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Vol. XXXIII No. 2, May 1-15, 2023

Marina Loop Road – HC orders clearance of ‘encroachment’ while fishers push for ‘fishers’ zone’

-- by A Special Correspondent

The Marina Loop Road is seeing a storm of activity once again. Running from the Marina Lighthouse up to Foreshore Estate, the stretch along the shores of the Marina beach includes several fishing hamlets in the city such as Nochikuppam, Dooming Kuppam and Rajiv Gandhi Nagar. It is a common sight to see fishers selling fresh catch along the road, and the seafood eateries that have mushroomed across the street have grown to be quite popular in the city, too. The fishing community considers the area their own, for it is at once the site of their livelihoods as well as their generational homes. This, however, is an oft-contested point of view, for legal and civic authorities deem their presence a clear encroachment of public property. 

The issue saw friction anew this April when the Madras High Court directed the GCC to evict the fish stalls on Marina Loop Road with police assistance. “What measures have been taken to clear the encroachments? The small outlets occupied not only 25 per cent of the road but also the pedestrian way on the western side of the Loop Road. Whether the roads are there for washing the fish? How were those restaurants given licenses to encroach on pedestrian ways? Encroachment of public roads cannot be tolerated and cannot be compromised. How is the GCC going to achieve the goal of Singara Chennai without clearing the encroachments?” questioned the Bench. The civic body moved into action following the order. The makeshift stalls lining the road and on the pavement were cleared away, and JCBs were used to bring down the bunk shops and huts. 

A protest sprung up immediately after, with the fishing community reiterating what they see as their traditional right to live and sell their catch in the area – their story is that of the camel’s nose in the tent, for they claim that the road itself was laid with their approval; evicting them altogether from their land, they say, is grossly unfair. Pushing back against the clearance, the hawkers laid out their fish on the roads, saying that they could not afford to lose out on the weekend spike in demand for fish. The Mylapore Times reported that the Mylapore MLA Dha Velu met with the protestors, requesting them not to conduct commerce on the road, in view of the Court order. The new fish market would be opened soon, he said. 

The new fish market is a 10-crore facility currently under construction in Nochikuppam. According to a GCC release, it would be able to accommodate up to 384 stalls and will include a parking facility that can serve 60 four-wheelers and 155 two-wheelers. Unfortunately, the current state of fish markets in the city does little to inspire confidence in this compromise. Most are in dire need of upgradation in terms of renovation or new construction – hygiene and sanitation improvements are in order, with waste disposal cropping up as a major issue that requires immediate attention. The alternative arrangement at Nochikuppam, unsurprisingly, has not been met with enthusiasm by the fisherfolk who are loath to leave an area where they have plied their trade for decades before the very Loop Road came into existence. Even past media reports record their petition to authorities for a new facility along the Loop Road itself, without requiring them to relocate. 

The fishermen’s claim to the land was presented to the Court by a counsel, who read out the 2015 order passed by the National Green Tribunal permitting the GCC to relay the Loop Road. However, the judges were not convinced – the statement, they pointed out, did not contain any reference to their traditional right to the road. The Court’s response was quite firm. “It is the obligation of the Corporation to keep all public roads free of encroachments. The fishermen cannot seek a right to encroach such roads. Some vested interests appear to be misleading the fishermen. If we allow fish stalls on both sides of the road, do you expect motorists to fly over the road?” asked Justice Sundar. The issue of eateries along the stretch was mentioned, too. Addressing the fishermen’s counsel, the judge said, “We will sponsor your dinner today. You go there and see how the sea food is bring cooked unhygienically right on the pavement. The dining area is also on the pavement and yet food is sold at high prices.” The Bar and Bench quoted the High Court as saying, “Fishermen are asserting as if it is their right because that is what they have been taught. Now everyone has started judging every judge. People tend to believe everything. So, the State should show some discretion. They need to know that this is public property that they have been encroaching upon.”

On April 24, the fishers of Marina Loop Road formally petitioned Chief Minister MK Stalin to declare the area a special fishers’ zone along the lines of the special zone for agriculture in the Delta districts. The request includes specific zones to be demarcated for various fishing activities, including fish landing, boat parking, drying of fish, mending of nets and sale of fish. The petition asked for the above to be done in accordance with the CRZ notification of 2011, through GIS mapping. The office bearers of the Nochikuppam village panchayat are also pressing for the return of lands they claim were earlier taken over by the Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board. “Each time they take lands for constructing houses for fishermen, they take additional lands and we end up losing those to various government departments. So far, the promised community halls, playgrounds for children, anganwadis, and PHCs have not seen the light of day,” said an office bearer in a quote to The Hindu.

The pavements of the Marina Loop Road are currently empty and abandoned, save for a few boxes and other makeshift materials that have been left behind. Media reports say that the Corporation is planning to raise railings and billboards across the stretch in order to prevent vehicles from climbing onto the pavements. The administration has not yet issued a response to the community’s petition for the special fishers’ zone. It would do well for the GCC to re-assess the endurance of the Nochikuppam fish market as a final solution. Past experience suggests that the lack of regulation of such fish markets and their surroundings only re-creates the problem anew a few decades later; stalls and shops tend to crop up outside such facilities and remain unchecked until their clearance becomes unviable and economically painful for the community. As for the Loop Road eateries, many would argue that the fare is as hygienic – or more – than many other veg and non-veg establishments in other parts of the city.

It is unarguable that traffic does need to be managed on Santhome High Road; it is indisputable too that citizens would enjoy a jogging stretch along the beach. However, it is unfair to expect the fishing community to bear the burden of these solutions. Their expectation of the State to protect their livelihoods while planning civic development in the area is entirely justified given their historical presence. With massive budgets set aside for the beautification of Marina Beach, it is hoped that some of it would be put to use in crafting a fair and legal resolution to this long-standing issue.

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