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I visited Ennore in Tamil Nadu for the first time as a part of a “toxic tour” arranged by two organisations in Chennai, i.e. Poovulagin Nanbargal and Chennai Climate Action Group. I was surprised to see the presence of enormous, heavy-duty trucks parked on the right side of the road. Every few minutes, one after the other, these trucks crossed me.
This was a few meters away from Nalla Thanni Odai Kuppam, the settlement where the local community members live. Beyond this settlement was the sea. I had read about the heavy industrialisation of North Madras and the ecological destruction this had caused before, but witnessing it firsthand filled me with immense rage.
By understanding the history of the construction of North Madras, and the continuous assault on the land and its people, it dawned on me how what I was witnessing wasn’t just an environmental issue but one that had its roots in the history of Brahmanism, colonial occupation, and more recently, neoliberal capitalism.
Let me explain. As per history, the existence and rigidity of the caste system and the rule of the brahmin and other savarna community members only helped the white colonisers to further divide and rule. In his book Madras Rediscovered, the author S Muthiah speaks about the establishment of Fort St George by the British and the settler’s houses being constructed to the northern and southern side of the Fort.
This portion was marked as the “White Town” for the white settlers. The “Old Black Town” (which would be today’s High Court Campus) and the “New Black Town” (which forms the George Town area today) were marked for Indian or indigenous community members to settle in.
Muthiah writes, “The ‘urban agglomeration’ of the Fort with ‘White Town’ within and ‘Black Town’ without, was the genesis of today’s metropolis.” He adds, “Meanwhile, the industrial northern and western parts of Madras — constituted largely by Ennore, Tiruvottriyur, Sembium, Avadi and Ambattur — became areas where the auto industry began to develop post-world war II.”
Once the British left, the upper and middle class and caste community members hegemonised and occupied the southern urban and peri-urban parts of Madras, ensuring that the capital accumulated by them in the form of land was circulated within their own caste circles. This led to further ear-marking of North Madras as a sacrificial zone for industrial growth and development, which continues to this day and has only worsened.
Naomi Klein, in her lecture, Let them drown, connected the question of climate with that of occupation. According to her, certain areas are marked as sacrificial zones, wherein massive extraction of natural resources affected the local community members, their cultures and their identities. Klein views climate change as a product of “colonisation, patriarchy and capitalism”.
Borrowing from Klein’s work, I would like to situate the historical construction and degradation of the Ennore-Pulicat region after being marked as a sacrificial zone. The construction of the periphery here is founded on the ethos of ecological casteism and capitalism.
The working-class population living in the Ennore-Pulicat region comprises mostly Dalit, Adivasi and fishing community members. The smoke-filled air, the proliferation of industries, the violations in the emission limits and the erosion of sea structures that I witnessed at the coast are destroying the livelihoods and identities of the local community members.
A recent report called Poison In The Air published by Chennai Climate Action Group verifies empirically that six industries in the Manali-Ennore region have violated their emission limits, further endangering the lives of the working-class population living there. This report also highlighted the increased rate of co-morbidities that were seen in the community members due to their parallel exposure to the threats of Covid-19.
In another article titled A Pulicat Story: The Lagoon That Protects a City, naturalist M Yuvan warns the readers about how the rapid colonisation of the Kattupalli village by the huge port proposed by the Adani group would endanger and bring to extinction the complete area of Pulicat and its people.
When we reached the Burma Nagar ground in Ennore, a strange sight met my eyes. A group of children were playing football to the left of the ground. On the right, a stage was being set up for a rally by the BJP. Beyond the ground stood the giant structure of the Ennore Thermal Power Plant.
Travelling a bit further, at the VLC bridge, in the backwaters of the Ennore creek, a few fishing community members had thrown their nets into the water. Tints of oil spill were visible in the water of the Kosasthalaiyar river. Enclosing the waterbody were the structures of North Chennai Thermal Power Station and Vallur Thermal Power Project.
It struck me how in both the locations of the playground and the flyover bridge, the very place where people live, love, eat and sleep is surrounded and impacted by industries, thermal power plants and refineries.
One of the infamous pieces of evidence for the amount of ecological damage in Ennore is the presence of fly ash ponds. As the name suggests, fly ash is a byproduct of thermal power plants and it spills through the pipes carrying it. I saw the spread of fly ash in Seppakkam. Opposite to the deposit was a small water body. The tour organisers said that nothing, no flora or fauna, could sustain or grow in there.
In 1991, according to the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification, all the state governments were required to prepare coastal zone management plans. These coastal zone management plans are supposed to say how the coastal zone would be used.
Meanwhile, in 1996, the coastal zone management plan under the CRZ notification declared the Ennore-Pulicat region as a “no development zone”. Nityanand Jayaraman, a social activist, says that this map was hidden by 1997 and the development of the industries was permitted in the “no development zone”. “This old map resurfaced in 2017 because we got a copy of it through RTI which was filed,” he says.
Karthik Gunasekar, a volunteer working with Chennai Climate Action Group, says that there were 34 red-category industries in the Ennore-Manali industrial corridor. “We need to question so as to why there are no red-category industries in places like Besant Nagar,” he adds.
For two decades, rampant industrialisation has occurred in an ecologically sensitive and vulnerable area. During this period, the land has been degraded and the working-class population has been at acute climate risk.
Jayaraman says, “With the resurfacing of the original approved map, we understand that the law has been violated, a fraud has been committed, to divert more than 1,500 acres of wetland, over two decades.”