Beautification, Fisher Folk, and Coal in Chennai

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Suresh and Nity

Chennai      I had met Nityanad Jayaraman briefly in New York and promised to track him down and find out more about his work, so Suresh Kadashan and I began our day traveling across Chennai to find him.  As the auto rickshaw made its way, the police detour took us in a long sweep along the water in sight of the beach where colorful fishing boats were often pulled up on shore, men were still untangling nets, and women were selling the morning’s catch on blankets in the street.  Chennai is New Orleans hot and humid, maybe even more so natives claim, but though I had been here twice before over the last decade, it occurred to me that I had always been running to meetings or dealing with hawkers and others in the streets of the city, and had never actually been along the Bay of Bengal here, and it seemed beautiful in every way.  Suresh punctured the mood only slightly by mentioning that his fear of water was so acute that he was nervous being this close to the sea, even as we motored along.

Our meeting with Nity, as everyone calls him, was fascinating in the special way that you can stumble on someone for the first time and feel you have discovered a comrade for life who has been moving on parallel paths.  Sitting in his office only blocks from the water, he explained that his organization was “somewhat anarchistic” in the sense that it was a “collective” of sorts with a flexible membership over the last twenty years initially begun by him and several others.  They managed to stay evergreen by pulling in young people regularly for years at a time.  They were attached to an NGO that worked on some environmental projects that paid the rent on the office.  The collective defined its purpose as supporting popular struggles and campaigns through media, research, legal, and innumerable other ways, large and small.  He described himself as “an activist and journalist,” and decidedly not an organizer.

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We first talked about the campaign involving the government proposed, huge coal-fired plant about 60 miles away that had been the topic when I first met Nity several months earlier.  They had been asked to help by some people in the area and concerned environmental groups some years before.  The plant proposal also involves a coal port that would level some of  the sand dunes that had saved the fishing livelihood of the communities from the devastating 2004 tsunami, and this information, perhaps more than any other factor, was moving local people to participate.  In many ways Nity felt confident that their odds of stopping the plant were very good at this point, and it was a relief to agree.

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Asking him what was engaging them most in Chennai now, he quickly replied, “Beautification!”  It seems this city of almost four-and-a-half  million is being pushed by local officials, promoters, and developers – the usual gang — that what it most needs is some kind of urban uplift or beautification, particularly along the waterfront areas along the Bay of Bengal.  Translated into urban policy this is not a tree-planting-garbage-pickup proposal, but the kind of urban renewal/people removal, so familiar from the widely discredited United States experience fifty years ago.New construction would line three story buildings along the beach and wipe out the fishing families.  The first area targeted in fact turned out to be the stretch of beach where our auto rickshaw had been diverted earlier that morning.  Even more importantly, Suresh was immediately able to detail the fact that the Street Vendors Act of 2014, our current primary organizing handle for our union of hawkers and street vendors, would protect the fish vendors as well and their right to livelihood.  This animated the conversation quickly.   Suresh pulled papers out of his briefcase, shared a copy of the Act, and how it could be used in this situation, and our willingness to organize the fish sellers, while Nity and Suresh simultaneously translated the discussion into Tamil for several others in the office as they arrived.

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We committed on Suresh’s next trip to beginning the work immediately.  Nity jumped at the chance to write a piece about the “beautification” projects in Chennai for the fall issue of Social Policy.  We grasped the chance at a partnership and the opportunity to be honorary members of this collective, so ready and able, fellow travelers all.

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The Waterboys: “Fisherman’s Blues”

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