Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Time to Change Course

You have heard Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna’s rousing dirge. Now know why the fisherfolk of Ennore, north Chennai, want their river back.

Written by Nityanand Jayaraman |
January 29, 2017 12:00:53 am
Ill-maintained pipelines that cross the Ennore creek constantly leak high concentrate ash slurry into the creek, replacing the river mud with fly ash. Ill-maintained pipelines that cross the Ennore creek constantly leak high concentrate ash slurry into the creek, replacing the river mud with fly ash.

Ennore was at the centre of the post-independence industrialisation drive — the Nehruvian edition of Make in India. In the 1960s, a petrochemical refinery came up in the Manali marshlands; a thermal power plant and the Ennore Foundries (now Hinduja Foundries) were set up in Ennore. The Ennore creek, which drained the Manali marshes and the Kosasthalaiyar river in the south and the Araniyar river and Pulicat lake to the north, was already a hub of economic activity when the industries came.

Sprawling mangrove-fringed salt pans employed thousands as salt farmers, traders, loaders and boatmen. Aided by the mangroves, tidal mud flats, salt marshes, and the daily tidal advance and retreat of the sea, this lazily flowing creek was famous throughout the region for its fisheries. “Ennore was synonymous with aathu nandu (mud crab) and prawns,” said Selvarajan, a 70-year-old fisherman from the creekside village of Kaattukuppam. “Fish from Ennore fetched a premium, and people would come from afar to buy our fish.”

Even middle-aged people remember when the river was bountiful and clean. “The river bed was sandy with lots of shells. It was two-three person deep (between 15 and 18 feet). We used to get five varieties of prawns — white prawn, black prawn, shell prawn, sand prawn and tiger prawn, and green crab. We had irun keluthi, kelangan, oodan, uppathi, keechan, kalvan, panna, koduva (all varieties of fish). When we caught crabs, we would eat only the legs and discard the rest. There was so much,” recalls C Shankar, a 42-year-old Irular fisherman from Sadayankuppam.

Selvarajan remembers how the villagers ridiculed the labour contractors, who came looking for workers for the Ennore and Manali factories. “Only idiots work for eight hours. We would go into the river and return in four hours with enough for the family, and more surplus than we could sell,” he says.

Today, the Ennore creek is an environmental crime scene, and the livelihoods of the fisherfolk are badly affected. “We used to bathe in the river, and gargle our mouth with the water. Now the river is so disgusting that we scold our children if they go anywhere near it,” says Vanam, a fisherwoman from Mugatwarakuppam.

One of the key accused is visible across the creek from her village. From the riverbank, TANGEDCO (Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation)’s North Chennai thermal power station can be seen belching dust-laden smoke and discharging hot wastewater into the creek. If you take a boat and travel towards Pulicat during low tide, there is a point where one has to get off the boat and push it across a mound of fly ash. All around, one can see acres and acres of fly ash — flat as a sheet of glass, grey as concrete, dead as a Martian landscape. Further down, on a good day, you will see a fountain of fly ash slurry spouting from the rusty leaky pipelines transporting the toxic goo to a 1,000-acre lake of ash.

Kamarajar Port Limited has been converting expanses of mangrove covered wetlands into land for the expansion of the port operations. Kamarajar Port Limited has been converting expanses of mangrove covered wetlands into land for the expansion of the port operations.

These dystopic waterscapes are the backdrop to the recently released Chennai Poromboke Paadal, a campaign song featuring Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna.

Most Chennaiites do not know that they should care about the state of the Ennore creek. Hydrologically, the creek is vital to flood-proofing north Chennai and its critical — industrial — infrastructure. Encroachments in the creek will diminish its ability to drain rainwaters and lead to floods in Chennai.

Already, though, a significant portion of the creek has been lost. In the last 10 years, the Kamarajar Port and NTECL’s coal power plant in Vallur have together converted more than 1,000 acres of salt pans, mangroves and other wetlands into land. Kuruvimettu Kalvai, a stream that runs west from the main creek, was once a choice location for fishing. But now, it carries oil effluents released by the NTECL plant.

This destruction is planned. The Chennai masterplan 2026 earmarks 2,000 acres of wetlands associated with the creek for setting up chemical and hazardous industries.

Thanks to the efforts and sustained agitation of the region’s fisherfolk, new encroachment by Kamarajar Port has been stalled. The fly ash pollution, though, continues unabated. A 1996 order of the Madras High Court, which outlawed the discharge of fly ash into the creek and directed TANGEDCO to restore damaged areas, is openly flouted.

The encroachment and pollution are in violation of several laws — the Water Act, the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification and the National Wetland Rules. But as Srinivasan points out, “To clean up the river, we have to also clean up the corrupt, inept and unaccountable regulators who are watching silently as it is being killed. The officers of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and State Coastal Zone Management Authority should be held criminally liable,” he says angrily.

The fisherfolk feel that unlike the Cooum or Adyar, which are too far gone to be restored as ecosystems that support economies, the Ennore creek can be saved if people decide to do it.

“Everytime we talk about pollution and encroachment, TANGEDCO and Kamarajar Port talk about CSR and job opportunities,” says A Venkatesh, a fisher leader from Mugatwarakuppam. “We don’t want their jobs. Restore our river, and it will take care of us forever. I may get a job, but what will my children do if the river is dead?” he asks.

Nityanand is a writer and social activist and is part of the Save Ennore Creek Campaign.

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