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Chennai's seashore beautification and fisherfolk resistance, India

Fisherfolk mobilize against gentrification of the beaches of Chennai. An expressway project was scrapped but private interests threaten people's livelihood.


In Nityanand Jayaraman’s words, in Chennai, “between a landward moving sea and a seaward moving city, we are crowding out fisherfolk and offering them up as sacrifice to the next cyclone or tsunami”. Historically, the Madras seashore (the city is now known as Chennai) was viewed as a dangerous and undesirable place for housing. The fishing community lived on beaches, most other settlements preferred higher ground around temples and water tanks and lakes. When the city was formally founded by the British, Chennai’s beaches were empty except for small fishing hamlets. As the British expanded their base in the city, they “developed” the northern beaches to serve the commercial needs of the port. In colonial times, the beaches to the south were left untouched, although boulevards and “garden” homes were built along the coast, as in Besant Nagar. However, the growth of the metropolis has produced tension with resident fisherfolk, because of grabbing of the coastal commons. Coastal properties, once thought to be inhospitable, became prime real estate. Today to the north there is an awful concentration of coal power stations at Ennore.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Chennai's seashore beautification and fisherfolk resistance, India
State or province:Tamil Nadu
Location of conflict:Chennai
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Specific commodities:Land
Tourism services
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Among several conflicts on the use of beaches in Chennai, we focus on the removal of fishefolk from Marina Beach in 1985, and later on the project for the Elevated Beach Expressway after 2008. An alliance of fisherfolk and other citizens defeated the elevated expressway, whose cost would be in the region of 1000 crores of INR, approximately 200 million USD.

Level of Investment for the conflictive project200,000,000
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:20,000
Start of the conflict:1985
Relevant government actors:Corporation of Chennai
Government of Tamil Nadu
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:-Transparent Chennai
-Save Chennai Beaches Campaign and Reclaim Our Beaches (ROB)
-Fisherfolk villages
-The Coastal Resource Centre - a project of The Other Media
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Land occupation
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Creation of livelihood maps, critical cartography
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Floods (river, coastal, mudflow)
Other Environmental impactsThreats to Olive Ridley turtles, threats to fishing activities hence food security at risk
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents
Other Health impactsthreats to fishing activities hence food security at risk
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Potential: Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Corruption
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
Project cancelled
Proposal and development of alternatives:Beaches should preserve their ecological functions in order to preserve life cycles of all living species. Fisherfolks' activity should be respected and not sacrificed in the name of development and need for infrastructures.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:While the Elevated Beach Expressway was defeated, the encroachment on the beaches by private developers and urban infrastructure, and the displacement of fisherfolk, continue.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

Coastal Regulation Zone norms

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Nityanand Jayaraman, Remember This Much. The Sea Will Eat You, Grist Media, Nov. 26, 2014.
[click to view]

Mukul Kumar, K Saravanan, Nityanand Jayaraman, Mapping the Coastal Commons: Fisherfolk and the Politics of Coastal Urbanisation in Chennai, Economic and Political Weekly, Nov. 29, 2014.
[click to view]

Article in The Hindu, 4 August 2010, on the elevated expressway
[click to view]

The Coastal Resource Centre - a project of The Other Media (good source for a variety of socio-ecological conflicts, including those in Chennai)
[click to view]

Article in The Hindu, 1 August 2010, human chain against elevated expressway.
[click to view]

Fast against elevanted expressawy project, The Hindu, 22 Febr. 2011
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Joan Martinez Alier, ICTA UAB
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2199
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