WHEN DESINGU WAS BORN, in 1967, there was a wide beach opposite his village, facing the Bay of Bengal on the outskirts of Chennai. By the time he turned ten, the beach had shrunk so much that the waves crashed near his home. So Desingu’s family and others in Nalla Thanneer Odai Kuppam—or NTO Kuppam, as the locals call it—dismantled their thatch-roofed huts, collected their belongings and moved a few more metres inland.
A few years later, the sea had come even farther in. Desingu’s family and their neighbours moved again, then again and again—four times in all. Some homes were abandoned to the sea. Sitting under the roof of a roadside temple one summer morning in 2019, Desingu stared at the tiny beach where his village once stood. “As erosion happened, line by line we had to shift inwards,” he told me. “Our old houses probably have fish in them now.”
On the last of these moves, in 1990, NTO Kuppam was squeezed onto the small strip of beach that remained between the sea and a coastal highway connecting to the nearby Chennai Port. As families grew, many had to build new homes on the other side of the highway, against the walls of giant cylindrical tanks put up to store imports of edible oil. In 2011, the residents were warned of a port-led project to widen the highway. They were told to leave, and offered flats in apartment blocks to be built by the state government as an effort at rehabilitation. Desingu’s family and around a hundred others refused to go, saying they had no money to pay rent elsewhere and that fishing—their only livelihood—would be difficult if they did not live by the sea.