By Geeta Padmanabhan
The Highways and Minor Ports Secretary to the Tamil Nadu government, in his letter dated 29 August, 2011 wrote to the Advocate-General of Tamil Nadu:… “the Government, now, after careful consideration of the objections and issues raised by various sections of people, have decided to drop the project.” He asked the A-G to inform the High Court about the decision of the Government. This was in reply to a case filed by a fisherman.
The “project” mentioned here is the absurd, illegal, anti-environment, anti-fishermen, anti-beach plan to build an elevated expressway along the shoreline of the four beaches in Chennai. [see the previous article here.] This four-lane expressway, by some miracle, was supposed to de-congest the southern part of the city of its high volume traffic. Car drivers – only four-wheelers would be allowed on the e’way – would take to the “scenic route” at once and all would be well with our interior roads. Never mind all those who were on the e’way had to go back to the city, through narrow hamlets. One side of the road is filled with sea water.
The words “objections and issues raised by various sections of people” is truly sweet to hear. And not just because I was in one of those “sections of people”. Whether completely meant or not, these words convey the recognition of an obligation of the government: that they should consult the people affected before embarking on a civic project. Projects are not one-sided, top-down affairs. They are not arrogant decisions made on the premise “The government knows best” or on the specious argument “While implementing such large projects, the welfare of a few may have to be sacrificed.” Lack of consultation was the main characteristic of the project from the time it was fraudulently introduced in the master plan for the city to the time a detailed project report was prepared by consultants Wilbur Smith & Co. Even the environment impact study was done in secrecy.
But we won. Some have said that the victory was made possible by the opposition coming to power and in an age-old practice, calling off the previous government’s projects. That would be belittling the three-year battle fought at various levels. Why would the current political party abandon the project unless there was some gain in that action? After all, the e’way would be a 1200-crore highly visible monument proclaiming government power.
So it was people power? Yes, with one qualification. It was people’s power exercised with sharp strategy. In this particular Tom-and-Jerry game, we ended up being Jerry. I am happy to share some of the approaches.
 Once we got the information about the proposal, Saravanan, a fisherman decided to pursue it through RTI (Right to Information Act). He applied for information so constantly that after a while he was probably “given” it without fuss. This required doggedness, and he had that in plenty. Every time we saw “progress” in the proposal, we formulated our counter-strategy.
 We educated the press. The national and local press had the government’s view which was all about de-congesting city roads. We invited them again and again for briefings. We talked about the fishermen and their livelihood, the impact on environment, the tsunami and the e’way, the Olive Ridley turtles that came to nest, the Adyar estuary, the Theosophical Society’s forests, the Kalakshetra (both run close to the seashore), the need for open spaces, the pollution and of course, the illegality of the construction. We made pamphlets listing the damage and distributed them. We gave traffic solutions. In the months of our quiet agitation, some of the reporters became so well informed that they began to dig up facts about the case. They came up with excellent reports. We were in the news – in local papers, in national dailies, on TV.
 We conducted seminars – in Kalakshetra, in the Madras Institute of Development Studies. We invited transportation experts to talk of the futility of building expressways to de-congest city traffic. We had representatives from all the stake-holders, including a students’ group that works to save the Olive Ridleys. We had statistics and examples. Through all this, our strength grew. Our Google group now swelled with IDs.
 We visited the beaches early Sundays and late Saturdays and talked to people about what they would lose, what the impact on the environment would be. We made banners, sold T-shirts, organized stilt-walkers with the message: “Say No to the Beach Expressway.”
 A group of college students meanwhile got together to form ROB (Reclaim Our Beaches). The beach is ours, was their message. Take ownership of the beach, keep it clean. They brought their college friends, played music, raised funds, conducted cleaning trips to the estuary. “The Expressway is the biggest garbage” they proclaimed.
 Meantime, the fishermen got organized. We invited their reps to our meetings and told them of the government’s intention. The 14 fishermen’s colonies passed resolutions in their local-body meetings and sent copies to the officials. We attended their press meets, their human-chain protest. We visited their colonies and interacted with the women. We told them some bitter truths about the expressway (No public transport would run on it). We made their livelihood and re-habilitation major issues of our campaign. I would like to think that this was the first time that a middle-class group spoke passionately about the rights of the poor. Remember, we are all car-owners and the expressway was meant for us.
 International support came from the Theosophical Society whose world-wide members wrote to the state and central government. Local support was strengthened when we went to schools asking kids to send post cards to the Chief Minister with pictures of turtles or a clean beach or an e’way-free beach.
 We then got a copy of the Wilbur Smith Detailed Project Report. We analysed it for legal loopholes. It was absurd, but that wouldn’t help in a court argument. We found that the company had merrily claimed that they had done the public consultations and were given approval for the projects by four fishermen (reps of the people affected, as mandated by law). We registered a complaint at a police station about this fraud. We demanded proof in the form of signed documents.
 The government now tried to work at the central-cabinet level. The Coastal Zone Regulation that did not allow any construction 500 metres from the waterline was re-written to include “roads on stilts” where this was necessary. Once it came up, all the areas landward of the expressway would be free for commercialization. This was in line with calling the expressway a linking road (hey, all roads link!); laying dirt tracks overnight and showing them as pre-existing roads that the e’way would replace; carting sand away from the Adyar river-mouth in the name of de-silting. We registered our objection. We sent petitions to the Environment minister at the central cabinet. We liaised with the national fishermen’s forum on this one.
 We went on a fast for a day.
 When the elections were announced, we called all the candidates contesting in the relevant areas and asked them to take a stand on the e’way.
 We did not have the Ramlila numbers you saw on the screen. Convincing visitors to the beach to join the movement was our toughest task. Most thought an expressway was the panacea for their traffic woes. They could zip across 10 kms in 5 minutes! Ours was a small group. We never had more than 20 people at our meetings. But we won.
People say that Anna Hazare’s Ramlila grounds campaign got its sheen by the infusion of professionals, for whom strategizing is a well-honed skill. I’m thrilled that we’ve proved what the educated can do to thwart a government plan through a well-thought-out campaign, media education/support and thorough knowledge of the law.
This is the press release we put out two days ago. We are meeting this Sunday, September 11, 2011 to find out how we can keep this energy going to keep the beaches clean.
The Tamilnadu Government has formally declared the scrapping of the Rs. 1000 crore elevated expressway project from Lighthouse to ECR near Kottivakkam. Welcoming the announcement (attached), residents of South Chennai, fisherfolk and environmentalists expressed their gratitude to the Chief Minister, the Fisheries Minister and the Highways Minister. The project would have affected 14 fishing villages, all four of Chennai’s beaches and caused great damage to the environment. This decision of the Government will be submitted to the Madras High Court by the Advocate General. A case challenging the Detailed Feasibility Report of the project was filed in the Madras High Court last year by Kasinathan, the former President of Urur Kuppam Panchayat.
Residents and fisherfolk who learnt about the details of the project by using the Right to Information Act have vigorously opposed the project since its inception. Fourteen fishing villages have even issued resolutions opposing the project. Leaders of the then opposition party — AIADMK — too had expressed their support to the campaign against the expressway. Residents have urged the Government to consider improving public transport systems so that the benefits accrue to common people.
For comments on this victory, please contact:
Kasinathan. (Urur Kuppam. Petitioner in the Madras High Court case): 9841429893
K. Saravanan. (Right to Information Activist. Urur Kuppam): 9841868634
Suresh (Odai Kuppam): 9710072477
Veerabhadran (Thiruvanmiyur Kuppam): 9382138957
Kuppan (Kottivakkam Kuppam): 9383677999
Siddharth Hande (Reclaim Our Beaches — Youth Group): 9840295081
Navaz Currimbhoy (Save Chennai Beaches Campaign): 9841042470
Geeta Padmanabhan (Save Chennai Beaches Campaign): 044 24520535