The Tamil Nadu Government has informed the High Court of Madras that it has dropped the idea of building an elevated road along the East Coast Road. The project had faced strong protests from environmental activists and the fisher folk right from inception. The decision to drop it has therefore been widely welcomed. But all this does not in any way ensure that our coastline, certainly among the most beautiful parts of our city, is anyway secure from developments of a similar nature that may be thought of in future.
The project if it had been implemented, would have been another of those schemes that are frequently thought of by Government agencies in complete conflict with nature. Envisaged as a four-lane highway, it was to begin with a ramp from near the Lighthouse, proceed along Santhome, Foreshore Estate, cut across the Adyar Estuary (where a steel bridge named the Signature Bridge would provide the necessary connection), cross the Theosophical Society, run parallel to the Elliots Beach and finally connect with the East Coast Road at Kottivakkam. The entire distance would have been 9.7 kms and it would have been a part of the circular transportation corridors that have been planned to ease traffic congestion in the city.
While ostensibly meant to provide for smooth vehicular flow (read cars only), the project raised several questions. Firstly it cut off the fishing community’s access to the sea and there were rumours that they would be relocated to other places, some nowhere near the coast. Secondly, it involved work being done at environmental hotspots such as the Theosophical Society, the Adyar Creek and the beach front, the last also being the nesting spot of the Olive Ridley turtles. Thirdly, there was the question of whether the whole project would finally play into the hands of the real-estate lobby, which would begin looking at development along the sea front, a long cherished idea for its members. And finally, there was the question of the Coastal Regulation Zone laws (CRZ) which severely restrict any construction activity along the sea-coast and which gain importance particularly along the East Coast, given its record of rough seas, cyclones and the tsunami of 2004. The Broken Bridge, originally meant to connect Santhome with Besant Nagar and destroyed by nature’s fury is enough of a testimony for this.
The elevated road is of course not the first among ideas that those in power have hatched to ‘utilise’ the beachfront. As early as in 1900s, there was a proposal to build a railway line along it, which was given up thanks to protests led by the legal luminary V Krishnaswami Aiyar. More recently, we had a scheme for creating a ‘Shanghai-like’ sea front, complete with glass-fronted buildings and luxury villas, all to be built on land acquired by displacing the fishermen. This too was given up later. We have also had minor intrusions such as the sudden renovation and additional construction at the Governor’s Bungalow on the beach, which went on despite protests. And we have had several schemes for the ostensible beautification of our beaches. The temptation to build on the beachfront is always strong.
In the same context it worth while pondering over another aspect. While there is jubilation at the Government’s decision to withdraw the proposal, a sobering thought may not be out of place – that the withdrawal is part of the ongoing process of rescinding all that the earlier regime had worked out and if and when there is a change of party in power, we may yet have the elevated road proposal revived.
Which brings us to the thought – why not have a legislation that will permanently protect our beaches from any such ideas in future? We will do well to look back at what Rajaji had to say on this subject in the 1950s – “It is very dangerous to allow congestion in cities… People must devise some scheme to insure against open spaces being built on and payments should be made to municipalities in order to preserve open spaces. It is not impossible to work out such a scheme if it is thought over carefully.” Can we hope that such sage counsel will be heeded?