The community landscape of Chennai is complex and multifaceted. I imagine one would have to live here for many months to even begin to discern the tides and passions underlying the civil landscape. One thing is clear to me, after just a few days here. As in any large city, there are many competing interests, and the political elites appear to favor the needs of the more affluent classes.
On Monday (October 11), one of the large, local papers, The New Indian Express, had a full-page devoted to the impending destruction of at least one of the local fishing villages.
One writer, Sangeetha Neeraja, noted, “Mega projects along the coast, implemented in violation of existing norms, have the potential to rob poor, hard-working people of their dignity. Tales of once self-reliant people, who have lost their livelihood, are many and no celluloid tragedy could be more poignant than these real stories.”
She went on to tell the story of a woman, Vadivu, the wife in a family from another fishing village. The family had made a decent living fishing, and selling their catch. Their children could easily walk to school, and there was always nutritious food on the table. After their village of 280 fishing families was relocated to a barren area, four km from the sea, and 20 km from schools, in order to make way for what some have billed as India’s largest shipbulding facility, Vadivu and her family descended into extreme poverty.
According to Neeraja, many of the village men now work as laborers, and the women as rag pickers at less than half their former earnings. There is little nutritious food, and the children have to travel great distances to school. The cost of transportation and great distance traveled everyday have forced many village children to drop out of school. (Indian law requires all children to attend school until at least age 15.)
As so often happens when Indigenous peoples are uprooted from their homes and livelihoods, the resulting industrial and commercial development can have catastrophic consequences for local ecosystems. Neeraja briefly addressed this by quoting Johnson, a local Chennai fisherman, “The way industrial development is happening along the coast, traditional fishermen will be reduced to coolies in trawlers. Even that will come to an end in ten years as there will be no fish, going by the way trawlers are completely destroying the seabed…..”
There are voices who speak up on behalf of the fishing villages. However, here, too, little appears to be as it seems. Some of the stronger voices seem to be those of affluent landowners whose views of the ocean might be marred by the proposed road. I am told some of these same landowners have previously sought to have the villages removed to enhance the values of their properties, including tourist destinations such as hotels. For the moment, they see their fortunes aligned with the Native fishing families, but alliances can be tenuous.
In the entire page of the newspaper there is no mention of the fishing people as Indigenous people. That may reflect India’s ancient preoccupation with caste and class. It may also reflect this country’s ambivalence about Native people during a time of continued rapid industrialization. The story told, however, is an ancient one, First Nations peoples displaced from homes as soon as someone from the dominant culture finds the land upon which those homes are built to be of value.
As I write this, the voices of the woman who sells fish, and the woman who sells vegetables and fruit, can be heard from the courtyard outside our flat. The women come to sell their goods most mornings. They will likely remain here for just a few minutes, then be on their way. I wonder for how much longer the voice of the fishing woman will be heard here.