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Learning to work the ropes[continued]

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South to North to South:

Mr M G Muthu, the patriarch of the MGM Group had by the 1990s grown prosperous with contract work in and around the environs of the docks in north Madras [-now Chennai]. He had come to Chennai from deep south Tamil Nadu with little in his pockets and had risen to be a rich man very quickly; that speaks volumes for his acumen, daring, and hard work.

The Group began to diversify. They arrived in Muttukkadu in 1992 to enter the leisure industry and began to buy property. Muttukkadu, south of Chennai is a far cry from the dirt and grime of the north where they had made their fortune. It was becoming, in the throes of India's economic liberalization, a place to make lifestyle statements like weekend homes, or at a minimum, a space where the nouveau riche stated their values.

Fishermen welcomed MGM as they believed there would be jobs and a market for their catch. MGM was a big ticket spender buying whatever land they could. What they could not buy-like the 1 acre in Survey No.102.E where one of Muttukkadu's many shrines stood, or the village pond north of the highway- they simply added to their fenced in collection. The holdings increased until it stretched from the highway to the sea, albeit with a narrow sea front. In 1993, it stood abutting a temple grove by the sea where 88 yielding coconut trees nodded in peace. This grove was on three wooded acres in Survey Numbers 108/9 and /10. There was a tiny shrine worshipped by fishermen.

I have spent many afternoons 20 years ago in the shady grove, lounging with a book by a sweet water pond there. The Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments [HR&CE] department, the owner of all temple lands in Tamil Nadu, had an Executive Officer [EO] resident in nearby Tiruvidanthai. He conducted an annual auction for the usufructs rights to the 88 trees. The winning bidder earned the right to harvest coconuts and fallen leaves. He had no rights whatsoever to the land itself. It was a small business for a villager. In 1993, MGM bid and won the rights for a mere sum of Rs.3,500 per annum. Why would a large business house bother with a micro-enterprise? We soon had the answer to our puzzlement.

From Sacred Grove to Party Land:

In 1997, MGM began to implement its master plan. Its fleet of earth moving equipment began to work round the clock disturbing the neighbourhood. Sabita and Navaz, with their young child and elders at home could barely sleep. They began to write to the management complaining of noise. By 1998, the fishermen woke up. They found access for worship in the grove barred by MGM's security force. Worse followed. MGM began felling yielding coconut trees in the grove. A few fishermen stood in front of bull-dozers that were busy scooping off beach sand and uprooting coconut trees in the grove. Police would materialise within minutes to keep peace for MGM. Police began to chase fishermen away if they as much as walked on the beach in front of the resort.

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