CHENNAI: If you want to visit Urur-Olcott Kuppam, you’ll be directed to walk past the lanes of Thiruvalluvar Nagar. A little further, on a less frequented road, are the two settlements by the coast of the sea: Urur and Olcott Kuppam, home to a fishing community that has lived there for as long as they remember. The area becomes the talk of the town during the Margazhi season.
A temple at the heart of the area stands testimony to their history and the rapid development that Besant Nagar has seen in the last few decades. Palayam S, head of Urur Kuppam Meenavargal Sangam, asks if it looks familiar from MGR’s film Padagotti. “The land behind this temple, where MGR stood and sang, was barren. Only our shacks were here. And in 40 years, it has developed into Thiruvalluvar Nagar. Its property sells for `2 crore today.”
The village houses 600 people, including fishermen and women, businessmen and migrants from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Odisha. Along with the residents of Thiruvalluvar Nagar, there are about 6,000 people in the area.
Recently, a two-day Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha was organised at its marketplace. It was an effort to bring art forms and artists from different classes, on one platform. Palayam explains that a lot happened in this process. “The vizha began in 2013, and every Margazhi, a stage was set up in front of our Kuppam. In the first year, a cleaning drive was organised as a run-up to the vizha. In subsequent years we realised there are amenities we are entitled to, which the corporation needs to take up like the drainage system which only one part of the village has in place.”
Saravanan K, head, Urur Kuppam, believes that networking with activists, lawyers, musicians and other organisers of the vizha, helped them hold meetings and address problems that women and men of the village have. “After two months of making rounds, an underground drainage system has been sanctioned now. A better drinking water facility is in place. And we’re planning to redo the roads for a cleaner fish market,” he explains.
“That said, the intention of the vizha was clear — to break boundaries between different art forms, to bring artists to an equal space, and for people to learn our history and livelihood. It wasn’t a means to make promises about uplifting our community. But our problems started taking centrestage through the vizha,” he adds.
For women in the fish market, it meant a weekend of selling more fish. “We usually make about `200 a day, and sometimes even lesser. But during the vizha, each of us made a profit of `500 a day. We’re also told that we might get a sanction to sell our fresh catch at the entrance of the village on Sunday mornings. That will mean more buyers,” says R Samanthi, a fisherwoman.
“Our children were most excited during the vizha. They got ready early in the morning, and spent the whole day there. Some of them take silambam, parai attam and dance classes organised for free. Now, they have something to do in their free time,” says P Ramani, a resident.
While efforts have been gradual, this year’s run-up to the vizha saw regular meetings for people here to put forth their problems. Palayam says, “It is slow, but by networking with people from outside the community during this vizha, we have realised that we must put our feet down about many things. Now, we are demanding that all official documents be sent to us in Tamil, and not in English or Hindi.”
“Our hand pump has been broken for years. The corporation vehicle that came to clean our lanes, damaged the cemented floor in front of my house. And they came only for four hours, two days before the vizha. I’d asked them to clean the weed behind my house, because we often see snakes there, but they never returned after the vizha,”
— Desam D, a fisherwoman
“Even after cleaning the fish market, within two days it lapsed back to its old way. So we decided to take up one area at a time and keep it clean. At a domestic level, there’s an economic dividend to this. By addressing hygiene and sanitation through a cultural vizha, more people have come forward to buy their fish,”
— Nityanand Jayaraman