Time to change course

Since December 2015, Chennai has limped from one extreme weather-related shock to another — the floods, the failed monsoon of 2016, Cyclone Vardah, and now the water crisis. Chennai’s defining element is water. But the city shows scant regard for this precious but dangerous resource. Located squarely in the intervening floodplains of three rivers on a high-energy coastline, Chennai is a disaster-prone location. Any badly located city can be vulnerable merely by virtue of its location. But only a special kind of city — a city with a death wish — actively makes a bad situation worse.

Nothing speaks more elegantly to Chennai’s death wish than what governments are doing to the wetlands in North Chennai. In June, the State government conceded the Government of India-owned Kamarajar Port Ltd’s (KPL) request to divert 1,000 acres of the hydrologically sensitive Ennore wetlands for industrial installations that are best built on dry land. The proposal is pending Central government clearance. If permitted, KPL’s dream will turn out to be Chennai’s worst nightmare, far worse than the 2015 floods.

The importance of Ennore

Ennore Creek, a sprawling 8,000-acre tidal waterbody, is a place where climate change and disastrous land-use change converge. Two rivers with a total catchment of 5,000 sq km empty into the Ennore Creek.

This wetland’s importance may not be apparent. Much of the creek looks dry year-round, when visible waterspread is only 1,000 acres. But when cyclonic weather pushes the sea surging landwards, or when rainwaters from the two rivers come rushing to meet the sea, the waterspread in the creek swells to its majestic fullness. Come rain or storm surge, the availability of room for the rain or sea water to stay is what keeps the city from going under.

The creek offers another protection too. It buffers the rich aquifers of the Araniyar-Kosasthalaiyar Basin from the sea, and keeps salt water from invading groundwater resources that supply several hundred million litres daily to Chennai even during the worst droughts.

In 1996, the Tamil Nadu government protected a 6,500-acre stretch of the tidal waterbody under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification. But greed prevailed over good sense. More than 1,000 acres of the creek were lost to illegal encroachments that rise like dams across a river.

The offending installations block the path of rainwaters rushing down the Arani river and the mighty Kosasthalaiyar. Areas that never got flooded saw waters enter homes and remain for more than a fortnight in 2015. Tamil Nadu’s lifeline, the Manali petroleum refinery, went under water for days.

Seeds of disaster

The identities of the architects of the last disaster may not be clear. Also, they may arguably not have known the consequences of interfering with mega-drains. But such assumptions no longer hold good. Political leaders and bureaucrats have been told that the creek is a protected waterbody, and that encroaching on it is both illegal and dangerous.

But neither impending danger nor illegality has stopped the State government from clearing KPL’s proposal to construct coal yards, warehouse zones, car parking and export terminals for Ford, Hyundai and Nissan on 1,000 acres of Ennore wetlands. Justifying the decision taken in June, the State Coastal Zone Management Authority published a new map — subsequently exposed to be a fraudulent map — that denied the existence of the 6,500-acre creek.

The architects of future disasters in this case are neither anonymous, nor ignorant. They cleared KPL’s proposal fully aware that the encroachments will endanger more than a million people in Thiruvallur and Chennai districts.

Such decisions arise not out of a love for encroachments, but out of perverted values, lack of accountability and an entrenched culture of discrimination. We refer to this in our collaboratively produced music video, the “Chennai Poromboke Paadal”, or the “Song for Chennai Commons”.

Picking on the poor

After every flood, courts and governments turn their ire against the poor who huddle in horrible hovels along the edges of our stinking rivers. The larger, more dangerous encroachments are never touched. The 2015 floods are being used to justify the removal of 55,000 families from the edges of Cooum and Adyar rivers to socially fraught and flood-prone ghettos in wetlands on the city’s fringes.

The Cooum and the Adyar are elite, high-status rivers, running through elite neighbourhoods within the city. Purging the edges of the poor is seen as integral to the wholesome restoration of these rivers. Contrastingly, the Kosasthalaiyar and Ennore Creek are seen as working-class waterbodies. Here, the value of the “worthless” wetland is sought to be enhanced by industrial encroachers with state protection.

Our song about Chennai spotlights the undervalued Ennore Creek, because with every cut to the creek, Chennai will hurt a hundred times. The song has resonated with fishers to whom the creek is life, and with lakhs more across the world. When, not if, Ennore floods this year or next, people will know it was not an accident.

If plans to fill the creek persist, Chennai will have no future. The precious freshwater aquifer that Chennai draws from will be lost to salt. The precious freshwater that falls from the sky will turn the city into a watery grave.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist. T.M. Krishna is a Carnatic vocalist, author and public speaker

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 5:01:58 AM |

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