For residents of Chennai’s Ennore, it's no happy new year

The decision to sustain their protest weighs heavily on Ennore's residents, largely fishers from a cluster of villages. Continuous protest means sacrificing work, facing government opposition, and confronting a powerful industrial group like the Murugappa conglomerate.
Protestors outside the Coromandel International Limited (CIL) company in Ennore.
Protestors outside the Coromandel International Limited (CIL) company in Ennore.

For 30 days straight, Coromandel International Limited’s (CIL) fertiliser plant in Chennai’s Ennore area has faced a picket from a resolute group. Ennore, nestled next to the Kosasthalaiyar river and Manali region, is an industrial belt with around 200 companies, a mix of small and large, including industries, power plants, fertiliser and fuel-making units. Ennore’s residents, still reeling from the ammonia leak that occurred on December 26, that choked their lungs, have been taking turns to protest. Among them is 69-year-old Raja, a fisherman.

Raja knows this fight all too well. In 1999, a similar leak at the same plant had landed him and his fellow residents in Vellore Central Prison for daring to protest. This time, the residents of the village (mostly fishers) insist that their resolve is stronger, and the stakes higher. They have refused to accept compensation from both the government and Coromandel International, owned by the conglomerate Murugappa group, and are instead demanding a permanent solution. Even though the company was shut down following the gas leak on December 26, they fear that it will be re-opened soon. Though the protests have taken a heavy toll, with many not able to return to their jobs, the agitators have told the government that the only solution in sight is the permanent closure of the company.

“This is where we were born and this is where our ancestors have lived. How can we leave our birth place and relocate elsewhere? We live close to the sea and the sea is what our livelihoods are dependent on,” Raja said.

Dead fish that allegedly washed ashore after ammonia gas leaked in the sea bed at Ennore
Dead fish that allegedly washed ashore after ammonia gas leaked in the sea bed at EnnoreNidharshana Raju

On the night of December 26, the residents of Periyakuppam (one of the 33 villages located in Ennore), where the company is situated, woke up to a pungent smell around 11.45 pm. Those who were awake panicked, and alerted the others. Soon, there was a rush to escape. The fumes of ammonia had leaked through a pipeline, which was funnelling the gas from a ship to the storage tank on the shore when it sprang a leak. The discharge went beyond Periyakuppam, spreading to Chinnakuppam and Ernaurkuppam, which are a few kilometres from the site of the leak. 

Tamilmani, who works as a contract employee with the Electricity Department, was at his house in Periyakuppam when the gas started enveloping the village. He rushed to his mother-in-law’s house, a street away, to rescue his wife Bhuvaneshwari and their three-month-old son Guganeshwar. Tamilmani explained, “I was in my house when my neighbour knocked at my door and asked us to evacuate. I was gripped by fear. Initially I had assumed that it was maybe a Tsunami warning. But then I realised that it was a gas leak because I had difficulty in breathing and I experienced irritation in my eyes. My immediate concern was to rescue my child and my wife.” 

Coromandel International Ltd's ammonia storage tank, captured on the night of the gas leak.
Coromandel International Ltd's ammonia storage tank, captured on the night of the gas leak.

Tamilmani’s wife Bhuvaneshwari recalled, “I was panicking after my husband alerted us. I carried my baby and quickly grabbed a sweater for him. I couldn’t grab anything else. We immediately started evacuating on a bike without knowing where to seek shelter.”

A series of flouted rules

While initial conversations with villagers are dominated by stories of panic and exodus, a closer look reveals a narrative of how the government and the company have ignored laws and rules. 

The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (Tamil Nadu) Rules (2022) clearly state that ‘distinctive and recognisabe warning arrangements’ must be made by the company to caution all the persons located inside and outside the plant, to facilitate evacuation. 

The said rule under Part II- General Requirements 23(4) says, “The occupier shall arrange to install distinctive and recognisable warning arrangements to caution all persons inside the plant as well as the neighbouring community, if necessary, to enable evacuation of persons and to enable the observance of emergency procedures by the persons who are assigned emergency duties. All concerned must be well informed about the warning arrangement and their meaning. The arrangement must be checked for its effectiveness every month.”

In addition to this, the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules (1989) also emphasise on the need for off-site emergency preparedness from both the company and the concerned government authority. According to rule 14, a plan has to be prepared by both the company and the Chief Inspector of Dock Safety, after carefully considering all possible accidents that could occur and could potentially affect those located outside the premises of a company. According to the rule, the plan must facilitate evacuation of the people located off-site. It highlights, “The concerned authority shall ensure that a rehearsal of the off-site emergency plan is concluded at least once in a calendar year.”

Despite these rules, there have been no emergency drills that were conducted in the last 20 years by the company, due to which there was no evacuation process for the villagers to follow on December 26. The only help they got was from the local police officers during evacuation and the Thiruvottiyur MLA KP Shankar, who opened his house up for people who wished to take shelter. 

Kumaresan, a representative of the People’s Protection Group, was returning home late at night on December 26, along with other fishers from the area. “We had organised a meeting to discuss the oil spill that wreaked havoc in the first week of December and the meeting ran late. We were returning in two cars when we got a call about the gas leak. We immediately got down and sent both the cars to rescue our people. We also alerted the hospital and they sent ambulances.”

He points out that most companies evacuated their own people, but none bothered about the villagers. “Leyland took their employees, and Coromandel took their employees. No one took care of our people,” he said.

The world has seen many examples of ammonia leak. The deadliest was in Senegal, Africa, in 1992 when 129 people died after an ammonia storage tank belonging to Sonacos SA – a food and beverage manufacturing company – exploded due to an increase in the storing tank’s pressure. The explosion also led to the ammonia fluid stored in the plant to leak. The incident resulted in hundreds of people developing lung- and skin-related diseases.

Three years ago, in India, on December 22, 2020, two senior officers died at IFFCO’s Phulpur plant in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, and 16 others fell ill due to ammonia gas leakage. Following this incident, the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in its order dated June 4, 2021, detailed how such accidents could be averted by installing ammonia sensors to detect the gas’s levels, introducing automatic tripping system during pressure build up or leaks and ensuring that mock drills are conducted regularly, among others.

But CIL has not installed ammonia sensors, alleged Balachandran, Periyakuppam’s village head. “If there was a sensor in place, the leak would have been detected and we might have been alerted. Had a sensor been installed, the increase in pressure in the ammonia carrying pipes would have been detected and it might have automatically shut down all operations. That wasn’t the case,” Balachandran said. 

The pipeline on Ennore's shoreine, that carries ammonia to the plant
The pipeline on Ennore's shoreine, that carries ammonia to the plantNithya Pandian

Bhagat Singh, another representative of People’s Protection Group, who has been actively involved in the gas leak protests, told TNM, “On paper, the rules are elaborate. But in reality, the company has not been following these rules for years together. This truth has come out now only because of the leak that took place.”

A government official TNM spoke to acknowledged that the lack of ammonia sensors in place led to chaos in Ennore. Since no drill or plan was communicated to the villagers during emergencies, the evacuation was carried out by the government and other local authorities, the official said. “A lot needs to be done and it must be done by learning from these incidents. No emergency cyclone plan has addressed an oil or gas leak. We need to incorporate these now,” the official added.

The chocolate factory that wasn’t

For the young people in Ennore, the recent gas leak, that is a culmination of countless episodes of pungent air, has become their rallying cry. For the elders though, the betrayal runs deeper. Many shared memories of their grandparents, parents, even their own younger selves lured by the idea of a ‘chocolate factory’ in Ennore. 

This dates back to 1963, when EID Parry Limited opened a fertiliser plant in Ennore. Back then, the Indian government sanctioned the production of 150 tonnes of ammonia phosphate and related products. EID Parry was also a company famous for its toffee products. However, it is unclear whether the villagers were misled to believe that a chocolate factory was being set up or it was an assumption on their part. 

Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist, said that he would not be surprised if it was the former. “Such false assurances and promises are par for the course during industrial siting,” he said. He also pointed out that when Chesebrough-Pond's (later Hindustan Unilever Limited) set up the mercury thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, it declared that it was setting up a non-polluting glass factory. “They obtained conversion of a residential area into an industrial zone. It did not divulge the real hazards of mercury,” he said. 

Desarani, one of the 44 people who were hospitalised after the gas leak, and was treated in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for three days, said, “My grandfather has said that the factory’s officials had even distributed chocolates to them back in his days. They weren’t educated and so they believed that it was a chocolate manufacturing company. Some years back, they laid pipes in the sea and we kept quiet because we thought that it wouldn't affect us. But now that we know that it carries ammonia and that it can affect us, we don’t want it here. We won’t allow it to operate.”

Read: Ennore gas leak victims say hospital discharged them even as they struggled to breathe

The southern bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) took suo-motu cognisance of the ammonia gas leak on December 27, a day after it was reported, and issued directions to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to file a report of the incident. However, during the hearing on January 8, the TNPCB had not furnished a complete report on the incident. Neither TNPCB nor the company knew where the leak had occurred and why. TNPCB also evaded responsibility and blamed the dock safety officers – appointed under the Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986 – as the authorities who were responsible for the leak.

The NGT concluded that all parties had furnished unsatisfactory reports and directed them along with the concerned dock safety officer to submit fresh reports before the next hearing, scheduled for February 6.

How long to protest? 

Voices like Desarani’s are many in Ennore. They are not ready to arrive at any compromise, the only solution that would suffice is the closure of the company. Villagers and citizens forums have had multiple meetings with the state government, chaired by different authorities including Rashmi Siddharth Zagade, the District Collector; Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary Environment Climate Change & Forests; PK Sekar Babu, Minister of Charitable Endowments of Tamil Nadu; KP Shankar, Thiruvottiyur MLA; and other zonal and ward level officers. In all these meetings, the villagers have been repeatedly told by the officials to resume work and that justice will prevail.

Public hearing meeting held at Ennore, after the gas leak
Public hearing meeting held at Ennore, after the gas leak

After January 14, at such meetings, the authorities have reportedly been highlighting the newly announced initiatives and schemes under the North Chennai Development Plan, which was proposed at the cost of Rs 1,000 crore. These new initiatives and schemes are said to improve the livelihood and health of the people living in Manali and Ennore region.

Under the newly announced initiative, the state government has proposed the formation of the Manali-Ennore Restoration and Rejuvenation Company (MERRC) for undertaking pollution control measures, waterbody restoration works, and for focusing on the community’s infrastructural development, among others. In addition to MERRC, a special body – Pollution Monitoring and Command Centre – has also been proposed for monitoring all the industries and ensuring that they abide by the emission norms for both air and water emissions.

“But this new plan is just an eye-washing strategy that the government is using to stop people from continuing their protests. The people now know this and they know that their lives are on the line,” Bhagat said. 

The decision to sustain their protest weighs heavily on Ennore's residents, largely fishers from a cluster of villages. Several meetings called by village heads have turned stormy, as people raised concerns about the practicality and burden of a long-term protest. Continuous protest means sacrificing work, facing government opposition, and confronting a powerful industrial group like the Murugappa conglomerate. Many in Ennore pointed out that this time the protesters were not wavering especially since the women are insistent that no compromises can be struck.

We are asking for safety. Don’t give us compensation and insult the protests that we are undertaking for our lives. We don’t want them to negotiate the price for our lives. Because if a boat or a net is damaged, or if we can’t go to work, then we can get compensated. But what is the point of compensation if we lose our lives? How degraded have our lives become then?” Kumaresan asked.

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