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Vol. XXXI No. 6, July 1-15, 2021

Project Blue must not make the fisherfolk blue

by Padmaja Jayaraman

It was November 4, 1985. The sun had not risen yet when the catamarans were being removed from the Marina beach. This led to the fisherfolk protesting against an attempt at evicting them for a beach beautification project spearheaded by the Chennai Corporation. The month-long protest ended with police firing, and five people wound up dead.

Thirty-six years later, the Greater Chennai Corporation is chalking out a slew of beach beautification initiatives under ‘Project Blue’ as a part of Singara Chennai 2.0. The latter is a project aimed at redesigning and redeveloping Madras.

Fishermen removing the waste from the previous catch and making the net ready for the next catch. Photo credit: Swaminathan for Kaani Nilam (Ek Potlee Ret Ki) archives.

“To prevent the fisherfolk livelihoods from getting hampered by these beach beautification projects, 65 people have submitted a letter to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the GCC Commissioner on June 16. We don’t know what the project may entail, as the details have not been released in the public domain. The previous instances when the fisherfolk community struggled because of beach beautification projects have made us submit that letter much in advance,” says K. Saravanan, the treasurer of the Urur Kuppam Fisher Welfare Cooperative Society. Justice Hariparanthaman who is a retired Madras High Court judge, carnatic musician T.M. Krishna, social activist Nityanand Jayaraman and members of Save Chennai Beaches are some of the people who signed the letter.

Several news reports state that the ‘Project Blue’ may entail an underwater aquarium, aqua zones for water sports, beach vending carts, and a new pathway with shade along the service road for walkers and joggers. Also, the beachfront development may cover 21.6 kilometers of the coastline, covering six locations. But the information about the beach beautification initiative is yet to be officially released. When Madras Musings asked a GCC official for more inputs about the ‘Project Blue’, they said that the details are still being worked out.

The 1985-protest at the Marina was not the only instance when beach beautification initiatives caused the fisherfolk to be at loggerheads with the city corporation. “Subsequently there have been several attempts to try and evict the fisherfolk from the coast stretching from Nochikuppam to Srinivasapuram in order to beautify that area, and to bring in embassies and diplomatic conclaves. Then, there were attempts to build high-value residential apartments and commercial buildings in the Srinivasapuram-Pattinapakkam area,” recollects Nityanand Jayaraman, a social and environmental activist.

In 2009, an elevated expressway was proposed to run from Lighthouse to Kottivakkam, and the project could have affected 13 fishing villages en route, says Jayaraman. After protests, the expressway proposal was dropped in 2011.

In recent years, efforts were made at evicting the fish vendors from the Marina Loop Road to reduce traffic. While hearing pleas on regulating vending on the Loop Road in January 2021, the Madras High Court observed, “Fishers’ welfare is more important than Marina beautification.”

Even the letter submitted to the GCC and the Tamil Nadu government mentions the Marina Loop Road project: “At a time when the economy is in the dumps, it is foolhardy to rob the livelihoods of self-employed women fishworkers who contribute to the economy with no assistance from the government. If the government wishes to improve the working conditions for women, it has to be done as per their suggestions and not with the objective of transforming prime vending spaces into an exclusive recreational zone.”

‘Project Blue’ also includes access for persons with disabilities to the waves and viewing decks for them may be set up, reported The New Indian Express. “We welcome the Government’s plans to improve access to the beach, particularly with a view to providing infrastructure to differently-abled persons. [But] Any improvement to the beachfront would need to be done placing the livelihood needs of fisherfolk and fish vendors and the disaster security of coastal communities as a priority,” said the 65 people in the letter.

How do the beaches serve the livelihood of the fisherfolk of Madras? They use the beaches to rest their boats, catamarans and nets. Fishes are dried on the beaches to be sold in markets.

Madras beaches are the symbols of pride for every citizen of the city. But the sea and its shores form the most crucial part of the livelihoods of the fisherfolks. “We don’t need to really have a beautification project. The beach is beautiful. We should have measures to ensure that there is no uglification, that people don’t damage the beach by using it as a garbage bin. The beauty must not be destroyed by constructing facilities inside the beaches,” remarks Jayaraman. If the city corporation is planning any developmental project, he urges them to consult with the people [fisherfolk communities] living there, and then come up with a proposal for the project.
“Public participation is important for developmental projects. If some people’s living is based on a place, it is difficult to ask them to relocate to continue their livelihood. Involving them in the process of planning and getting their opinions, along with understanding their necessities are more important than just ‘telling’ them that this will be done,” says Pavithra Sriram, an urban planner.

She also talks about the purpose of beautifying cities. “The value in beautification and branding the city for tourism and liveability is great. But often the idea of beautification is skewed. It may look at superficial beauty, but may not look deeper to address the needs of all kinds of population. We need to aim for equitable development sustainably. There are communities that live and depend on these localities for their livelihoods. It is not that we have suddenly woken up to an empty piece of land to develop it. We need to develop a holistic plan of beautification,” suggests the urban planner.

Reminding that the Tamil Nadu government is yet to map out the Coastal Regulation Zones under the Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP), as per a 2011 Central Government notification, Jayaraman says, “This would clearly list out the livelihood areas of the fisherfolk communities. The government also has to prepare a long-term housing plan for them. Without doing these two things, if the government plans other infrastructure that interferes with the fisherfolks’ rights, then that becomes the problem.”

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