Community Mapping at Urur/Olcott Kuppam- Step 1… in pictures

The biggest advantage that Transparent Chennai has in trying to facilitate the creation of a community generated map from Urur/Olcott Kuppam is the fact that a good friend of mine lives there and is a member of the Urur Kuppam Panchayat. His name is Saravana and he has been instrumental in organizing support and creating awareness about our initiative. I don’t have a picture of him as yet but I will put one up in the next blog post, which will feature his views on why he thinks the maps that we make will be useful for his community. It was based on his knowledge of the community that we decided to conduct mapping sessions with individual groups- the fishermen, the women and the youth to get a more comprehensive picture of all the activities at the Kuppam.

Step one included writing a proposal and getting it signed and approved by the Panchayat body and meeting individuals from the three groups. Convenient times to meet were discussed and we met with each group separately. During the meeting the groups deliberated on what they wanted on the map writing a final list, which was then coded with symbols (this became the Key). Participants from each group drew over google images of the coastline, which were printed out on A1 paper to display what was there and how they used the space around the village.

Proposal that was signed by the Panchayat:

Mapping on A1 google map printouts of the area:

Fishermen group mapping using google images as a base layer

using the key that they made

Keys that were created:

Womens group Key

Fishermen group Key

Youth Group Key

Translation of women and fishermen group keys

How some google image printouts looked after it had been drawn over:

Work of the womens group- image shows area just outside urur/olcott kuppam

same group- image shows the public beach just south of the Kuppams

image along with the key taken at the Transparent Chennai office.



-Siddharth Hande

Harnessing the power of maps to lend voice to the voiceless- the case of the mapping workshop at Olcott Memorial School

I think a great way to understand the importance of community maps and participatory map making in general is to first understand its relational and political nature. For instance, did you know that community mapping has been banned in Malaysia? This followed a landmark court victory where a community made village map was the key piece of evidence used to prove customary rights of communities living in Rumah Nor! (for more please see

How did this kind of map-making, which involved a piece of paper, a few sketch pens and possibly some help from satellite imagery become so powerful that it elicited such a response? This question prompted me to do a little research and I found a brilliant book called ‘Rethinking the power of Maps’ by Denis Wood, which helped shed a little light on the subject. The following section is informed primarily by his insights on the subject.

What are maps?

Although unaware of a definition, all that I knew about maps were that it was used to show where things are (recalling what I had learnt in school!). That is, it represented what was in an area spatially and was sorted based on particular themes (political maps show states and capitals, physical maps show natural features).

This seems to be in line with common understandings of maps if we take into account figure 1 which is a ‘word cloud’ generated using Jonathan Feinberg’s ‘wordle’ algorithm, out of all the words in the 321 definitions of the word ‘map’ collected from 1649 to 1996 (definitions compiled by J.H. Andrews, see Andrews 1996, also see and

The size of each word is proportional to its frequency in the collection of definitions.

So according to most definitions, maps represent the earth’s surface. But does it really? Wood (2010) begs to differ. Through a histographical analysis he notes that the rise in the importance of maps in newly forming states was because officials began to realize that maps helped in giving form to the state. That is, maps had the ability to help construct the state.  Talking about the reason behind newly forming states fascination with maps he comments (2010: 33)-

‘…it certainly cant be the maps putative ability to ‘represent a part of the earth’s surface’. After all, it was the maps that conjured up borders where none had existed (especially well documented for the United States, Russia and Thailand); the maps that summoned unity from chaos (like Japan and Russia); the maps that enrobed the shapeless(as in the case of China)…maps that endowed with form what from the beginning had been no more than a dream… “We no more show what exists” said the maps(even today they say this about the borders of India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, India and China). What maps thereby avoided saying was, “Exists, yes, but only on these maps which, in fact create and affirm their existence,”…maps created and affirmed their own existence, most effectively by hiding their own recent origins…in the state itself’.

From this analysis thinking of maps as merely representations of the earth’s surface is specious. Instead, we need to ask ourselves whose ‘surface’ do most maps represent?

For example, we are familiar with this map of Australia-

Map 1- Political map of Australia

However, how many of us have seen this one?

Map 2-Aboriginal Territories of Australia.

Is Melbourne really in Victoria or somewhere in between a mesh of aboriginal territories?

Do the smooth lines and clear demarcations of the political map negate the squiggly lines that define the age-old territorial formations of the original inhabitants?

The answer is most likely yes (unless you are an aboriginal inhabitant!).

Thus one needs to consider the power of maps in reaffirming the hegemonic beliefs in a region. This is true even for user-generated maps like google! After all, before someone can begin plotting away on a google map isn’t it a precondition for that person to be Internet saavy?  However, what is also clear in the case of Rumah Nor is that the power of maps can also be used to affirm the presence of alternate subaltern realities (which is precisely what the officials in Malaysia seek to deny!). For an amazing initiative in this vein see

Maps need to be viewed with a healthy skepticism that allows the map viewer to move past the common misconception that maps are representations and into a realm where the viewer is aware that what maps ‘represent’ is mostly in thrall of the dominant interests.

For me, the fact that maps are rhetorical tools became most visible during our mapping workshop in Olcott School where the kids debated constantly on what they would like on their map and how it should be represented, with each debate leading to subtle changes in the maps presentation. Also, in an effort to use maps as a tool to understand how the kids viewed their surroundings beyond their school, we gave them google images of the surrounding area and asked them to take pictures and write about what they found interesting in different areas. While the best way to have done this would have been to let the kids choose the areas themselves, unfortunately, because all the kids were not used to navigating using google images we familiarized them with the tool by marking places of interest and taught them to use roads and other identifiers to locate these areas. This is a quick screen capture of the areas that were marked. Placemarks marked 2 and 3 when clicked, reveal more locations.

The resulting map tells us a story, and provides insight into how these children visualize these spaces.

If the placemark is clicked, it reveals the photo that was taken and the original writing in Tamil.

To look at all the photos along with what the kids said, please visit

Finally these maps were used to tell the children’s story in a public presentation made by the kids.

What stories will the maps made by Urur and Olcott Kuppam tell? What conversations will they start between the Kuppam, the general public and the authorities? While we can’t know for sure, we do know that the maps will help in at least ensuring that these conversations are less one sided.

-Siddharth Hande

Using participatory mapping to help fishing communities lay claim to their coastline

The city of Chennai was created when the British acquired a three-mile long strip of land, including a fishing village called Madraspatnam. Fishing communities were here before the rest of the city, but today, in both legislation and in public perception, these fisherfolk are deemed trespassers on the very beach they’ve called home for hundreds of years. One path that can help rectify this frailty is by creating locally generated maps that allow us to understand the relationship of fishermen with the coastline, and to use this data to craft legislation that ensures that fishermen have access to the land they need for their lives and livelihoods on the coast.

In India, there are around 3202 marine fishing villages, with 591 of these located in Tamil Nadu alone. Fishing communities have evolved well functioning internal governance institutions, fishermen’s panchayats, which oversee and manage the common lands of the community.

Yet, studies indicate that clearly stated fisher folk rights even for basic provisions like titles and deeds for their houses and settlements are yet to be addressed properly. In fact, it was only when the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification of 1991 came into force was any acceptance given to customary land rights for fishermen at all. However, due to the lack of clear definitions the CRZ has failed in truly empowering fishing communities. For example, the CRZ states that “traditional” communities have the right to be on the coast. But what exactly defines a “traditional” community? As soon as we begin to create parameters for this definition we hit roadblocks. For instance, the age of the community alone cannot be used as a determining factor on whether a community is ‘traditional’ or not. This is because over time, many new villages in different locations on the coast have been formed by traditional fishermen who have moved out of their parent village due to factors like congestion and overcrowding. It would seem the best way to define a traditional community would be through an analysis of its livelihood, social and cultural practices. However, with no guideline data to make comparisons with, ‘traditional’ is still a term open to interpretation. More controversial still is that the CRZ notification places the power of interpreting these parameters in the hands of the State and District Coastal Zone Management Authority, which are both government agencies that presently have none or negligible representation from the fishing community. The recently passed CRZ Notification of 2011 has done nothing to rectify these problems.

In the city, fishermen have fared even worse. Their lands were classified as “slums” under the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Act, 1971 and control over the lands was given over to the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, with land title allocations not carried out in a comprehensive manner. This has led to a situation where the government has the power to relocate fishing communities wherever they wish without any consideration given to fishermen’s livelihoods, something that the fishermen of Srinivsapuram faced after the tsunami.

Sadly, people’s perceptions of urban fishing hamlets, post government reclassification, has followed suit. How so? Well, what seems to have happened in recent times is that, to the general public of Chennai, the word kuppam, which just means fishing village, has became synonymous in our city with slum. The discourse surrounding the word kuppam has coalesced with common discourses surrounding slums (think dirty, clandestine, dangerous, unproductive, encroachers).

So what needs to change? First of all, it is imperative that concerted steps be taken to gather data that can help in understanding the customary practices of fishing communities on the beach. Secondly, proper information about the landuse and customary practices of fishing communities should be used to reformulate the laws to ensure that these lands are reserved explicitly for fishermen. Such a law would go a long way in empowering them to counter threats from rapid development.

In urban fishing hamlets, the creation and exhibition of such data will also serve as a positive step forward in creating awareness amongst the general public on the activities of the fishing community, and their historic place in the city. This kind of data collection will also do well to remind beachgoers that while they perceive the beach as a public space to be used for recreation, fishermen have long negotiated the coasts as a home and a place to work.

Through locally generated maps, we aim to do our part in rectifying the enormous lack of data on fishing communities. We believe that this technique, known as ‘participatory mapping’, is also one of the best ways to do this because unlike other data gathering processes, the initiation and ownership of the data will rest primarily in the hands of the local panchayat and residents.

Based on preliminary meetings held with kuppam residents and the panchayat it has been decided that three kinds of maps will be generated- those that provide information on landuse, on local infrastructure and those that provide locally generated demographic information on the community.

We are very excited at the prospect of helping create locally generated maps, and hope to use the mapping exercise at Urur and Olcott Kuppam as a pilot study, so that we can extend this method of data collection to all the fishing hamlets on Chennai’s coastline.

-Siddharth Hande