to relocate the fishermen from city and beautify the beach. Fishermen groups immediately got together and protested fiercely against the move but the government remained adamant and went ahead with their plans when a fisherman went to the Secretariat and immolated himself. Following his death, the protests grew violent resulting in fishermen fishermen shot dead by the police. A woman also fainted and died during the protests. It was only after seven lives were lost, the SC and center intervened and allowed them to continue their lives without any disturbance.
Thirty-seven years later, the fishermen are up against beautification of the Marina beach against their will and insist that they while they too want a clean and hygienic beach for the public to enjoy, it should not be at the cost of their lives and should be done after consulting them.