The sun had not yet risen when 14-year-old R Srinivasan woke up to the din of a crowd by the riverside. He stepped out to see silhouettes of people clambering onto their little wooden fishing boats to join the hundred other boats across the river. Srinivasan then realised that the agitation – which was all the villagers of Kaatukuppam in North Chennai could talk about for a week – had finally begun.

It was the winter of 1994, a few weeks after the North Chennai Thermal Power Station had been commissioned by Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government.

This power station was built along the Ennore Creek, a swampy backwater in North Chennai that sprawls over 13 km between the Pulicat lake in the north and the Kosasthalaiyar river in the south. A breeding ground for shoals of fish, the creek was a vital source of livelihood for six fishing villages of Ennore, of which Kaatukuppam was one.

Once its operations began, the power station started sucking in water to cool its plant and spewed hot, chemical-ridden water back into the creek. When the local fishermen spotted this, they decided to organise an agitation. With oily waste gushing out from a nearby refinery and domestic sewage silting up their river, they did not need one more problem.

At least a thousand people surrounded the intake channel of the power station in over 200 boats. A few boats got pulled into the channel, crashing against its walls and splintering into pieces. But the protest continued day and night for two weeks.

“We had been staging many small protests since the 1980s,” recalled Srinivasan, who is now 36. “But never at this scale. We didn’t stop until the Fisheries Department said they would support us.”

The fishing community had experienced a minor victory. But what they did not know then was that the battle had just begun.

Ennore creek in 2016

Once girded by mangroves and speckled with salt pans and tidal mudflats, the Ennore Creek is now surrounded by 11 industrial plants that discharge hazardous waste into its estuarine ecosystem.

According to a report drawn up by The Coastal Resource Centre – a Chennai-based non-profit organisation aimed at providing solidarity to coastal communities battling unsustainable development activity – six new thermal power stations have been proposed in this region. This is a clear sign that the state has decided to go ahead with further industrial development in this area despite warnings from ecologists of the creek’s degraded condition.

Srinivasan is now the leader of the Fishermen’s Cooperative of Kaatukuppam. In his possession is a thick folder crammed with maps of Ennore Creek’s land use, photographs of industrial encroachment onto the river, laws passed against pollution of water bodies and a list of industries in Ennore violating these laws.

“In the 1980s, we didn’t know anything,” said Srinivasan. “If one part of the river was polluted we would just move to another part. But when we stopped seeing some varieties of fish, we began holding discussions in the village. After much talk, we realised that our catch was declining because of the industries."

According to the fisherfolk of Kaatukuppam, more than 15 varieties of fish and crustaceans have disappeared from the creek over the years. These include catfish, sand whiting, mackerel, tiger prawn, striped crab and mud crab.

But aquatic creatures are not the only ones in danger. Amidst the bunch of papers in Srinivasan’s folder are the results of an air quality study that concludes that the people of Ennore are breathing in toxins way above the permissible level. In fact, many residents already suffer from breathing disorders and skin disease.

Unheard voices

Over the years, the villagers staged protests and approached several government officials for help – in vain.

M Anandan has been a core member of the Kaatukuppam panchayat for almost 30 years. A retired employee of a nearby vehicle factory, the 66-year-old has had little experience in fishing. Notwithstanding this fact, Anandan has often represented the fishing community during meetings with government authorities.

“There was once a time when we used to think that the collector and the revenue divisional officer were very powerful people,” said Anandan. “We used to plead with them to solve our problems saying, ‘You only have to do something for us. You are our God. We depend on you entirely.’ But now, talking to them seems like a waste of time.”

In their several meetings with government officials, villagers would often return with reassurances that, over time, would prove to be worthless.

Sometimes, officials told them to give up fishing as an occupation. Once, an official asked the villagers why they opposed industrial activity in Ennore when the government was working hard to promote industrial growth and jobs just for them.

Job situation

Thirty years ago, Kaatukuppam’s residents earned enough from fishing to maintain a decent living.

“If people working in industries nearby earned Rs 15,000 a month, we could earn the same in three days by fishing when the catch is good,” said A Rajesh, a resident of Kaatukuppam.

But as the catch began to decline, some fishermen were forced to approach the nearby industries for the jobs that they had been promised. But then they were offered low-paying jobs on a contractual basis, with no social security benefits.

“These companies were worried that we will all form unions and demand higher wages,” said Srinivasan. “But had they not been spoiling our river, we would not be asking them for jobs.”

Helping hand

After nearly three decades of fruitless agitations, the fishermen were almost resigned to their fate of fishing in a dying river, breathing toxic air and bringing home less money.

But then something happened to give them fresh hope.

Almost 18 months ago, Srinivasan met Saravanan Kasi and Pooja Kumar from The Coastal Resource Centre. They had been surveying the creek for a while and decided to reach out to the fishing villages.

“Parts of the creek are being claimed by the Kamarajar Port Limited and other industries, so these communities are losing their fishing ground,” said Kumar. “In order to help them put their livelihood spaces on record and prevent further encroachments, we assisted the community to map their river use and land use and send it to the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management authority for inclusion in the coastal zone management plan.”

It was only with the organisation’s help that we understood the magnitude of their problem, said A Venkatesh, the president of the Fishermen’s Cooperative of Mugathwarakuppam village. The leaders of the six Ennore fishing villages soon learnt that some of the industrial activity around the creek was illegal.

Armed with that knowledge, the fishermen no longer felt the need to appeal to the mercy of government authorities or industries. They had the law on their side.

In April 2016, the six fishing villages of Ennore held a public hearing on the loss of ecology and fisher livelihood on Ennore Creek with the help of The Coastal Resource Centre. A team of three panelists, including a retired Madras High Court judge, surveyed the degrading ecosystem and, among other things, recommended that the expansion of industries in this area be temporarily prohibited until a thorough Environmental Impact Assessment is conducted.

The catch is that these recommendations are just that: recommendations. Nevertheless, the fishing communities and The Coastal Resource Centre are working to get various government departments to take note of the panel’s report and are hopeful that something will come out of it.

It's still early days, they say, but if the proposed moratorium is imposed, it will have an impact on the state government’s proposal to set up six new thermal power stations in the area.

No more diversions

A few weeks ago, one of the public sector industries in Ennore launched a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative to train fishermen in skills like driving, welding and tailoring, which will cost almost Rs 1.5 crore. But the fisherfolk say it would be better if the industry uses that money to restore the river instead.

“We are not against industries. But they should allow our river to be,” said Srinivasan. “Even if my son is studying for another profession, this river will be a fallback source of living for him. If you let the river be, it will look after my family for generations to come.”

All photographs Vinita Govindarajan.