Cities & Architecture

Chennai’s Coastline is Choked as Zoning Violations Continue

Rampant violations of coastal zone norms are eating up Chennai’s coastlines, one illegal road or building at a time.

An illegal road near Neelankarai beach. Credit: Sibi Arasu

An illegal road near Neelankarai beach. Credit: Sibi Arasu

When the floods wreaked havoc in December last year, Chennai’s seafront and its many fishing villages were relatively unaffected. Many fishermen actually took their boats to help rescue people stranded inland, in neighbourhoods like Saidapet, Velachery, Tambaram, Kotturpuram and Chrompet.

At other times as well, the beaches and the fishing communities living off them have proved to be inherent, inseparable parts of the city. But not everyone in the city thinks so.

Through a series of Right to Information (RTI) petitions, a city-based environmental group, the Coastal Resource Centre (CRC), has uncovered the extent of the threat to Chennai’s beaches, not only from real estate developers but from the Chennai City Corporation itself.

K Saravanan, 33, is a member of the CRC who filed many of the RTIs. “I am from a fishing village called Urur Olcott Kuppam in south Chennai – I have been by the sea all my life,” he said. “It’s not the violations but more the fact that no one cares that disappoints me.”

One reason that many coastal areas stayed functional through last year’s floods was that water escaped to the sea through odais, or natural drainage channels. Areas where odais had been cut off by encroachments, however, were quickly inundated. “But even after facing the tsunami and now the floods, authorities never seem to learn,” Saravanan said.

Through their RTI requests, the CRC have discovered numerous illegal constructions, including beach houses, government institutes, bungalows and resorts, besides at least 15 illegal kuccha and pucca roads, on just the 25-kilometre stretch from Urur Kuppam to Muttukadu.

Zoning out

The Coastal Regulation Zone Notifications of 2011 replaced the original notification of 1991, which classified coastal regions into four distinct zones, based on their fragility and the level of development already present there. Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I zones are least sensitive, while CRZ IV zones are highly protected — at least according to the law.

“Most of the coastal part of south Chennai falls under CRZ II, while the remainder falls under CRZ III,” says Saravanan. “So to construct here without prior permissions and clearances is a strict no-no.”

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In their report titled, “Road-rolling Laws”, released in October last year, the CRC allege that 5.8 kms of road made using asphalt, cement, red earth and construction debris had been laid as of September 2015.

Walking the 10kms down the beachfront from Besant Nagar to Injambakkam, the width of the beach varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. What’s constant is a single lane road in various stages of development. At some points, the road is nearly complete, with lane markers and street lamps; at other points, it’s barely visible, covered by beach sand, but there nonetheless. Further south, prominent beachfront bungalows, with broad glass walls and painted dazzling white, grow more and more common, fitted into the spaces between the fishing villages.

With most of these areas falling under CRZ II, buildings are permitted on the landward side of an existing road or roads approved in the area’s Coastal Zone Management Plan. “We have discovered that the modus operandi in many cases is for a kuccha road to be built first, and this literally paves the way for buildings and other developments on the landward side of it,” Saravanan said. “In many cases a road that is built only now is shown to exist from earlier, thus making the constructions ‘legal’. The Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management Authority, who is supposed to stop this, either doesn’t know about the violations or if they do, are doing little about it.”

When contacted by this reporter, Management Authority declined to comment.

A double whammy

“These beach houses and roads are taking up the place where we used to keep our bigger nets and some of our boats,” says Harikrishnan Sekar, 58, a fisherman from Injambakkam. “If they keep occupying the beach like this, we’ll be stuck in the middle of big bungalows with no way to fish. Everyone knows about the problems but no one does anything. The village leaders get their cuts and keep silent and it’s only people like us, without any power, who suffer.”

Kuppan R., 50, of Kottivakkam echoes similar sentiments. “Our family has been here for seven generations and we have seen this area change a lot. We aren’t against development. It’s only that it should be for our good also,” he says. “The land just outside our village is grama natham or our livelihood land – it’s the common property of the village. When rich people come and build bungalows there or when roads are laid there, it affects us greatly.”

Apart from eating into the coastline to the detriment of fishing communities, these illegal roads and constructions are also a threat to the Olive Ridley sea turtles – an endangered species that is legally protected in India.

An illegal road near Palavakkam beach. Credit: Sibi Arasu

An illegal road near Palavakkam beach. Credit: Sibi Arasu

“The long term effect of all this development is absolutely tragic,” said Shravan Krishnan, 25, a volunteer with the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN). “You have to understand that turtles have been nesting in these beaches for at least 120 million years. In the last few years alone, with all the development eating up land that they have used traditionally, we’re seeing many nesting grounds lost and turtles being constantly pushed away.” He adds, “If it continues like this and nothing is done to prevent these developments, the future is definitely set to be grim.”  

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets as @sibi123.

  • Shakthi

    CRZ – I consists of eco-sensitive areas and CRZ IV is the water side (from low tide line to 12 nautical miles into the sea). A quick look at the CRZ 2011 notification would have helped you avoid this wrong statement – “Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I zones are least sensitive, while CRZ IV zones are highly protected — at least according to the law.”

  • Shakthi

    CRZ I includes eco-sensitive areas and CRZ IV is the water side – from low tide line till 12 nautical miles into the sea. If you had a quick look at the CRZ 2011 notification, you wouldn’t give out this statement – “Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) I zones
    are least sensitive, while CRZ IV zones are highly protected — at least
    according to the law.”