The men and women are not only losing their livelihood, but also their health.

The Ennore tragedy Thermal power plants have destroyed Chennais fishing communitiesSaroja (L) and Rajeshwari (R) sit by the creek overlooking the North Chennai Thermal Power Plant
news Environment Saturday, November 19, 2016 - 14:09

Sitting along one of the several canals in Ennore, Saroja and Rajeshwari - both prawn catchers from Athipattu village – have called it a day at 8am. The tide was too high and the sludge (flyash mixed with water) from North Chennai Thermal Power Plant nearby made the creek too slushy for them to walk through. Old and fragile, they did not want to risk being washed away. On working days, they arm themselves with a woven basket that they hold between their teeth to bag prawns they catch by crawling in Ennore’s backwaters. Unable to afford nets, they use their hands to catch prawns. “When it is not high tide, the water is too low. With all the ash being dumped, we get stuck in it and there is barely any prawn to catch,” says Saroja, 60, but looking well over her age. “We stand in the shallow waters for eight hours a day but there is not much to catch,” she adds. On a typical day, they make Rs. 200.

Across the road from where the women were sitting run leaky pipes carrying sludge. The pressure inside gets the sludge to shoot up like a fountain, colouring cement roads yellow. The spectacle is common, villagers say. “These plants dump the ash without thinking about our sustenance or livelihood. Just ten years back, we could catch crabs, prawns and even fish in these canals. Now we are reduced to only prawns,” says Rajeshwari.

Ennore, in the northern outskirts of Chennai, has four villages and four coal-fired thermal power plants, apart from numerous fertilizer units. Apart from the hot water that is used by thermal power plants as coolants, flyash is mixed with water and the sludge is carelessly strewn in to the creeks. Fertilizer and petroleum-based industries add to the pollution by dumping oil waste.

A pipe carrying sludge from North Chennai Thermal Power Plant leaks near Athipatti.

A study titled “The impact of water pollution on the socio-economic status of the stakeholders of Ennore Creek, Bay of Bengal (India)” published in the Indian Journal of Science and Technology stated that 90% of their respondents said their catch has reduced over the years. “Pollution was the reason cited for low fish catch by 58.8 % of the fishing community. It was followed by over fishing and soil erosion in the percentages of 25.5 and 2.6 respectively,” read the study published in 2009.

The men and women are not only losing their livelihood, but also their health. As they stand in polluted waters for hours every single day, they are vulnerable to all kinds of skin infections. Yet, they do not have any other alternate livelihood to fall back on. “There are more than 8,000 fishermen and 500 Irulars in Ennore whose livelihood solely depend on fishing. Our catch has reduced by 70% in the last ten years,” said president of Kattukuppam Fishermen’s Cooperative Society R L Srinivasan.

The study also reported that at least 40% of those sick in Ennore had cough, tuberculosis or wheezing. Skin disease were the second most common problem – accounting for nearly 30% of those found sick. It is clear that polluted water in the Ennore Creek was mainly responsible for the diseases like skin irritation, typhoid, malaria,” read the report.  

Saroja and Rajeshwari are Irulars – literally meaning dark-skinned people. The community is one of the most marginalized in the country, receiving very little support from the government.

“We are forced to walk on barnacles that cut deep. As we stand in the brackish and polluted waters for hours, they refuse to heal,” says Nagamma, also an Irular. “We are too poor to afford nets and we have no choice but to use our hands to catch prawns,” she adds, revealing the rashes on her hands.

The Ennore creek serves as a channel connecting the Kosasthalaiyar River with the Pulicat Lake, the second largest brackish water lake in the country. Studies from Anna University and Aquaculture Foundation of India confirm that high concentration of heavy metal in the water is having an impact on marine organisms. Dumping of mud is drying up the creek and obstructing the natural flow of water.  

Further south from Athipatti, in Sadaiyankuppam, R Nagesh says he has slid down the social ladder over the last ten years because of the pollution. There are no prawns to catch in his vicinity and he is now forced to catch worms – which are used as food for prawns. Pointing at the smoke bellowing in the distance and talking about a leaky pipe just outside his village of Sadaiyankuppam, he squarely blames the four thermal power plants operating in the vicinity. “I have been reduced to catching worms,” he laments. After standing in shallow brackish waters for nearly five hours, he catches enough worms worth Rs 250.

The seemingly abundant worms or the polychaetas that Nagesh catches is a sign of pollution, experts say. They indicate high concentration of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic and selenium. They also indicate presence of organic wastes from untreated sewage being dumped in the creeks.

“In a study we did in 2014, we found that the concentration of all these heavy metals is much higher than permissible limits. These heavy metals not only promote the growth of these worms but also reduce the reproductive capacity of other marine organisms,” said M Jairam, a field scientist who published a journal titled “Heavy Metal Concentration of Sea Water and Marine Organisms in Ennore Creek, Southeast Coast of India”. He also attributed the influx of hot water from thermal power plants (water is used as coolants to these plants) to the reduction in fish population. “Warm water not only reduces the dissolved oxygen content of the water but also promotes algal bloom. Both these impact the grown of marine population,” says Jaikumar.

After more than a year of protesting and agitating against the establishment, the fishermen have seen the first light of victory. Last month, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO) desilted 6kms of the Buckingham Canal. “The water looks cleaner now. But this cannot be the solution. Incessant dumping of sewage and pollutants should be stopped,” says Srinivasan.


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