Walk this way 

Kochi’s Marine Drive has suddenly been closed to the public at night, citing anti-social activities. K.S. Sudhi journeys down the path, to talk to people who enjoy socialising time here, chatting with them about what they enjoy most about the promenade 

Updated - September 29, 2023 08:48 am IST

Published - September 28, 2023 07:47 pm IST

People throng the Rainbow bridge on Marine Drive braving showers on Wednesday night.

People throng the Rainbow bridge on Marine Drive braving showers on Wednesday night. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

After a long day’s work, Tixon Mathew, a young sales executive at a white goods supermarket, and his colleagues gathered at the walkway on Marine Drive in Ernakulam around midnight on September 26. The lights from the buildings that line the shore of the walkway reflected in Vembanad Lake, popularly called the Kochi backwaters in these parts. Boats that offered tourist cruises across the lake and into the sea were moored for the night. The rain that lashed the area in the evening had washed away the dust from the pathway. A moisture-laced wind swept across the lake, creating small ripples on its surface. 

As planned, Tixon and his friends — all dressed in black T-shirts with the supermarket’s logo and blue jeans, their work attire — assembled near a huge avenue tree, located near the entrance to the walkway from Shanmugham Road. One of his colleagues took out a birthday cake bought from a cake shop nearby, another brought out two glitter-sheet-wrapped gift packets purchased by pooling money. As the clock struck 12 midnight, they placed the cake on the granite-slab-covered seating platform recently rebuilt around the tree, and invited their colleagues, to cut it. The women cut the cake, while their colleagues cheered them on. The friends hugged each other, wishes were exchanged, and the Black Forest cake devoured.

The Marine Drive area, especially the tile-paved walkway with park benches, has been the most sought-after hangout space for the city’s youth. But the Greater Cochin Development Authority, a Kerala government agency formed to oversee and plan the urban infrastructure development in Kochi city and adjoining areas, recently issued an order restricting the public from accessing the landmark public space between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. – its raison d’etre being that the area was becoming a haunt of ‘anti-social elements’.

A city break 

“It’s absurd to ask people not to come here after 10 p.m. This is a public place where we would love to unwind after a day’s work,” says P.S. Sighosh, from Palluruthy in West Kochi, as he relishes a piece of cake from the birthday party. 

“We work on a 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift. Marine Drive is one place where we can relax after business hours. Closing the walkway will deny young people who work on the late-night shifts, their only chill-out point in the city,” he says. 

“If someone violates the law, they should be booked. Instead, the attempt is to curb everyone’s rights. Let more police personnel be deployed here and surveillance cameras installed to keep a tab on wrongdoers,” suggests Sighosh. 

The 2.5-kilometre-long picturesque pathway, sandwiched between the Kochi’s much picturised backwaters and the busy Shanmugham Road, was developed by the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) along the lines of the Marine Drive in Mumbai in the early 1980s.

It links High Court Junction in the north with the Ernakulam Boat Jetty in the south. The area, which offers a panoramic view of the Kochi backwaters and the islands on the other side, was also one of the first urban shopping centres. City dwellers would come to shop at the Marine Drive shopping complex, built by the GCDA, and the nearby Broadway before shopping malls sprang up in other areas. The area teems with people in the evening and twilight hours even now.

A birthday party under way on the Marine Drive walkway, a favourite haunt of the youth in Kochi city, at midnight on Tuesday.

A birthday party under way on the Marine Drive walkway, a favourite haunt of the youth in Kochi city, at midnight on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

The ‘rainbow bridge’, an arched structure that was built along the pathway and over the canal that connects Vembanad Lake with the Ernakulam market canal nearly two decades ago, quickly emerged as the mascot of the city. A country-boat-shaped kettuvallam (houseboat) bridge and a Chinese-net-shaped bridge also came up on the walkway, turning the area into a must-see for visitors to the city. The backwater cruises offered from here added to the popularity of the spot among both domestic and foreign tourists. For Kochi’s city dwellers, left without much choice of open spaces in the corporation area, the place offers a welcome relief. 

The walkway recently got a facelift with Cochin Smart Mission Limited undertaking a host of upgradation and beautification works. An open gym for visitors and a play area for children were added. Street furniture was put up, floortiles were re-laid, and kiosks were set up as part of the facelift. 

The extreme step 

What made the GCDA put a halt on late-night visitors? “Social compulsions,” asserts the authority’s chairman and senior trade union leader from Kerala K. Chandran Pillai. 

A view of Marine Drive walkway on Thursday night.

A view of Marine Drive walkway on Thursday night. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

“There have been complaints of some unacceptable practices taking place in the area. Among other things, we are introducing waste management projects to clean up the area. The decision to limit access to the public was introduced on an experimental basis, which will be reviewed after one month,” he says.

Chandran Pillai remains unfazed as public resentment is mounting against the decision. “We are open to criticism. Let divergent views emerge. We shall review the decision after one month,” he asserts. 

Curiously, other than a press release, the authority has not taken any steps to impose the decision. No warnings or signboards have been put up along the pathway or at its entry points, indicating the time the place is closed to the public. 

However, police personnel on duty at the outpost at Marine Drive do not subscribe to the views of the authority chairman. “We cannot say that the walkway is a hub of criminal activities. Earlier, some stray incidents of clashes between some groups had taken place, which were handled by the police. It’s a relatively safe place, where people spend time till the early hours of the day,” says a police official seated in the dingy outpost. 

“On a given day, we see many young people and couples strolling along the walkway hand in hand or chatting their time away. Lovebirds too frequent the area. The entire stretch of the walkway needs to be lit up and brought under a CCTV surveillance network to make it a safer place for the public, rather than barring the public from entering the area,” says the officer as he leaves the cabin for a foot-patrol at 1 a.m. 

A man walks under a canopy of trees on the Marine Drive. The tree-lined avenue is a favourite spot with both local walkers and tourists.

A man walks under a canopy of trees on the Marine Drive. The tree-lined avenue is a favourite spot with both local walkers and tourists. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

His colleague at the outpost says there had been some complaints from residents about people playing loud music at night. “On complaints of public display of affection on walkways, the police have limitations to intervene as it may lead to complaints of violation of privacy,” he says. 

What people feel 

Joseph Joy, a veteran engineer who lives in one of the premium waterfront apartments in the area, says, “Youngsters bring high-power music systems with them and play songs at high decibels through the night. There were also clashes between different groups and the police had to be alerted to the incidents. All public address systems must be switched off after 10 p.m. as instructed by the courts,” he feels. 

Senior lawyer T.A. Asafali says curbing people’s freedom to access a public place without justifiable reason could be a case of violation of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. “It appears to be a case of deprivation of personal liberty of an individual to use a public pathway, which is impermissible under the law,” he argues. 

The authority’s decision, says Amal Varghese, a tourism professional who was seen spending time with his two friends at the passageway, will hurt the tourism industry at a time when the State is making an all-out effort to tap its tourism potential. 

“Nightlife is an essential ingredient of the tourism of a region. An emerging tourism destination such as Kochi should ensure that all its public places remain open and accessible to all through the night. The authorities need to set up more washrooms in the area and better the quality of eateries, to attract people rather than restrict access,” he says.

Faisal Muhammad and his five friends, all pharmacists, travelled from Aluva at night to meet some of their friends in Kochi. They all met at their usual meeting place, on the seating column beneath a huge tree whose canopy roofs over a stretch of the walkway.  

 “The pharmacies in the State close at 10 p.m. and we can socialise only after working hours. We set off from Aluva around 11 p.m. after having our dinner to reach Marine Drive at midnight. After spending a few hours with our friends here, we return by 1 a.m. If enforced, the curb will take away our socialising hours,” he fears.

The clamour against the GCDA’s decision is growing shriller by the day with rights activists, the youth, and liberal politicians calling it a blunder. The Kochi Municipal Corporation, too, faces flak for endorsing the decision. But people are speaking out — they may just have their (walk) way.

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