“Marina beach has been our home for almost 40 years. We have done different kinds of business here to support our families. Whether during the rains or the harsh Chennai summers, we continued our trade to feed our kids. If we are forced to leave this place, what shall we do?” says a distraught S Kalyani, as she slices fruits to be sold at her stall on Marina beach.
At present, the beach accommodates more than 2430 carts used as vending stalls and even has 200 inactive spots. The majority among the vendors belong to the fishermen community, while some of them are migrants. At present only 1470 vendors are registered with the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC).
While there have been attempts to relocate the vendors in the past, the most concrete announcement by the GCC came recently, as part of a larger scheme to beautify the beach as directed by the Madras High Court. The resultant move to restrict the number of vendors to 900 has come as a shock to most of the sellers.
Announcement of smart pushcarts
The present plan for the Marina beautification project was first proposed by the civic body in 2019. The HC was informed of the move to bring a colourful, ‘smart’ pushcart system to streamline vendors on the beach. GCC also stated that licensed vendors would receive the carts and certain rules would be imposed on those who wish to conduct business by the beach.
On the basis of this plan, in December 2020, the GCC called for existing vendors from Marina and new entrants to apply for the allocation of the 900 smart carts. The notifications posted by the Revenue Office of GCC mentioned that only 540 shops can be claimed by the existing beach vendors, while 360 push carts will be given to new sellers under the new plan.
Thus, applications were to be made under two categories: Category A that allows 60% of carts for existing beach vendors while Category B provides 40% of the spots for new entrants to set up shops in the beach. This meant that not every vendor who currently has a shop at the beach would secure a spot and smart pushcart.
Additionally, the final list of 900 applicants will be chosen through a lottery system. Other details of the carts such as the amount to be paid for rent and maintenance were also shared by the corporation. While this move was welcomed by new applicants, the existing vendors opposed the plan fearing loss of livelihood for many.
Resistance from the vendors
Like thousands of others, Kalyani has applied for a smart cart for her fruit stall, yet worries that this entire programme will only result in distress for many vendors. “We cannot give up on our only source of income,” she says, “We have around 2430 shops from Marina beach to Anna Memorial, selling to people for decades. We do not have alternative plans and honestly, we do not want new vendors to replace us,” she added.
A Shanti, a food stall owner, also expressed concern over her rising indebtedness. “Our shops were shut for eight months due to the pandemic. Even after the reopening of the beach, we have not had good sales. During recent festivals we were asked to keep the stalls closed to prevent crowding. As a result we barely make any money. We had to take loans to meet our needs. Now, if they deny allotment to the majority of us, how will we pay back the loan?”
The pandemic has really pushed many beach vendors into hunger and poverty. “The shops in Marina are largely owned by the widows and children of fishermen. Without any returns, we have no option but to starve,” Shanti added.
Following the move by the GCC, the vendors led a mass protest at Chepauk against this move. Members from Chennai Marina Beach All Traders Welfare Association joined in solidarity with the protestors. They demanded that the civic body prioritise existing vendors and provide shops to everyone.
“When the TN Government provided Corona relief aid of Rs. 1000, we were slightly relieved. The corporation cardholders received aid while the others are still waiting to get verified. When talks over push carts resumed, we were happy. But now, I condemn this move to drive out existing vendors. Why are we not considered eligible for stalls?” questions Shanti.
Response from the Chennai Corporation
Amid the chaos, the GCC went ahead with the process of inviting applications and released the list of applicants with their names and details for final slot selections.
A total of 16,178 applications were shortlisted to participate in the lottery for the 900 spots up for grabs. The final selection is expected to be announced anytime now.
While vendors continue to voice concerns, the preparations for allocation of pushcarts has proceeded undeterred. Former Sikkim High Court Chief Justice Sathish Kumar Agnihotri has been appointed to supervise the selection process to ensure transparency.
The officials from the Revenue Department, who are in-charge of this operation, refused to comment on the ongoing issue to Citizen Matters.
Involvement of courts
As the vendors’ protests continued, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) moved by Fishermen Care, a fishermen rights organisation, came up before the Madras High Court on January 8th.
The verdict passed by the first bench comprised of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy highlighted aspects such as the need for reservation of shops for people with disabilities, and an increase in the number of vendors chosen. It stated that beautification can be done simultaneously, but the first preference should be the welfare of fishermen. This statement by the judges has given the vendors some hope that their livelihood could yet be saved as they await future hearings.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has halted pushcart allocations on the basis of a plea by AIR Systems Ltd, one of the pushcart suppliers, on matters related to the terms of the tender awarded by the GCC.
What can be done instead?
K Sudhir, the Director of Peoples Architecture Commonweal, a firm of architect-builders based in Chennai, suggests that the civic body can beautify the beach by regulating the existing push carts and by setting rules for vending on the beach.
To streamline the operations, the GCC can take steps to ensure a good waste management system, drinking water facilities and seating areas to improve the experience.
“The primary concern of a local body should not be about the number of pushcarts, but about the rights of vendors. When they have not demanded any sponsorship from GCC or asked for newer carts, why should they intervene and cause complications?” says Sudhir.
He also raises the question of how pushcarts with a uniform design could possibly cater to the different kinds of businesses that are run by the vendors.
The vendors are currently running their business with self-funded carts and facilities on the shores of Marina beach. It is the only place of informal employment for their families. With no alternative plans or funds to extend and shift to another business, they pin their hopes on the beach venue for sustenance.
If the corporation can assist the vendors by upgrading the existing facilities on the beach instead of evicting over a third of the existing vendors, the shared goals of protecting livelihoods and ensuring the tranquility of the beach can be achieved.