Chennai fishermen’s call to residents: Join our campaign to save Ennore Creek, save our city

A power plant will last only 30 or 40 years. A port will last a hundred. The river is forever.
Chennai fishermen’s call to residents: Join our campaign to save Ennore Creek, save our city
Chennai fishermen’s call to residents: Join our campaign to save Ennore Creek, save our city

For nearly four years now, I have been visiting the region that I will generally refer to as Ennore. It has taken me that many years to comprehend the wisdom that was so ordinarily being handed to me about the Ennore creek by several fishermen and a few women over many boat trips and detailed interviews. What seemed plain and simple to them befuddled me. It is one thing to learn about the Ennore wetland complex from satellite images and toposheets, and quite another to have the boat you are in as the central point from which perspectives are shaped.

The fisherfolk of Kaattukuppam and Mugathwarakuppam, and the Irular fishermen of Irular Colony in Sadayankuppam taught me about the hydrology, river ecology, the movement of tides, fish and fishing techniques both extinct and extant, and about how the mainstream of the river is really meaningless without its margins – just like human society. They taught me what unspoilt river sediment ought to look like and how the different insults to the different parts of the river can be understood just by looking at the sediment. They would rattle off names of the tiny streams parting the mangroves, and of the big ones.

The stories never came out easily and never in one cogent piece as it is told below.

During the December 2015 floods, the fisherfolk witnessed first-hand the consequences of the damage done to the Creek. Within a month of the floods, they saw Kamarajar Port doing more of what damaged the Ennore wetlands and aggravated the floods in the first place. They realised that the damage being done to the Creek is not and never was just about river, fish and fishing livelihoods. They asked me to write this as a return favour for all the lessons I got from them gratis.

I hope this is an accurate rendition of my understanding of what the fisherfolk I met told me.

Ennore Fishers' Invitation to the Rest of Chennai

Dear Friends from Chennai,

We are writing as Chennaiites to Chennaiites to invite you to join us in saving the Ennore Creek. Even as you read this, uncaring people in the government and private sector are harming the river. As fisherfolk, we are the first in the line of fire; the degradation of the creek affects us daily. But this is no longer merely about us. The river holds the key to our shared environmental fate as a city.

It concerns the flood safety of the very densely populated North Chennai. Those living south of the Cooum may not know that there is a north to Chennai. But we exist – Basin Bridge, Korukkupet, Washermanpet, Thiruvotriyur, Kasimedu, Tondiarpet, Kodungaiyur, Ernavur, Manali, Sadayankuppam, Burma Colony.

Last December, during the floods, even as our villages were under water, our youth were out on boats rescuing people from Ernavur, Manali, Sadayankuppam, Sathyamoorthy Nagar and surrounding areas. We went out in 120 boats and rescued 30,000 people. We know the river, and we know that the reason these areas were flooded is because the river's exit to the sea was blocked by industrial encroachments and pollution.

If you knew the river as well as we do, you will be terrified to hear of what is happening to it, and what the consequences will be for all of us if we allow the damage to continue unchecked. Last year's floods stopped operations at the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd's (CPCL) Manali refinery for two days. Next time, we may not be so lucky. If the CPCL refinery goes under water, Tamil Nadu will be paralysed -- no petrol, diesel, kerosene or aviation fuel.

Know the Creek

The Ennore Creek actually drains two rivers, not one. The Araniyar drains into the Pulicat lake near the Sriharikota Island. From there, the waters flow south to Puzhuthivakkam and turn east to enter the Bay of Bengal at Mugathwarakuppam. The 136 km long Kosasthalaiyar is longer than both the Adyar and Cooum taken together. The Kosasthalaiyar also drains a much larger land area than Adyar and Cooum taken together. As it approaches Sadayankuppam, the Kosasthalaiyar splits into several branches and spreads out to form the southern arm of the Ennore Creek. It runs north from Manali to Puzhuthivakkam where it meets Araniyar's waters and turns east to empty into the Bay of Bengal at Mugathwarakuppam. Ennore Creek drains both the Kosasthalaiyar and the Araniyar. As fisherfolk, we know that playing with water is even more dangerous than playing with fire.

The Kosasthalaiyar splits into several branches as it enters the Ennore Creek.

For 30 years, we have watched with distress as our river was turned into a receptacle for garbage, sewage and industrial effluents. The first cut came a long time ago, when the British built a railway bridge connecting Chennai to North India. The pillars of the bridge interfered with the flow of the river. But the effect was negligible as the area between pillars was dredged to its original depth to minimise disruption of the flow, and there was only this one bridge.

In the 1960s, the Ennore Thermal Power Station was set up. In those days, the river was bountiful. Fish would literally jump into our boats. White prawns (vellai iral), black prawns (karuppu iral), sand prawns (mann iral), tiger prawns, green crab, irun kezhuthi, mullet (madavai), oodan, kezhangan, uppathi, keechan, kalvaan, panna, koduva -- we did not have to work hard to get enough to eat and for a surplus. In those days, our river was a busy place: boats laden with casuarina, shells for limestone, salt from the Athipattu salt pans and grain would go up and down the Canal through the locks. The salt pans employed a large number of people. We would fish in the river, the canal and the various mangrove-fringed streams and canals around the salt pans.

In the late 1980s, the industries of the Manali Industrial Area began discharging their effluents into the Buckingham Canal. The municipalities along the route too began discharging untreated sewage into the Canal. We watched the Canal die in front of our eyes. There was a time when we could walk out of our homes and fish in the Canal and return home in no time with enough for the day. We protested against the pollution. But we were not heard. The Canal and the river was our life. But the rest of the city had turned its back to them. We lost the Canal, but the creek was still a source of livelihood. It still ran unhindered and relatively clean.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) was set up in Mugathwarakuppam. We opposed it because an entire village was evicted and relocated to the southern shore of the estuary. It was a government project; the Government promised to relocate us and offered jobs in Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. We accepted it in good faith. At least one person from each family would have a government job. The others would still have the river. We never bargained to lose the river. Had we known that the jobs were on offer in return for the river, we would not have accepted.

NCTPS began discharging hot water into the creek. It gobbled up salt pans and fish ponds to set up its ash pond in Seppakkam. The ash from these huge ash ponds leaked into the creek and silted up the river. Ash pipelines were laid on platforms that blocked the flow of the river. As if that were not enough, the leaky pipelines spilt the ash slurry into the river forming a cement-like layer that choked all life. With every tide, the flyash would be spread along the river bed till it formed a carpet of death over a large area. The depth of the river was drastically reduced. Waters where three of our tallest men could stand feet upon shoulder over one another are now ankle deep in low-tide. We have to push our boats across these islands of flyash.

Ash spilling from leaky pipelines have choked the river and the Canal.

In 2001, Kamarajar Port Ltd (earlier known as Ennore Port Ltd) set up a mega port on Kattupally Island. Within years, they dumped the ocean sand dredged to build the port on the Athipattu salt pans and constructed the Chettinad Iron Ore and Coal yard. The fine sand from the dumped earth leaked into the river. Now, the depth of the river is reduced in that area too. Then a road was built to the coal yard blocking the river. Where the river had a width of more than 500 metres to run through, now only a small portion about 10 metres is left open for the waters to flow.

Above: Chettinad coal yard in 2004. Below: Chettinad coal yard in 2016

Kamarajar Port's entire expansion hinges on converting at least a thousand of acres of wetlands into land.

Salt pans, an important part of this wetland complex, have all been allocated for different hazardous industries. Earlier this year, Kamarajar Port began encroaching on a larger portion of the river, and all of us got together and physically stopped it. The State Coastal Zone Management Authority and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board are the ones that are supposed to protect the river. But they are useless. They watch silently as the river dies.

Destroying mangroves to expand port facilities

Just north of Kamarajar Port, in Kattupally island, now there is another port. It was earlier called L&T Port. Now it is owned by Adani. They too are dumping on the river and canal. The Central Government has notified the Buckingham Canal as a national waterway. But if you visit the stretches near the two ports or NCTPS, the Canal resembles a national highway.

In the mid 2000s, NTPC and TANGEDCO set up a power plant in Vallur by flattening mangroves and filling up salt pans. Important drains that we used to fish in were filled up, and tidal mud flats were built on. This power plant's ash pond has been constructed right inside the Kosasthalaiyar. Entire streams that break off from the main river to reach the creek have been swallowed by the pond. Here too, ash leaking out of this pond has reduced the depth of the river. Once it is built, the Ennore Thermal Power Station's (ETPS) new 660 MW power plant will also discharge its ash in this ash pond.

Saltpans are an important tidal wetland. The Vallur power plant's ashpond was built on saltpans, and cuts off critical distributaries of the Kosasthalaiyar before they can reach the creek.

As if all this is not enough, just across the river from the ash pond, ETPS has dumped earth and totally blocked the Buckingham Canal. They say they are constructing a bridge for a conveyor belt. It will have about 300 pillars, most of which will fall inside the river. The Indian government says it can shoot rockets to moon and mars. Surely they must have a technology to construct a conveyor belt without harming the river. ETPS and its contractor Lanco continued dumping in the river and extending the road despite our objections. Now the Buckingham Canal is totally blocked, and there is broad mud road blocking nearly 100 metres of the river.

We went to lodge a complaint at the M5 Police Station. But the Inspector spoke demeaningly to us and threatened to file cases against us. If left unchallenged, they will run the road all the way to Puzhuthivakkam to NCTPS. That is the plan.

There are now 11 bridges and roads criss-crossing the river at various points. While the roads completely block the river leaving only a small gap for waters to flow, the bridges too drastically reduce and alter the flow. Their pillars slow down the flow of floodwaters especially because the space between two pillars has not been dredged back to its original depth. Last year, there were entire localities where floodwaters did not drain for more than a week.

Corrupt contractors have failed to remove construction debris between the columns of the bridge. This impedes water flow, and creates dangerous turbulence for fishing craft.

It is not one thing that is hurting the river and making it a dangerous flood hazard. The river is dying a death by a thousand cuts. The river's reduced depth because of flyash, sewage and refinery sludge compromises its capacity to carry flood waters. It is like a block in an artery. Shrinking the river's width by destroying mangroves and salt pans, or constructing coal yards, power plants and oil storage tanks is like reducing a six-lane highway to a single-lane street.

All this means that rainwaters coming from Manali, Ernavur, Korukkupet, Washermanpet, Tondiarpet, Kodungaiyur, Sadayankuppam and Satyamoorthy Nagar will not drain quickly. If there is a rain tomorrow, you will see what we mean.

Last year, we saw the distress the rains caused. It doesn't have to be this way. If the Ennore Creek is healthy, we will all be safe. It is easy to pump life into the Ennore Creek. The flyash has to be removed. The gaps between the columns of bridges must be dredged. Illegal roads must be removed. Places where land has been created by dumping on water must be reclaimed and returned to the river. Not an inch of the river should be diverted for any other use in the future. All these waterbodies are classified as Poromboke – Uppankazhi (tidal floodplains), kalvai (canal) and aaru (river). The word poromboke has become a bad word. People in the cities don't realise the value of Poromboke. Only if the Poromboke areas are healthy can we have a livable city. But the government thinks Poromboke is worthless and builds things that they think are valuable on top of eris, marshlands, rivers, floodplains and canals. That is why we got flooded.

We keep talking about jobs and growth. A power plant will last only 30 or 40 years. A port will last a hundred. The river is forever. As long as the river is healthy, the economies it supports will survive. It is not so much about Saving the Ennore Creek. It is about letting Ennore Creek save you.

As told to Nityanand Jayaraman

Images: David Grossman

Maps credit: Pooja Kumar

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