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Tamil Nadu’s Pen Memorial for Karunanidhi Will Erase Fisher Histories

Tamil Nadu’s Pen Memorial for Karunanidhi Will Erase Fisher Histories

A view of fishers’ equipment and boats on the Marina beach, Chennai. Photo: Kavaiyan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • The Tamil Nadu government has proposed to build a memorial for M. Karunanidhi in the form of a 42m-high statue in the water’s off Chennai’s Marina beach.
  • The statue is to be erected over half an acre of reclaimed sea at a point where the sea is 6 m deep, with a glass-bottomed pedestrian pathway from the high-tide line for 350 m.
  • Fishers from Nochikuppam to Urur Kuppam said none of them had been engaged about the project’s proposed site at the time the government was conceptualising it.
  • The public works department’s decision to finalise the current project site over others is founded on the dubious assumption that the site doesn’t interfere with other activities.
  • The site is part of a patchwork of productive fishing grounds as well as falls smack in the middle of an important site to fish for sole fish.

Chennai: The Public Works Department (PWD) of the Government of Tamil Nadu plans to build a 42-metre-high statue of a fountain pen inside the Bay of Bengal. The State Coastal Zone Management Authority has predictably recommended the project for coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearance.

The project is legally untenable, environmentally fraught and totally unnecessary.

It is indisputable that the late Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi was a ‘man of letters’. So were other Dravidian stalwarts. During its previous stint, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government spent Rs 172 crore to construct the well-resourced Arignar Anna library in Kotturpuram, Chennai. That was a fitting tribute to another man of letters.

The pen statue fulfills no such social purpose. The total budget for this project is Rs 80 crore. Taken together with the Rs-39-crore project to construct a memorial for the late chief minister within the Anna memorial (also on Marina beach), the cost of the project is Rs 120 crore. This is just Rs 30 crore shy of the allocation to save Tamil Nadu’s wetlands under the state’s wetlands mission.

Wouldn’t the Kalaignar1 be more aptly remembered if the government were to spend this money to set up well-stocked libraries in every district of the state?

Of all the hare-brained schemes that governments routinely come up with, the pen statue takes the cake.

The monument consists of a 42-metre-tall pen statue-cum-pedestal set over half an acre of reclaimed sea at a point where the sea is 6 m deep. A glass-bottomed pedestrian pathway will stretch from the high-tide line to the pedestal, spanning 350 m.

A pedestrian pathway-cum-elevated lattice bridge will occupy 0.85 acres of beach space and traverse 290 m of beach, including 70 m of turtle nesting grounds classified as CRZ 1A – i.e. a ‘no development zone’.

Erasing fisher histories

The monuments of the mighty are built over the lives, spaces and identities of communities that are invisible to the eyes of the colonisers. Just as the British erased cultures by building over spaces and renaming them, the rulers of independent India have also continued the process of erasure in the name of development, beautification, conservation and memorialisation.

Fishers from Nochikuppam to Urur Kuppam (in Chennai) said none of them had been engaged in dialogue about the project’s proposed site at the time the government was conceptualising it.

The CRZ notification requires projects like these to consider alternative sites as well. PWD claims to have considered three sites – all in the northern tract of the Marina, east of the stretch where the state’s late chief ministers are buried.

The justification for selecting the current site, directly east of the Anna and Karunanidhi memorials, is as follows (quoted verbatim):

  1. Site II falls in the CRZ IVA [ocean]
  2. Its proximity and significance of the existing memorial
  3. No disturbance to any other nearby activities
  4. There will be no additional traffic congestion and community pollution load since the visitors will be common for all the attractions nearby, including Marina Beach & other memorials.
  5. Laying of new roads does not arise.
  6. Already Anna Square within which Muthamizh Arignar Dr Kalaignar Memorial is located is a tourist-attracting place. Hence it is more relevant placing this new project abutting Muthamizh Arignar Dr Kalaignar Memorial.

Item 3 is particularly curious: “No disturbance to any other nearby activities”. The site chosen for the monument and the near-shore waters between the monument and shore are part of a productive patchwork of fishing grounds.

Had the Tamil Nadu government complied with the law when preparing the coastal zone management plan, this detail would have been public information. The CRZ notification, under which CZMPs are prepared, requires planners to consult fishers and highlight their fishing grounds at sea. This is to avoid conflict and disturbance of fisher rights and economies.

From the mouth of the Cooum river to the mouth of the Adyar river, the Marina is home to 13 fishing villages: Mattankuppam (north), Mattankuppam (south), Appayachettiyar Kuppam, Ayothikuppam, Nadukuppam, Nambikkai Nagar, Nochikuppam, Nochinagar, Doomingkuppam, Bhavanikuppam, Selvarajagramam and Srinivasapuram.

Despite a court order directing the State Coastal Zone Management Authority to comply with the law, none of the villages were consulted in the drafting of the CZMP. The coastal zone map and plan don’t reflect the fishing grounds off the Marina.

Beneath the surface

To recreational beach-goers as much as ignorant city-planners, the sea appears to be a vast and ‘empty’ expanse of water. But in fishers’ minds, the sea comes alive with a maze of markers in water based not on its surface but on the nature of the seabed – as seru, tharai, paaru (muddy, sandy or rocky, as in reef). Of these, seru and paaru are the most biologically productive.

To fish, a fisher needs to be able to download at will the map of the seabed prepared by his ancestors and uploaded to his brain over the decade-long apprenticeship on the boats of his elders. Paarus are generally found deeper at sea, beyond 22 m. The seru paguthi, or muddy portions of the seabed, can be found close to shore as well as in deeper waters.

Despite how we have turned our rivers into slow-moving shitwater and estuaries into cesspools, river mouths and the stretches of the nearshore sea south of the mouths remain the most productive fishing areas. The fishing grounds south of Cooum are all spread out as patches of muddy ocean floor areas called seru (mud) separated by tharai (sandy) seabed.

Every monsoon, the Cooum flushes out its toxins, sludge and plastic trash with the first heavy downpour. After that comes the healthy sediment from inland, which is washed out with the floodwaters. Under the influence of the northeast monsoon – called vaadai naal in fisher Tamil (vaadai refers to the prevalent northerly winds and currents) – the waters and sediment disgorged by the river push deep into the sea.

The sea pushes the sediments back landwards and a south-bound current settles the silt in patches from the river mouth southwards. This way, the process of rebuilding a productive muddy seabed fish habitat is taken up anew every monsoon.

Fishers have a name for the freshly layered sediment close to the river mouth:- kadavaadu. “The sediment from the kadavaadu is fine, like powder cement. Prawns and crabs love it,” S. Ethiraj (42), who has been fishing the seas near Marina for 25 years, said.

Two days after any cyclone, when the river is still pushing out, the kadavaadu is the best place for prawns. In this season, there may not be prawns,” he added. “If you go there today after dusk, you will see the minnampoochi [floating net-markers with lights] of the naakku valai [nets for sole fish] in a line from the estuary to Nochikuppam… at least 10 boats.”

And according to Ethiraj, “The monument is set to come up smack in the middle of the stretch where 10 fishers will set their naakku valai today,”. Naakku meen, or sole fish, is a tasty white fish with soft bones; it is great for frying or as bajjis.

The nearshore muddy seabed areas are prized by the fishers, so much so that each patch has a name. Ethiraj listed the names of the seru along the Marina: “Kannaan seru lies south of the Cooum mouth. Then there is Peru seru, Iluva seru, Seeni seru, Lalan seru, Mela seru and Parappan seru near Nochikuppam.”

By destroying the fish-rich Kannaan seru, the pen statue will write over the history of one of Chennai’s first residents – the fishers.

Go fish

You can’t protect what you don’t know exists. You can’t know what exists without asking those who know what exists. S. Palayam, a veteran fisher from Urur Kuppam, which is at least 10 km from the Cooum, gets emotional when I ask him about the project.

“You write to them [the authorities] and tell them they should speak to the fishers,” he said. “What do these engineers know about the seas? They can’t see what we see. That stretch has live-giving seru not just for the 10 villages around Marina. Our seas are tharai kadal [unproductive sandy seabeds]. When the waters are clear, the only fish that are to be found are in that stretch. When we are hungry, we go there to set our nets.”

I asked Palayam to name some of the tasty fish that makes Chennai happy and that are caught from the kadavaadu seru and the muddy floors off the Marina. He begins:

Kelangan, keechan, nandu, naakku, udupa, udupaathi, kala, mathi, semakkera, thulra, por-ra, thirukkai, panangyan, vavval. If the water is turbid, then fish that might be further out at sea will come closer to shore. We can catch poruva, kuthuva, kaasaamparai, thooradi kathalai, panna, nethili, otta kavalai, olakaaral, kottukaaral, varikaaral, pachakutti, pees kola, paruva kola, even vari kathalai in these serus.

Palayam paused his recital at vari paarai (a.k.a. barred trevally, Carangoides ferdau).

“Brother, this fish is so tasty that when we return from the sea with vari-paarai, we’d stop emptying the nets as soon as we get a handful. We’d run home with it, give it to the women and ask them to make a kuzhambu (curry). The fish curry would be hot and ready by the time we finish our work at the beach, return home and wash off the salt from our bodies. There are only a few things in the world that can beat that taste and fragrance of vari paarai in kuzhambu.”

Is that the only good fish, I ask. Palayam looked offended.

“Don’t you recognise any of the fish that you keep eating from the list I read out – nethili, you don’t like it? Kittukaanan keluthi, kelangan, madavai. What’s wrong with these fish? Sudumbu is a great-tasting fatty fish. But it is fast disappearing because these serus are being degraded.”

Not legal

Until 2015, statues in the sea were a no-no. The ruling dispensation in Maharashtra at the time proposed a Shivaji statue in a small cove off a prominent beach in South Mumbai. Shivaji was a man of action, not of letters. So the statue had a sword, measuring 210 m from the base to the tip.

But the CRZ notification drafted to protect fishers and coastal environments didn’t allow for such structures inside the sea. So the law was changed to read (emphasis added):

“Dressing or altering the sand dunes, hills, natural features including landscape changes for beautification, recreation and other such purpose [except utilizing the rocks / hills/natural features, only in CRZ-IV (A) areas, for development of memorials / monuments and allied facilities, by the concerned State Government]*

This exemption itself flies in the face of the notification’s objective – to limit development on the coast to activities requiring foreshore or shorefront facilities.

A monument can be built anywhere. Why inside the sea?

And even with this exemption, the current pen memorial is not permissible. The proposal encroaches on 70 m of CRZ 1A, which are turtle nesting grounds, and proposes to construct a lattice bridge structure on the seaward side of the existing authorised structure.

CRZ 2011, as amended, may permit the erection of monuments and allied facilities in CRZ IV (A) sea areas but does not allow for allied facilities in the intertidal zone or in turtle-nesting beaches.

The law has never been an impediment for the powerful. If it can change for Shivaji’s sword, it can certainly be amended for Kalaignar’s pen. The pen, after all, is mightier than the sword.


  1. The prefix with which Karunanidhi is known; it’s Tamil for ‘man of arts’

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