The Life and Times of Nochikuppam

loop road
Loop Road

Walking on to the Marina Loop Road equipped with a knowledge of its past was a surreal experience. The strip of land on which the Road currently runs, flanked by the Marina Beach on the east and Nochikuppam on the west, was part of what was initially granted to the British East India Company to construct a factory and warehouse. Renowned historian of Chennai S Muthiah notes in his book Tales of Old and New Madras that a fishing village, Madrasapatnam, was part of the land granted. There is enough historical evidence that fishing settlements were here before the tiny strip of land grew into Madras, and much before modern day Chennai. Yet, the residents haven’t been provided proper title deeds to their land to date.

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 1991, led way to acceptance of the land rights of the fishing community. However, the lack of clarity in the definition of the people entitled to the rights, have made it easy to deny them the entitlement to live where they always have.

Additionally, their settlements were classified as “slums” under the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, 1971. The Act bestowed control over their lands to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB), which has led to the fishing community being “resettled” in a haphazard manner, the most common practice being relocating the people quite far away from where they went fishing.

As a result, “kuppam”, which meant a fishing hamlet, has come to be synonymous with “slum” and the accompanying unfavourable assumptions and imagery: anti-social activities, unsafe in general, and dishonest people.

Nochikuppam, officially Nochi Nagar, is one of the many kuppams that have been dealt such a fate. For ease of reporting, this write-up uses “slum” to refer to Nochi Kuppam/Nochi Nagar, as it has been registered as one.

The oldest residents of this slum have been living here for approximately 60 years, and do not recall much of what it was like before they were shifted to the tenements built by TNSCB except that they were living on the beach in tents.

Makeshift fish stalls manned by women on the east side of Loop Road mark the entrance of the slum area. Nochi Nagar can be categorised into two areas based on the amenities available and living conditions: the Emergency Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme (ETRP) buildings plus the buildings that came after, and the tenements built in the 1970s, both constructed by the Tamil Nadu government.

The making of Nochi Nagar

The fishing hamlet that consisted of shacks and tents on the shore were shifted to tenements made of brick and iron in 1973. They are now in a dilapidated condition, yet most of them continue to be occupied.

dilapidated tenements
A view of the dilapidated tenements

These tenements are all 5X10 feet. The floor is of cement, walls made of bricks, and the roof of tin and iron. Each tenement is a single room, divided into a space for the kitchen, space for bathing, and a living room, with little physical demarcation to separate each area. Everyone in the house bathes inside the house, at the left corner where the floor has been made hollow, and has an outlet for the water to drain. The public toilets, situated a few metres away, are the only ones available for all the residents.

“It is mortifying, but we don’t have a choice”, says Velankanni M (30), who lives in one of these houses. She works as a housekeeper at Sun City. Her husband works as a mason. They have two sons, both of whom are in primary school.

Velankanni says the residents live in constant uncertainty.

“In 2004, the tsunami damaged the entire settlement. We were promised a flat each in those buildings (she points to the ETRP apartments), but not all of us have been given one. We put our hard-earned money to make these houses liveable”, she says.

But it didn’t stop with the tsunami.

“The 2015 floods were horrifying. Our roof leaked and we couldn’t do anything about it. The 2016 cyclone (Vardah) too, took away our roof. The last two years were filled with turmoil. I was constantly fearing for our safety”, she says.

Velankanni says that the one positive aspect of living here is the free electricity.

“As we don’t have to pay for the electricity, people who have been assigned flats lease them out and come back here to live”, she smiles wryly.

The electricity, even though free, is rather irregular. Unannounced power cuts are common, and they last for hours.

“At least four hours”, Velankanni says.

Invisible discrimination

The premises of the green coloured buildings were built between 2009 to 2014, out of the Tamil Nadu government’s own funds. The space between one block of flats and another is narrow, with parking space for vehicles; the compound wall is short (3 feet, approximately) and lacks any gates to secure the complex. The premises also have a few of the original houses built by some of the residents, and they remain as the owners refused to give them up for demolition. These families have not been allotted flats.

green buildings
The green apartments are reconstructions made out of the TN government’s funds, and allocated to the fishing community.

Manjula M (43), has been living here for 30 years now (she admits that she does not remember the exact number of years). The men go fishing, while the women sell the catch. On a good day, she says, the fishermen make up to Rs. 500.

She says the buildings painted green are occupied only by the fisher folk.

“A few of the families set up shacks here (she points to the vacant space between the compound walls and the buildings), but they were later made to vacate by the authorities”, she says. Who were these people, I ask.

“Oh, they do other things. They don’t fish. They don’t belong here”, she says gruffly.

“They knit fishing nets, work as housekeepers, and so on,” interjects Thamizharasi J (50), who had stopped by to listen in. Almost immediately Manjula hushes her, saying something under her breath, and they part ways.

In the block where Manjula lives, each floor has two flats. Each block consisting of four floors.

The flat is quite tiny, hardly 300 sq. ft. Manjula lives with her two children and her husband.

“We were handed a bare flat, with cement floor and no paint on the walls. We added the tiles and painted the walls using our own money”, she says.

These flats have their own washroom, however, it is tiny.

“The major issue here is water supply. We recently put together funds from our personal savings and set up borewells”, she says.

How about electricity, I ask.

“It’s irregular. We have power cuts that last for at least an hour a day”, she says.

Where the non-fishers retire

The buildings painted pink are the resettlement flats built under the ETRP, funded by the World Bank. According to a CAG audit report, the Programme allowed for building flats in Okkiam Thoraipakkam, All India Radio (AIR) site, and Nochikuppam. Nochikuppam is the only in situ reconstruction. However, after some of the flats were allegedly allocated to those who were not residents of the slum (they came from other tsunami-affected hamlets) and those who did not belong to the fishing community, there was a standoff between the Nochikuppam residents and TNSCB. This deadlock led to the World Bank withdrawing funds.

pink building
The pink buildings come under the State Emergency Tsunami Rehabilitation Programme

The Tamil Nadu government then decided to fund the projects, and as a result, only 628 flats have been built in total, as against the originally proposed 7320 tenements using the World Bank funds.

Another issue that the residents had with the allotment of flats was that the TNSCB did not account for the children of the original families, who are adults now and have families of their own: they have all been counted as a single family unit and allotted a single flat.

“How can so many of us live in such a small space?”, asks Thilakavathi S, who lives in one of the ETRP flats. A portrait of B R Ambedkar hangs in the living room.

These buildings are a lot more cramped: each block has four floors, and each floor has at least 42 flats on either side. The passages are ill-lit and more narrow than the stairs leading to the houses.

Thilakavathi says that they hardly have continuous electricity or water supply.

“During summer, we have water supply once every four days. In the winter, it is once every two days”, she says.

Very few people in the ETRP buildings go fishing. What do they do for a living, I ask.

“We are mostly daily wage labourers. Housekeeping and building construction work is what we take up”, she says.

Why aren’t they allowed to go fishing?

One woman, on condition of anonymity, said, “We belong to a lower caste. We can’t fish”.

No public schools and hospitals

Despite the varying levels of discrimination among the residents, they have a common issue: they have to spend on private education for their children and private health care for their families.

The nearest emergency medical facility is at Luz Corner. The choice of schools is St. Thomas and Santhome High School.

“We want our children to get good education. We can’t depend on corporation schools for that. Those of us who can afford to, send the children to private schools”, says Manjula.

A beacon of hope

Swapna Sundari (55) was talking to a group of women under a makeshift shack constructed right next to the ship-shaped public toilet.

Taking time off the meeting to talk to this writer, she explained that she was helping the women with their loan applications so they can set up their own businesses.

She maintains a register with their names, and how much they need to repay each month.

“One of them wants to sell flowers, and another wants to set up a shop to sell dosa batter. This lets them have financial independence”, she explains.

Swapna has also taught the residents how to open a bank account, how to deposit and withdraw money.

She has been working with various NGOs including Action Aid, to help the residents of the slum lead better lives.

She has worked with the police department to prevent caste clashes in the slum and organised the youth to collect funds for setting up lights in the area.

“The lights have made a huge difference. It makes the area feel safe, and discourages men from misbehaving with women”, she says.

Another problem that used to constantly flare-up was the clash between original residents of Nochikuppam and those who have been resettled here from other fishing hamlets post-tsunami.

“This has reduced, the youth are more compassionate now”, she states.

Alcoholism is another major issue, she says. Despite staging street plays and conducting workshops, the men slip into drinking after a few days of staying away from it.

“They work hard at sea, and liquor has become their only source of comfort. I am still working with NGOs to change this”, Swapna says wistfully.

The need for government support

Swapna says that the government needs to work with the people’s welfare as priority and provide more in situ constructions than displacing an entire slum.

“These people typically live close to their source of livelihood. How is it fair to place them so far away?” she asks.

Slum resettlement is about improving the quality of live of the people living in them, and the government needs to put their needs first, and stick to the spirit of the motto, reminiscent of an MGR song: “God we shall see in the smile of the poor”.

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