A short drive north of Chennai is Ennore Creek, a backwater that stretches for kilometres into the sea and along the coast. Connected with Pulicat Lake on the north and river Kosathalaiyar’s distributaries to the south, it was once rich with biodiversity. The lush mangrove of one of the many canals feeding into the creek, Buckingham Canal, had enough fish and crab for fishing to become the main livelihood of the six revenue villages that came up alongside. For years, communities around the creek thrived.
Today, if you visit Ennore Creek, there is none of that ecological harmony – instead, what you find is devastation. Over the years, the creek and Buckingham Canal had a number of interventions, the largest of which came in 1994, when the North Chennai Thermal Power Station at Ennore was commissioned.
What resulted in development for one part of Chennai led to the decline of communities closest to the site of progress. Several villages along the creek were relocated to its other side to accommodate the plant. At that time, one male member of each displaced family was guaranteed a job in the power station – but the employment lasted a generation, and the waste from the plant disfigured the creek.
With time, as more industries came up in the region, the creek’s natural carrying capacity shrank, raising the risk of floods and cyclones. The discharge from the plant also affected the communities’ health, causing skin allergies, respiratory illnesses and increased chances of cancer and tuberculosis.
Another disaster was the loss of fish because of contamination of the water. “Our wives have to buy fish from other villages and sell that in the market,” said a fisherman. “If people knew which village this fish came from, they will offer a very low price or even refuse to buy it. The water in this part of the creek contaminates the sea life. We can’t use it for our own consumption or rely on it for our livelihood.”
So, while the plant increased opportunities in the cities by providing them electricity, it stripped future generations of the fishing communities of assured livelihoods.
For kilometres around the power plant today, you can see smokestacks, something the plant is synonymous with. Along the creek, what appears to be a grey, sandy beach is really the even spread of fly ash, which has covered the mangrove at the end of the Buckingham Canal.
Despite the intervention of the National Green Tribunal, and protests by the fishing communities and civil society groups, the fly ash beach is expanding further into the mangrove, largely due to the leaks in the plant’s pipeline that pours out like a fountain stream.
The mangrove, covered in fly ash, mirrors scenes from the dystopian Mad Max – the only difference is that the overly yellow colour grading of the film has been replaced with subdued greys and blues. Unlike the movie that shows the fall of civilised society, leading to those barren landscapes, the Ennore creek is an example of our march towards growth and advancement germinating disaster. What remains at the creek are large transmission towers which serve as reminders of human activity in the area.
Jayati Narain and TejInder Singh are Urban Fellows at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru.