The proposed elevated expressway project from Lighthouse to Kottivakkam will impact the beauty of the beach and the livelihood of fishermen, apart from other environmental repercussions. Is anybody listening?

In the recent history of Chennai, no development project has drawn so much public concern and protest as the elevated road proposed between Light House on the Marina beach and Kottivakam on the East Coast Road (ECR). Ever since this road alignment was finalised in 2008, a spate of protests has been organised against it.

At the centre of the debate is the question of whether the huge investment on infrastructure to facilitate automobile movement is justified at the cost of displacing fishermen, affecting sensitive ecosystems and marring the beauty of the beach.

The plan

The four-lane elevated expressway at a height of sixmts, is to be built in two phases. The first phase (4.7-km) will link Light House and Besant Nagar at a cost Rs.430 crores. This, as the feasibility report states, will affect 529 houses, 14 commercial buildings and three religious buildings. It will impact the fragile Adyar estuary, which has been demarcated as a bird sanctuary by the State Forest Department, and the Olive Ridley breeding grounds. Many fishermen and their villages will be affected. The remaining five km of the stretch will be built in the second phase along the coast line connecting Besant Nagar and Kottivakam.

The Government of Tamil Nadu justifies this project on the grounds that it will improve mobility between north Chennai and ECR by reducing traffic congestion on the roads. It argues that widening the existing roads is not possible and hence this by-pass. Government officials say that a road on stilts would not affect the beach and the displaced fishermen would be suitably compensated.

Probable problems

On the other hand, residents and experts fear that the elevated expressway may create more problems than solve it. For example, they point out that it will flood the coast line with vehicles and create chaos at the touch-down points. While the view from above would be impressive for those driving the cars, the residents below would suffer, they contend.

The project raises a long list of environmental issues. The impact on the fragile Adyar Creek, violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone norms and the draining of pollutants from the road surface to the sea during the rains are a few. Coming as it so near to residential areas, this project is viewed by many as insensitive urban planning.

Topping the list of issues is displacement of fishermen. In December 2009, 10 fishing villages affected by this project came together and passed a resolution against the proposed road. The community leaders protested that it would result in the eviction of their villages and totally disrupt their livelihoods. During another protest in 2009, K. Sarvanan of Urur Kuppam, one of the affected villages, complained of the anti-poor orientation of the proposed projects. “They serve the car-owning public at the expense of fishermen,” he added. Fishermen and other residents complain that no pubic consultations were held though the consultants claim otherwise.

Instead of promoting public transport and finding long-term solutions, the government continues to promote personal mode of traffic and seeks ad hoc solutions. The elevated road is a case in point.

Private vs. public transport

As early as 1974, the planning authorities assured the public that their plans will shift 80 per cent of trips undertaken within the city to public transport by 1991. As a result, the roads would be decongested, they promised. This has not happened till now because, contrary to their avowed objectives, projects favour private vehicles over public transport. Even in the proposed elevated road there are no provision for buses to ply.

The question whether the beach, one of the most important of the assets of the city, and the lives of many fishermen can be sacrificed for the sake of saving time for a small number of car owners persists and the protests continue. However, overlooking the objections, the government is proceeding with the project. The detailed project report that will facilitate the tender process has begun.

Will the beaches of Chennai be saved?

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