The news these days is all about the proposal for a pen memorial at the Marina Beach. The decision to erect a pen-shaped memorial off the beach for the late Kalaignar M Karunanidhi, former CM of Tamil Nadu has run into protests from environmental activists, fishermen, and also the political opposition. While the latter would rank low on credibility (we are quite sure that they would not oppose a similar memorial for their leader), the opinion of those with concern for the environment and also fishing, as also safety cannot be taken lightly, especially given the record of our coastline as regards weather and natural phenomenon. More importantly, it is necessary to draw the line somewhere as regards monuments and memorials, though that is as much a national malaise as it is here.
Last fortnight, public consultations were held over the construction of a pen-shaped memorial in the sea. The very conduct of the event showed that politics is the same all over the country – the party in majority had its members in attendance whose sole job was to heckle those expressing opposition to the memorial and also if necessary, hold up the proceedings. This was followed by some in power, who ought to know better, stating categorically that the memorial will anyway be built. The activists have however it would appear, dug in for a determined fight.
Court rulings prevent the allocation of any fresh land on the Marina for the construction of memorials. Thus, both J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi were buried on land carved out of Anna Square, the vast campus that houses the memorial to former CMs CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran. Jayalalithaa has a memorial built over her burial spot, but the DMK has decided to do one better for its patriarch – a monument shaped like a pen, 42 metres in height and 360 metres in the sea. This is to be accessed by a bridge or a walkway. The environment activists are protesting as the structure will be in complete contravention of Coastal Regulation Zone rules.
More importantly, the fishermen are opposed to the idea. Such a monument will involve dredging the sea and reclaiming land, all of which will cause erosion and degrade the waters to an extent where it will be detrimental for fishing. The history of the Madras coastline is replete with such challenges, the first of these being the harbour itself, which has left us with extensive erosion on the northern parts of the city, with sand accretion to the south. Moreover, given the frequent occurrence of cyclones along this coast, the monument itself is likely to suffer. We only need to reflect on the damage wreaked on the walkway for the physically handicapped at the beach during the last monsoon to realise this. The fishing community has asked for the structure to be built inland, and suggested the Island Grounds. With the State Government determined to go ahead with the sea option, matters have reached an impasse. A Public Interest Litigation has been filed in the Supreme Court.
The question still remains as to why we need such monuments. All over Chennai there are memorials to departed leaders and others, most of them of doubtful architectural merit. Even the better-designed ones are empty buildings with hardly any footfalls. Take for instance the oldest of them all – Gandhi Mandapam. It is not visited by State leaders even on October 2, when all observances of respect are conducted at the Marina instead. Then to what purpose are such gigantic structures? It will be an expenditure of public funds by way of construction and after that, there will be recurring expense by way of maintenance. Given that this edifice will be in the sea, wear and tear is bound to be high. The State Government will do well to ponder over all of this.
There is just one other aspect – erecting enormous statues is now a national obsession and at least on this wasteful expense, our State is in sync with the Centre!
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