Chennai Expressway Threatens the Beaches

Son Naren Pradhan has been having a pretty interesting few weeks in Chennai. He is interning at the Tree Foundation a non-profit committed to environmental education and conservation. Protecting sea turtles is a focus area for the Foundation. Naren spends his time caring for the turtles and writing about them and the Chennai wetlands.

Last year Naren got involved in the effort to stop the construction of an elevated expressway along the coast line in Chennai through an organization called Reclaim Our Beaches. There was a protest rally on the Besant Nagar beach on July 31. Protestors were encouraged to bring their own placards. Naren’s “Turtlezilla” placard was a big hit. The Hindu covered the protest here.

A mega project like the Chennai expressway can have wide ranging impact. The affected include displaced fishermen, marine life and citizens who use the beaches.

The success of a civic protest can often hinge on effective images and symbols. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico coincidentally has an impact that is quite similar though much larger – it affects the livelihoods of fishermen and destroys the coastal ecosystem. The most striking images of the disaster have to be those of birds covered in oil. I wonder what would be the most effective images for the narrative in the Chennai expressway protests.

The Chennai expressway protests have a “disadvantage” when compared to the BP oil disaster. The expressway hasn’t been built yet. And you can’t wait for that – once it is built it will be too late. So the key “marketing” challenge is how to paint a picture right now, of what is going to happen if it is built. For the opposition to become a grassroots movement, the public needs to see in their mind’s eye what is going to happen. The fear and concern that will follow is what the movement will feed on. The Hindu article for example, has a beautiful photo of the Marina beach. If I was new to the issue I would have to read the whole article carefully to form an opinion. If like people, I didn’t read it, I would carry the image of a serene beach in my head!

Words don’t travel as well as pictures do.

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