It is dawn in Kattukuppam, a fishing village by the Kosasthalaiyar river in Ennore, north Chennai. The sky lightens but the river remains the colour of night, streaked with an industrial palette of diesel, sewage and ash. Boats drift in with the day’s catch on this modern-day Styx, as power plant chimneys spew smoke behind them.
As nets are emptied into straw baskets and the women gut fish in the streets, kabbadi coach R.L. Srinivasan heads out. Two streets away, a drowsy legion of boys pace in their Ennore Kabbadi jerseys in front of the municipal school’s playground. “This one has slept till 6 a.m.,” says the coach, rolling his eyes and ruffling the six-year-old’s hair. “Go swim in the river and come!” It’s a threat enough to wake anyone up.
Kabbadi comes from kai pidi (catch my hand) and is believed to have its roots in Tamil Nadu. It is a high contact sport, where a lone raider from each team of seven must cross enemy lines, make contact and make a run for it, all the while chanting ‘kabbadi’ non-stop to show the referee you’re holding your breath.
Chennai’s residents had better be holding their collective breath. Last Diwali, the city’s air quality gave Delhi a run for it — monitors recorded particulate matter levels reaching 916 g/m3 in North Chennai’s Manali industrial area. Neighbouring Ennore, which supplies electricity to Chennai and parts of Tamil Nadu, does not have publicly available data on air pollution. But the heavy notes in the air are hard to escape: a potent amalgam of ammonia, coal, sewage and diesel, mingling with the salty sea breeze. The thermal ash spewed by power plants makes it unbreathable, even on its best days. Fly ash contains trace quantities of toxic heavy metals and silica that accumulate in respiratory tracts and lungs.
For the last four years, Srinivasan has been straying into enemy territory, battling for Chennai’s right to breathe. He heads the fishing community’s cooperative society that has been taking on big polluters and last year, based on a petition filed by a six-village committee that he brought together, the National Green Tribunal ordered for health studies to be conducted in the villages around Ennore.
North Chennai is a dystopian landscape of fishing villages wedged between industry and the sea. There are three thermal power plants, one which serves the Ennore SEZ, which is being built on a fly ash pond.
There’s the Kamaraj port and the Kattupalli port. And inland, there is a coal terminal and a petroleum refinery. Natural gas pipelines run along rusted ash pipelines, leaking slurry at the slightest provocation into the river. A 1,000-acre coal ash pond is filled beyond capacity and has contaminated nearly 340 hectares of land. Seppakkam is a village that has turned ghostly white. Children run out of houses ankle-deep in grey slurry, playing hide-and-seek between laundry lines, their voices made breathless from inhaling the fine, oily excesses of Tamil Nadu’s power generation. Visits to hospitals are routine, and costly. “We spend ₹700-800 on scans and fees and medicines every visit. Sometimes, we pawn our jewellery for medical expenses,” said a 28-year-old woman from Sepakkam.
Srinivasan filed a case in the National Green Tribunal, as a result of which the environment ministry has shut down a road being built over the Kosasthalaiyar’s mouth for a coal conveyor belt. And following a PIL filed by the fisherfolk society this November, the Chennai High Court has temporarily stayed the dumping of flyash in the mangroves.
Srinivasan’s group has also teamed up with singer T.M. Krishna to shine a spotlight on Ennore, which inspired Poromboke, his ode to the commons. This month, as a result of Health Energy Initiative’s reports, the environment ministry has mandated that new coal plants must conduct community health assessments and periodic monitoring.
As the sun sets, grandmothers sit in a circle, shooting marbles and catching up with gossip. In another corner, boys gather for a round of kabaddi. As he fights for their right to breathe easy, coach Srinivisan offers them something else too: hope.
The independent journalist writes on issues at the intersection of land, environment and corporate accountability.