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Resorts along Chennai's ECR—beyond all laws? ...back

Muttukkadu Issues:: A background        [Click for a diary of events]

Muttukkadu is an ancient village on the East Coast Road [ECR]. Its name translates roughly as 'End Woods'. This was for a good reason. Prior to 1970, when the current bridge over the creek at the Muttukkadu Boating Centre was built, Muttukkadu was land's end.

It was also an important overnight stop for boats plying on the Buckingham Canal, which runs past the village. Villagers ran small eateries for boats' passengers and crew. They exported their produce—mostly, firewood and charcoal— to the city through these boats. There were far fewer shops than the hundreds that face the ECR today, and those, faced the gentle, slow-paced, canal.

Muttukkadu is a village with four major hamlets. It has the notoriously named "Colony" where the Dalits now live. Many have turned Christian and in the 1980s a huge church came up here with money from abroad; Germany, they say. There is the "Kuppam", where fishermen plying catamarans have lived for centuries. There is the 'Yellow Board", proudly named after a sign that announced the new bridge in the 1970s. Here the few upper castes lived, many of them Telugu speaking. This is also the place where the huge influx of new arrivals from all over the state have made their homes. The most picturesque of the four hamlets was Jambodai, adjacent to the Kuppam and lying right by the sea.

Till 1990, rice was cultivated in Jambodai, barely 100 yards from the sea. A little brook ran through the village round the year and ground water was at 3 feet! In all about twenty acres were cultivated by descendants of a Naicker and one Muslim family. The hamlet had been settled in favour of Naicker's family the 1770s by the French East India Company, following a coach accident in which he lost his life. [That is the folk memory; the event probably relates to the Dutch who had a garrison at the present Fisherman's Cove run by the Taj Group of hotels].

Jambodai was fringed by coconut trees and it was a fine copy of a classical Kerala village. It was very popular with film producers. Film crews parked their vans on the road and transported camera and equipment by bullock carts over the sand, to Jambodai, about half a kilometre away. There, they could recreate an idyllic village at no cost at all.

Once the bridge over the creek came up 30 years ago and the Canal began to die, it was time to consign all these picture postcard scenes to history and embrace modern times. Muttukkadu is red-hot, real-estate today. Land is at a premium. No wonder is it coveted. No wonder too, our controversy is rooted in land use.

Between half and one kilometre exists between Yellow Board, Jambodai, Kuppam and Colony,the four hamlets of Muttukkadu, in that order and set along the edge of a rough circle. All the land within this circle—on either side of the current ECR— has been bought up by outsiders and many weekend homes and farms have come up since the 1980s.

The main Hindu temple is the small Vembadi Vinayagar Temple ['Ganesh Under the Neem Tree'] at Yellow Board.It owns several acres of land in various parts of the parts of the village. In a straight line of sight between Yellow Board and Jambodai, and near the recent Dakshina Chitra, a fine heritage conservatory, was a small shrine without an idol, where every Friday a drummer played for a half-hour. That practice has ceased but the shrine exists, quite ignored.

Further on was a shrine to Pidari Amman, whom the fishermen worshipped. This got surrounded by the properties bought by MGM DizzieWorld, an amusement park, in 1994. After a few years of conflict between MGM and the fisherfolk, who had difficult access to the temple, a compromise was reached and the villagers took away the idol to their own hamlet and built a small temple for it. From time to time, the villagers mutter that a few little-reported fatal accidents have occurred in the amusement park due Pidari Amman's curses at being dislodged.

Finally, we come to a major property of Vembadi Vinayagar, of about 3 acres lying in the Jambodai hamlet. The survey numbers are 108/9 and 108/10. These lie right by the sea and had till 1998, a stand of over 88 mature, grand, coconut trees. These lands have been historically assigned to Nagalathammam ['Goddess of the Four Seasons']. Fishermen have worshipped here for their personal security and prosperity. And this is the 'temple land' that is the focus of an unresolved controversy.

In the mid 1990s, the MGM group of companies was buying lands to develop an amusement park [-as briefly noted to earlier] and to build what is currently the Quality Inn MGM Beach Resorts. The group is known for its 'daring' entrepreneurial spirit. The founding patriarch, Chevalier M G Muthu, is a well-known name in coal handling, transportation and more recently, in hospitality, leisure and liquor industries.

A controversy now revolves around MGM Resort's use of Nagalathamman temple lands—which have become contiguous to its titled lands— for its commercial programmes. The Resort says they have lawfully leased the land from the Temple Endowments Dept. Villagers say, that a lease had been given for just one year—1996—which was only for enjoying the produce of trees and nothing more. Also, the lease was for a mere Rs.7,000 for the year. Since the Resort management in that year, cut most of the trees, reshaped the land extensively using earth-movers, made it difficult for villagers to worship in the lands, conducted parties on the land, day and night, where alcoholic drinks are served, the Gram Sabha, [-the village plenary] passed a resolution in 1998 that lands be never ever leased out again.

What is the outcome? At the time of this writing on Aug 12, 2004, members of East Coast Citizens' Organisation [ECCO], are being led in circles with no luck with the police, the courts, the press, the pollution control board, the district collector and officials of the state government. Several resorts along the ECR flout laws, but ECCO has taken this Muttukkadu issue as a classic instance to test the power of civic action. Can ambiguity and non-action by authorities lead by default to illegal corporate gain? We will know in the coming months. It is an emerging story and you can follow it here. This seemingly isolated issue concerns all Indians. One day you too will face variations of this controversy. And you will probably despair and ask, " what can individuals do in the face of all odds stacked against them?" Maybe reading this story as it unfolds, will enable you to find the right motivation. Maybe you will learn the patience, skills and perserverence required to make a difference in India. Maybe you will change India for the better.

But at the current moment the heights are with the Resorts. Villagers are either in silent resentment or deep in apathy. Parties rage on, on the temple lands at great cost to the environment and helpless, somewhat oveawed neigbours. Turtle breeding has ended. The beach is littered with styrofoam cups, bottles and even condoms. The Resort maintains 3 acres of lush lawns at a great cost of water. Their security guards patrol the disputed lands and villagers stare sullenly. We are in the fourth year of a drought. Water levels have fallen to 20 feet from the 5 a decade ago. The hotel has close to 100 guests and a large swimming pool. Water supply has proved inadequate for their needs. The Resort has just dug a new 25 feet diameter well, abandoning its old one. Water quality has changed. Muttukkadu can longer boast of sweet water.

Across the road is a newer arrival, the Green Coconut Resort. Noisy parties late into the night, scandalous waste management and utter disregard for the environment are arousing ECCO members.


Before we turn to prosaic details of the campaign, let us share this vignette. For two centuries the family of Naickers has been the keepers of traditional herbal knowledge. They have prepared and dispensed, free of cost, a sure-fire, cure for jaundice and several insect bites. The current keeper of that knowledge is Baby Amma, now seventy. Because of a spiritual experience, she embraced Islam as a youngster and has chosen to remain single. She is deeply, quietly religious and has made a pilgrimage to the Karbala.

She lives in a small dwelling, next to the controversial partying venue. She endures noisy parties several times in the week but still dispenses with her cures to the few who still come to her doors. She cowers in fear and asks, "Yes, I am sleepless, but also helpless. My own relations counsel caution and ask me to bear with it all. All of them, except me, have sold their lands to the Resort and a few are in paid low-level, employment there.

""What can you, a lonely, spinster do?", they ask me. I think they are right. I have no confidence that the police or citizens or the state will rally to my side if I speak out against any unlawful goings-on or my personal stress.My grand nephews' children have nearly gone deaf. I think my days are over. We are in a new India."