Residents of Sulerikattukupam, who live close to the 100-mld (million litres per day) capacity Nemmeli seawater desalination plant of Chennai Metrowater, say they have been robbed of good groundwater and their livelihood. More recently, they have suffered police harassment, they say.

A fact-finding committee, comprising Louis Menezes, former head of Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, Prof. R.Sarathy, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) – Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, P.Sundarrajan, advocate and member of environmental group ‘Poovulagin Nanbargal’ and Nityanand Jayaraman, writer-activist, on Wednesday, listed the many excesses that took place in recent months. Some residents of the village, 10 km north of Mamallapuram too presented their views to the media.

Within hours, the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board issued a point-by-point counter to the allegations.

The villagers seem particularly agitated by the police action in the last week of August, when some of the fishermen were detained by the police. This was after successive raids made to find out people named by a Metrowater engineer attached to the plant. The complaint was that fishermen were obstructing the plant engineers from carrying out some maintenance work.

The merits of the police case and action aside, the villagers see the events as Metrowater going back on its promise to them that their livelihood would not be affected because of the plant.

They allege fishing catch off the shores has already dropped.

“Post tsunami, (December 2004), there was an increase in fishing catch off these regions for several years. But this has dropped dramatically since the plant was commissioned,” says D. Santhosh, Sulerikattukuppam resident. “You can say we just about catch ten per cent of what used to.”

Metrowater officials shifted the blame back on the fishermen. Most of these fishermen on the Kancheepuram coast had the capability to fish up to 75 km off the coast, as they practised ‘gill net’ fishing and possessed fibre-reinforced plastic boats.

However, they usually conducted fishing activity only between 5 km and 25 km range depending on the availability of fish shoals. “They are not practising shore fishing and normally do not take up fishing operations near the coast,” the official statement said.

Metrowater denied the charge it was letting out highly saline RO (reverse osmosis) reject water into the beach. However, pictures taken by a photographer from The Hindu from the site on Wednesday revealed that some saline water was surely being let out in the beach. Further, there was at least one pipe from the plant that did not lead all the way into the sea but abruptly ended right at the beachfront. Metrowater claimed that this was not R.O. reject, but water “not being used by the plant”.

Metrowater officials charge that the Nemmeli plant, which plays a key role in easing the drinking water crisis, is being subjected to an unnecessary controversy.

However, the villagers and the fact-finding team are asking for a thorough investigation by the Pollution Control Board and the Environment Ministry into the plant’s activities, to see if it is functioning according to the conditions attached to the project’s environmental clearance.

They are also seeking that if the claims by the fishermen on losing their livelihood were found to be true, the State government pitch in with rehabilitation measures.

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