‘Give us back our river’

One part of the Ennore creek, covered with a layer of black mass, lies still like a corpse. Another channel of dark water, the Buckingham Canal, which carries petroleum effluents from Manali, runs a few kilometres from it. I am at Kattukuppam, a fishing hamlet in Ennore, North Chennai, with city-based environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman.

The creek, which drains the Araniyar and Kosasthalaiyar rivers, once ran unperturbed, carrying crystal-clear water. The Buckingham canal, a salt-water navigation system built in the 19th Century, was a treasure trove of fish. This is all just a memory now.

I look around to see the origin of this injustice — fly ash from a power plant in Vallur and a thermal power station have destroyed the river, its fish, and the livelihood and childhood memories of the fishermen.

Like everyone else in the city, I learned of the state of Ennore and its associated wetlands, thanks to the viral ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’ video featuring T.M. Krishna.

‘Give us back our river’

“Ennore is now a river in distress, begging to be saved. For years, nobody has paid any attention to it,” says Jayaraman, who has been tirelessly working with his eco-warriors for the last four years to save the area from encroachment by the Kamarajar Port that opened in 2001. He takes me around Mugatwarakuppam, Kattukuppam and Sivanpadai, the three fishing villages dependant on the river.

The smell of fish welcomes me into this village. Women squat on the ground with the early-morning catch, primarily prawns. There was a time when fishermen used to boast about Ennore fish and crab. Now, they hesitate to call guests over for a meal, because most of the fish are poisoned by the effluents. Ennore used to be a weekend getaway with sprawling vegetation during the Raj. “The first signs of pollution began in the 1980s, when industries in Manali released effluents into the Canal. Around the same time, waste from the Northern areas was sent down the Canal towards Ennore, along with downstream products from the sister associates of the Manali petrochemical industry.”

Protests erupted in Ennore in the 1980s, when the North Chennai Thermal Power Station was proposed by the then Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran. “Back then, Tamil Nadu was still a welfare state, and promised one job a family in the Electricity Board. About 400 jobs and house plots were given to the villagers. However, just two years ago, they discovered that the plots were on poromboke land. They do not have title deeds.”

The protests that escalated in 1993 ended in a Madras High Court order in 1996 against North Chennai Thermal Power Station, barring the company from discharging fly ash into the creek. And, it was asked to remove whatever was discharged. However, the discharge continues.

The story of Ennore creek’s destruction does not end there. In 2000, the establishment of the Kamarajar Port sealed its fate. The port’s viability hinged on converting the Ennore creek and its associated wetlands into real estate. “Only those in an island called Kattupalli protested,” Nityanand recalls.

At Mugatwarakuppam, we are joined by the president of its fishing cooperative, A. Venkatesh, and C. Dilli, his counterpart in neighbouring Nettukuppam.

The four of us sit on a boat gently swaying in the morning breeze. Dilli remembers a childhood counting the innumerable number of birds that visited from distant lands. “On one tree, there would be as many as 150. The water was so clear that we would catch the small fish using our lungi. There would be swimming races during Pongal and young boys would join. Now, even if you bribe them, they won’t jump into the water.”

“Earlier, we used to get at least prawns. Now, even that is remote.” Sometimes, the fisherman have no option but to eat the toxic fish and fall ill. Just stepping into the water can be harmful. “It causes blisters and rashes. We also suffer breathing disorders.”

The creek has made him the man he is now, says Venkatesh. “The signature or identity of Mugatwarakuppam is the creek. Even though they go fishing in the sea as well, the creek comes to their rescue whenever the sea turns rough. “During the rainy season, our food comes from the creek.”

The villagers’ struggle yielded results last September when the National Green Tribunal passed an order to clean the Buckingham Canal. And, last December, the Kamarajar Port passed a tender for removal of dredged sand that was dumped on saltpans to convert the wetlands into real estate. Jayaraman says the floods have a role to play in this. “We figured that nobody cares about the livelihood of fisherfolk, but the mention of floods has everyone interested. The villagers had deployed about 130 boats to rescue 30,000 people from North Chennai. So they said, ‘We rescued you. We have suggestions for five things that can prevent this from happening. And, that involves allowing the creek to flow, desilting the canal and removing the encroachment by the Kamarajar Port’.”

This movement is different from the others he has been a part of, says Jayaraman. “This creek can be saved. Just reduce further pollution and the sea will do its job and cleanse it. I have never been part of anything so positive.”

As we return, I see the giant smoke stacks of some of these power plants on one side, while waves lash the shores on the other. The scene looks invincible and intimidating at once.However, Venkatesh’s words echo in my ears. “We want our lives back. The river will take care of us and our children. Just give it back to us.”

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 2:43:49 AM |

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