Chennai fishing: Between the city lords and the deep blue sea

Why the fisherfolk from Nochikuppam are resisting their translocation to an indoor market

A fisherman removing sardines from his gillnet at Nochikuppam beach (photo: Manini Bansal)
A fisherman removing sardines from his gillnet at Nochikuppam beach (photo: Manini Bansal)

Divya Karnad

"They say the place stinks, looks unclean, is filled with rubbish," says an agitated N. Geetha, pointing to the row of fish boxes and vendors lined up on both sides of the road.

"This rubbish is our wealth; this stench is our livelihood. Where can we leave this and go?" asks the 42-year-old woman.

We are standing at the makeshift Nochikuppam fish market on Loop Road, stretching 2.5 km along the Marina beach. The ‘they’ who want to see vendors gone from here in the name of 'aestheticisation' of the city are the elite lawmakers and civic authorities.

For fisherfolk like Geetha, Nochikuppam is their ooru (village). A place that they have always belonged to, despite the tsunamis and cyclones.

Geetha is preparing her stall early in the morning, before the market gets busy, spraying water on the makeshift table created from a few overturned crates with a plastic board placed on top. She will be at the stall till 2 p.m. Ever since her marriage more than two decades ago, she has been selling fish here.

But a little more than a year ago, on 11 April 2023, she and close to 300 other vendors operating from Loop Road received an eviction notice from the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC). Following an order from the Madras High Court, the GCC was asked to clear the road within a week.

'The Greater Chennai Corporation shall remove every encroachment (fish vendors, stalls, parked vehicles) on the Loop Road by following due process of law. Police shall render assistance to the Corporation to ensure that the entire road portion and pavement is free of encroachment and available for free flow of traffic and free movement of pedestrians,' the court order had stated.

For the fishing community, however, they are the poorvakudi, the original inhabitants. And it is the city that has been steadily encroaching upon land that historically belonged to them.

Long before the city of Chennai (or even Madras) was built, this coastline was dotted with little kattumarams (catamarans) out at sea.

Fishers would sit patiently in the half-light, feeling the wind, smelling the breeze, watching the currents for the signs of vanda-thanni — the silt-laden current from the Cauvery and Kollidam rivers that surges seasonally along the Chennai coastline. This current used to bring bountiful catches of fish once.

Today the catches are not bountiful, but Chennai’s fishers still sell at the beach.

Off Marina beach, fishermen sort the catch of the day (photo: Manini Bansal)
Off Marina beach, fishermen sort the catch of the day (photo: Manini Bansal)
Manini Bansal

“Even today, fishers wait for vanda-thanni, but the sand and concrete of the city have erased the memory that Chennai was once a collection of fishing kuppams (hamlet of people who perform the same occupation),” sighs S. Palayam, a fisher from Urur Olcott Kuppam, a village across the river from the Nochikuppam market. “Do people remember that?”

The beachside market is a lifeline for fishers. Relocating a fish market, as the GCC plans, may seem like a mild inconvenience to other city-dwellers; but for the fishers who sell at the Nochikkuppam market, it is a question of livelihood and identity.

The court has initiated action against the fishing community by way of a suo motu petition in view of the traffic chaos caused on Loop Road. The Madras High Court judges themselves use the road for their daily commute. Eviction orders were given to remove the fish stalls from the side of the road as they were said to be contributing to chaos during peak hours.

When the GCC and police officials started demolishing the fish stalls along the west side of Loop Road on 12 April, the fishing community of the area erupted into more than one round of mass protests. The protests were suspended after the GCC promised the Court that it would regulate the fishermen on Loop Road until the completion of a modern fish market.

There is a conspicuous presence of police in the area now.

“Whether judges or Chennai Corporation, they are all part of the government, no? Why is the government doing this? On one hand, they make us symbols of the coast, and on the other, they want to prevent us from making a livelihood,” says S. Saroja, a 52-year-old fish vendor on the beach.

She is referring to the mural makeover of their government-allotted Nochikuppam housing complex (between 2009 and 2015) on the other side of the road that separates them from the beach.

In March 2023, Tamil Nadu Urban Housing Development Board, an NGO called St+Art and Asian Paints took the initiative to give a ‘facelift’ to the community’s dwelling. They invited artists from Nepal, Odisha, Kerala, Russia and Mexico to paint murals on the walls of 24 tenements in Nochikuppam.

“They paint our lives on the walls and then remove us from the area,” says Geetha, looking up at the buildings.

The ‘free housing’ in these buildings proved to be anything but free. “An agent asked me to pay Rs 5 lakh for an apartment,” says P. Kannadasan, 47, a fisherman from Nochikuppam. “If we didn’t pay, the apartment would have been allotted to someone else,” adds his friend Arasu.

Murals on the government-allotted Nochikuppam housing for fisherfolk (photo: Manini Bansal)
Murals on the government-allotted Nochikuppam housing for fisherfolk (photo: Manini Bansal)
Manini Bansal

The metamorphosis of Chennai into an increasingly urban space, and the construction of the Loop Road itself, cutting through the dwellings of the fishers and the beach, have repeatedly witnessed fisherfolk at loggerheads with the city.

The fishers think of themselves as belonging to a kuppam, a hamlet. “Will it be a kuppam if the men have to work at sea and on the beach, but the women have to work far away from home?” asks 60-year-old Palayam. “We will lose all sense of connection with each other and with the sea.”

For many families, the only time to have a conversation is during the transfer of fish from the men’s boats to the women’s stalls. That is because the men fish at night and sleep during the day, when the women are out selling the catch.

The walkers and joggers on the stretch also recognise the space as customarily belonging to the fishers.

“A lot of people come here in the mornings,” says Chittibabu, 52, one of the regular walkers at the Marina. “They come especially to buy fish... This is their ancestral trade and [they] have been here for a long time. It doesn’t make sense to ask them to move,” he says.

Ranjith Kumar, 29, agrees. “Different types of people can use the same space. For instance, walkers come from 6 to 8 in the morning. At that time, we are out at sea.

"By the time we come back, and the women set up the stalls, all the walkers are gone. There is no issue between us and walkers. It is only the authorities who create a problem,” he says.

Ranjith, who sells his fish at Nochikuppam market (photo: Manini Bansal)
Ranjith, who sells his fish at Nochikuppam market (photo: Manini Bansal)
Manini Bansal

Different varieties of fish are on offer.

Some of the smaller, shallow-water species like the crescent grunter and the pugnose ponyfish can be bought at Nochikuppam market for Rs 200–300 a kilo. These are caught locally, within a 20-km radius of the village, and laid out on one side of the market.

The larger, high-value species, like seer fish, sold on another side of the market, usually cost Rs 900–1,000 a kg. Large trevallys can be bought at Rs 500–700 a kg. Fisherfolk here use local names — keechan, kaarapodi, vanjaram, paarai — for the varieties they sell.

“If I don’t sell enough fish, who will pay my children’s fees?” Geetha asks. She has two children. One goes to school, and one is in college.

"I cannot depend on my husband to go fishing every day," Geetha adds. "I have to wake up at 2 in the morning and go to Kasimedu (10 km north of Nochikuppam), buy fish, come here in time to set up the stall. If not, forget the fees, we won’t even be able to eat."

Almost half of the 10.48 lakh fisherfolk from 608 villages engaged in marine fishing in Tamil Nadu are women. And it is primarily women from the hamlet who run the makeshift stalls.

It is hard to establish exact income figures, but the fishers and vendors who sell at Nochikuppam make a relatively good living, compared to a far-off, government-approved harbour like Kasimedu or other indoor markets, the women say.

"Weekends are the busiest time for me," says Geetha. "With each sale, I make roughly Rs 300–500. I sell almost continuously from the time I open (8:30–9 a.m.) until 1 p.m. in the afternoon. But it’s difficult to tell you how much I make, because what I spend varies, depending on which species and what price I get each day."

With the move to the proposed indoor market, the fear of a drop in income looms large for all of them. “With our earnings here, we are able to run our households and take care of our children,” says a fisherwoman on the beach on condition of anonymity. “My son goes to college too! How will I put him and my other children through college if we move to a market where no one will come to buy fish?”

R. Uma, 45, who was among the women forced to move to another indoor fish market near the Besant Nagar bus stand says, “A spotted scat fish which sells at Rs 300 per kg at Nochikuppam cannot be sold for more than Rs 150 in Besant Nagar market. If we raise the price at this market, no one will buy it.

"Look around — the market is dingy, and the catch is stale. Who will come and buy here? We would love to sell fresh catch at the beach, but the authorities don’t allow us to. They have moved us to this indoor market. So we have to slash prices, sell stale fish and make do with meagre earnings.”

Chittibabu, who is a fish-buyer at the beach says, “I know that I pay a premium to buy fresh catch at the Nochikuppam market, but it’s worth it if I can be assured of the quality.”

He adds, “Is the Koyambedu market (a fruit, flower and vegetable market) always clean? All markets are dirty; at least the open-air ones are better.”

“A beach market may smell,” chips in Saroja, “but the sun keeps drying out everything and then it can be swept away. The sun cleans the dirt.”

“Garbage vans come and collect the household waste from the buildings, but not the market waste,” says 75-year-old fisherman Krishnaraj R. from Nochikuppam.

Palayam asks, “The government offers many civic services to its citizens, so why can’t the areas around this road (Loop Road) also be swept?”

Kannadasan says, “The government favours only the affluent, constructing walkers’ pathways, rope cars and other projects. They may pay the government to get these done.”

Names of the women in the story have been changed on request.

This article was first published online by the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI) here.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines