Decades before fossil fuel became the villain of the climate movement, frontline communities of dalits, adivasis and other subordinate classes were already fighting solitary battles against mining, hydrocarbon extraction, air pollution caused by industries and automobiles, and the mindless destruction caused by the over-consumptive modern economy.
Where the battle cry of the climate crisis is a call to save the future, theirs was always and still is a struggle to improve their present day quality of life. Statistics often hide the fact that environmental problems affect different demographics differently. With 116,000 neonatal deaths (of children less than 28 days of age), India tops the list of countries that lose newborns to air pollution, according to the recently released State of Global Air 2020. Regional pollution indicators mask oppressive local conditions, turning local communities into victims of averages.
In this essay, CarbonCopy attempts to emphasise this disparity by travelling to three of the most toxic and dangerous residential areas in the Chennai Metropolitan Area.
Chennai – world-class city or toxic cesspool?
As cities go, Chennai is rated favourably as a place to live. Environmentally speaking, though, the city is starkly segregated. Where south and central Chennai are showcased by the state to lay claim to world-class status, north Chennai is a fetid cesspool of industrial badlands, targeted by the state for increasing toxic industrialisation. Where the south gets parks and walking paths, the north gets coal stacking yards and chemical industries.
This densely populated working-class region also has a higher-than-average proportion of people belonging to Scheduled Castes and OBCs (Other Backward Class). The ongoing and increasing pollution here is not merely incidental; it is a modern and environmental expression of casteism. Residents stuck in this putrid mix contend not only with industrial bane but also with intensifying manifestations of the unfolding climate crisis.
Extending from the Manali marshlands to the Ennore backwaters, this once bountiful region famed for its agriculture, salt and fisheries economies is now Tamil Nadu’s fossil fuel capital. More than 12 lakh people live in the five assembly constituencies hosting three large ports handling oil, gas, coal and other cargo, 3,300 MW of coal-fired power plants, 10.5 million tonnes/year petroleum refinery, coal and container stacking yards, a mega petrochemical industrial estate with fertiliser and plastics factories, and the city’s largest garbage dump.
The three worst places to live in the city are Ezhil Nagar, Kargil Nagar/Sadayankuppam and Seppakkam. According to parents and children from these areas, these are among the worst places to raise a family or be a child. Not surprisingly, all three places lie within the Ennore-Manali region — arguably among the most polluted places in the country.
The first residents to build their homes in this north Chennai neighbourhood must have had a twisted sense of humour, or a superstitious streak to believe that a name can change reality. The Tamil word Ezhil translates to beauty. There is nothing beautiful about Ezhil Nagar, even if you squint your eyes and hold your nose.
Towering hills of trash squeeze out black, slimy trash juice into puddles of leachate that ooze out snake-like into a foul-smelling canal. A narrow road littered with trash separates the first row of homes from Chennai’s largest garbage dump, the Kodungaiyur dumpyard. Flies are everywhere. “You can’t afford to sleep with your mouth open. Flies will settle inside, outside, everywhere,” one resident offered.
Shruti, 19, plays the local guide for this toxic tour. She shows me a narrow fenced off open space with some vegetation on the fringes. “We got that park after years of petitioning. There are no places for children to play. Just being a child, playing or going to school is a dangerous thing,” she said. Shruti is part of a children’s group run by Arunodhaya, an NGO that works with local youth. The main road that is to be taken to get to nearby schools is chock-a-block with smoke-spewing diesel trucks carrying garbage, or cargo from the nearby Chennai port.
The infamous Chennai heat is bad by itself. But the overpowering stench of the rejects from Chennai’s consumer economy makes the heat intolerable. “This is nothing. Wait till it rains. If there is a slight rain, it raises a stink. If it rains too heavily, like it did in 2015, then the garbage comes flowing home,” says Shruti. The year that Chennai flooded, years-old rotten garbage, sewage, dead animals, and sulphurous goo filled up homes in the neighbourhood. The worst was when the waters receded leaving behind their deadly flotsam.
The dry season brings no respite. From February to May, spontaneous fires erupt in the dump as pockets of trapped methane ignite and explode into smouldering flames. An air sample taken during one such fire in 2012 revealed the presence of 19 toxic chemicals. According to the report, “Sixteen out of the 19 chemicals found target the central nervous system, 15 target the respiratory system, 13 target the eyes, 12 target the skin, six target the liver, five target the kidneys and reproductive system, two target the cardiovascular system and the peripheral nervous system and one targets blood, heart and bone marrow.”
Local residents challenged the dumping ground in the Madras high court pointing out that it was illegal and lacked the statutory license required under Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000. The Court sat on the case until rules changed in 2016.
Even under the new rules the yard is illegal. But no court is likely to act on this illegality, probably because the victims of this illegality are politically and culturally marginalised.
Kargil Nagar in Thiruvottiyur earned itself a city-wide reputation as a bad place to live after the 2015 floods. Located on the eastern bank of the 200-year-old Buckingham Canal, this settlement of 1,800 people is on a low-lying area. Once upon a time, the saltwater canal was used by slow-moving barges to carry firewood, shells for lime-making, salt and dried fish from the centres of production to the city. Now, it is a sewer carrying effluents from homes, commercial establishments and industries in north Chennai.
I was in the neighbourhood with four local high-school children, three girls and a boy. J Janani, 17, a Kargil Nagar resident, remembers the 2015 floods vividly. Buckingham Canal breached its banks and emptied the rainwater-laced effluents into their homes, she says. The road separating Kargil Nagar from the Canal is at least three feet above the homes in the area. So the waters that came in could not drain out, leaving residents stranded in a noxious soup for more than a week.
But both she and her younger friend K Hairunnisha, who lives in nearby Jothi Nagar, agreed that there were worse places than Kargil Nagar across the road. They led the way to the busy, dusty Ennore-Manali expressway pointing to a bus stop across the road. “That’s our bus stop to school,” says Hairunnisha a.k.a Nisha. An endless stream of heavy diesel vehicles, buses, container lorries, oil and gas tankers and large trailer trucks trundled by spewing smoke and kicking up dust from the potholes and the edges of the expressway. If the pollution does not kill you, a speeding truck is quite likely to do the job.
“It is horrible on our way back from school. There is heavy smoke. Sometimes, in the mornings, we cannot even see across the road. The smoke is so thick,” Nisha says. Dodging lorries, we crossed the road and walked along a mud road flanked by homes and small-scale scrap iron smelters. A mound of plastic bags tied at the neck and dumped at the edge of the street had leaked out suspicious looking sludge. One of the youth enlightened me that this was faeces-rich silt removed from clogged sewers in the city that had been transported all the way here to be dumped alongside the canal.
The girls were taking us to an “iron bridge” across the canal from where we would see Sadayankuppam – the place even more unfortunate than Kargil Nagar.
A flight of steel stairs leads to a concrete bridge that serves as a great vantage point. Pointing to the west, Nisha says, “That is Sadayankuppam. Rescue boats were sailing above all those buildings,” she said. Reportedly, there was more than 15 feet of water at this point.
Sadayankuppam was located where the Kosasthalaiyar River emptied into the Ennore Creek before turning north for its final run to the Bay of Bengal. This was the confluence for floodwaters from three directions, including the Manali marshlands to the south. The marshlands are no more.
The thick oily film on the canal’s surface gives away the source of pollution. In the 1960s, the Public Sector Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited set up an oil refinery. It now processes more than 10.5 million tonnes of crude oil annually, and has spawned an “ecosystem” of petrochemical companies, which includes 21 large hazardous industries.
The view to the south from the bridge is a panorama of electric transmission towers, factory chimneys, flare towers and industrial piping. Three flares were burning bright orange. “They burn all the time. One time, early in the morning, when my friends were playing in a nearby ground, the flares stopped burning. Walkers and children who were playing felt a choking sensation and many collapsed to the ground,” says 17-year-old G Santosh.
Santosh and his friends took us to the playground, which is one of many inside a government-run market of iron and steel wholesalers. “This is a happening place on weekends. Every street corner, every empty plot is occupied by children playing cricket,” says Dr S Vishwaja, a young dentist-turned-activist, who is part of a local youth collective called Chennai Climate Action Group. The most sought after playground was the size of a field hockey ground. Three flaming flare towers leaned malevolently over a compound separating the ground from CPCL.
“It is always polluted, but sometimes major leaks happen,” my young guides informed me. They know all about ammonia, sulphur dioxide and dust not from textbooks, but just by breathing the air. In May 2020, a major leak of ammonia from Madras Fertilisers Ltd sent local residents into a panic. Despite police complaints, no corrective action is known to have been taken.
Seppakkam is photogenic in a dystopic way. The approach road to this village of 60 homes is ominously named the Ash Pipeline Road. The grey of coal ash is everywhere. Ageing leaky pipelines carrying a slurry of seawater and ash conveys the toxic payload from the North Chennai Thermal Power Station to ash dykes spread over more than 1,000 acres.
The backwaters of the Kosasthalaiyar River along the Ennore Creek are smothered under a carpet of ash several feet thick. Where once there were mangroves and waters abounding in fish, crab and shrimp, there is now a deathly grey wasteland. Further west, the pipelines run past the Electricity Board’s pumphouse and turn north along the ash dyke’s western bund to climb up to the point of discharge into the dyke.
The village, or what’s left of it, stands in a tight cluster a few 100 metres before the pipelines climb the 15-foot bund to disgorge their ash into the dyke. The pipeline’s route is a trail of destruction. The village is surrounded by water. What ash is outside water is caked dry, and what is under is slushy quicksand.
Even 20 years ago, this was a freshwater region. But now tens of acres of land marked as “scrub jungle” in the Survey of India topo sheet are a saline wetland. The original scrub is long gone. The water’s edges are marked by thickets of seepweed locally known as Umari chedi, a halophyte or salt-water loving plant. Only the dessicated stumps of the hardy Prosopis juliflora (known in Hindi as Vilayati Babul) stand, serving as perches for the occasional egret or painted stork.
An abandoned village, with a few dilapidated buildings sticking out of several feet of water, marks the entrance to the settlement. A slushy path leads up to the 15 metre bund of the ash dyke. In the distance, a fly ash dust devil moves rapidly and disappears as the devil drops.
It is hard to believe 46-year-old M Venkatesan. “All this was fertile paddy lands. And then there were the salt fields and then the river. We had an unlimited supply of sweet fresh water just a few feet below the surface,” he says, sweeping his hands in an arc to cover the bleak landscape occupied by the ash dyke and the spilled ash. “All that disappeared in just 25 years.”
In the early 1990s, Venkatesan’s father Munisamy’s homestead was acquired for the ash pond. The replacement house built for Munisamy is among the 60-odd structures that were abandoned after saline ash slurry from leaking pipes flooded the homes and ate into the concrete and the foundations.
Now, Venkatesan and his neighbours are squatters in their own village. Water for drinking and household needs is a challenge. A corporate donor built a 2,000 litre per day Reverse Osmosis plant. But if it is to be operated, all appliances in the village have to be turned off. The village does not have reliable three-phase electricity. “We only have single-phase connections. We have been petitioning the electricity board, but they want money and we cannot afford it,” Venkatesan says. That is ironic considering that their village was sacrificed for the promise of electricity.
“You should mention Seppakkam as the worst living place in your article,” says 28-year-old Elaya Selvi. Just talking about the living conditions was enough to get this mother of three children visibly agitated. Seppakkam is not part of Swachh Bharat, it would appear. Elaya’s home got a government-aided toilet six months ago, and a septic tank three months ago. The two are yet to be connected. “This has to be among the worst places for women to live. The ash has denuded the area of all vegetation. We have no sheltered place to use to answer nature’s calls. During our monthly periods, it is miserable, and if it rains then it is hell,” she says.
The natural channel that drains the village is choked with ash. Even a light shower is enough to flood homes with ash-laced water.
Dry weather brings a different set of problems as the ash gets airborne and invades every place. Elaya complains that ash gets even into closed water containers and settles as a film on the surface; and washed clothes are coated with ash when they are hung out to dry.
For children, too, life is bleak. “Forget games and play. We are too scared to let our children out of our sights. Just a few weeks back, a 7-year-old boy who went out to play got sucked waist deep into ash and had to be rescued,” Elaya says.
Children in Seppakkam play an eerie game. They jump up and down on the squelchy ash fields even as it yields and rebounds like a trampoline chanting “Thala thala bhoomi; thallatha bhoomi” (Squelchy, squelchy earth; unyielding earth).
Skin diseases, heart problems and breathing disorders are rampant, locals say.
The villagers have been begging to be evicted and relocated to a safe place. Last September, they headloaded their belongings and threatened to abandon their homes after a massive leak flooded their homes with ash slurry. Senior officials from TANGEDCO, Tamil Nadu’s electricity utility, rushed down to pacify them and promised to repair the pipelines, desilt the storm water channel and build a fabric screen to keep the dust out.
But routine pollution aside, the village is directly in harm’s way. The impoundment structures holding the ash dykes together are of questionable integrity. According to an expert committee report submitted to the National Green Tribunal on a case demanding the clean-up of spilled ash, the dykes hold more than 18 million cubic metres. If the impoundment structures fail, and the contents spill out, Ennore Creek will be history. 18 million cubic metres is enough to bury an area as large as New Delhi under a foot of ash.
The ash pond is illegal, and TANGEDCO’s operations are in violation of the Air and Water Acts. The utility’s environmental clearance requires the power plant to ensure 100% fly ash utilisation, and for the pond to be lined and used only in emergencies. Over the years, fly ash spills from the pipes and the ash pond has spread over more than 1,700 acres of the Ennore Creek and Kosasthalaiyar River’s backwaters.
More than two years ago, the NGT ordered remediation and a stop to all pollution. Neither the NGT nor TANGEDCO seem too concerned that the order is being violated. Meanwhile, TANGEDCO is building two new coal-fired power plants with the same promise of 100% fly ash utilisation, and emergency storage of ash in a lined ash pond. The ash from these plants, too, are destined for this illegal ash pond.
The international discourse on the climate crisis makes it appear as though apocalypse is around the corner, in the not-so-distant future. This hides the fact that entire sub-populations – of indigenous people, communities of colour, and Dalits and OBCs – within countries and cities are living in a disaster already.