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Behind The Destruction Of Ennore-Pulicat Wetlands Lies A History Of Exploitation

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Ennore Creek, situated at the interface of Pulicat Lake and the Kosasthalaiyar River, was once an estuary on Chennai’s northern shoreline. Today, it is surrounded by factories, coal-fired thermal power plants and two industrial ports that threaten the natural resources and livelihoods of residents.

Add to this list the proposed expansion of the Kattupalli port by Marine Infrastructure Development and Private Limited, a subsidiary of Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd (APSEZ), and what you have is an impending disaster at hand.

Chennai Port
Representative Image. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Kattupalli Port Revised Master Plan envisions expanding the port to a total area of 2472.85 hectares. The expansion would include 136.28 hectares of the existing area, 927.11 hectares of government land and 613.31 hectares of private land. It also envisages reclaiming 796.15 hectares of land from the sea following dredging, covering an area with mangroves, wetlands, water bodies like the Ennore Creek, Pulicat Lake, Kosasthalaiyar River and Buckingham Canal.

The exploitation of this zone, however, goes back to colonial times, and to understand what is going on in the area today, the current movement against the Kattupalli port expansion needs to be seen in the context of this, especially the historical construction of North Madras and the industrialisation process that has taken place here.

Colonisation And The Historical Construction Of Madras

The Dutch had established themselves in Pazhaverkadhu (Pulicat) village in 1602 and established a port, which was completed in 1613. “In 1620, the Britishers came and settled in one end of the Pulicat Lagoon, which is currently called Durga Raya Patnam (Armagon),” says Xavier Benedict, an architect.

Benedict adds that there was a constant fight between the Dutch and the British. The British found that they couldn’t berth their ships in that area and moved to Madras. According to Benedict, that is how the history of the city started in 1639.

Thus, the construction of Madras, a city of fishing villages, proceeds when Francis Day and Andrew Cogan acquire a “strip of sandy land” from Damarla Venkatadri Nayak, the Vijayanagar Empire’s “Governor” of the coast from Pulicat to San Thome.

The area signed off in the agreement was called Hog Hills (now called Nari Medhu), a region between the old Elambore and Cooum river. There was a small Island, which was given to the British East India Company. Fort St George, which was predominantly meant for the White people, was built, and the city expanded.

The Black Town was planned exclusively to settle the working-class indigenous people whom the Britishers needed.

The French invasion occurred in 1747 and subsequently, the siege of Madras followed between 1758 and 1759. Author and historian Nivedita Louis says, “Before leaving, the French razed down the Old Black Town, probably in retaliation. Almost all the buildings, except the Monegar Choultry, were demolished.”

She added that the Britishers came back to build a High Court in the Old Black Town and the adjacent area, which is currently Parry’s Corner, was the New Black Town.

Boat River Birds
Representative Image.

The Britishers didn’t want any building in the vicinity of the White Town, as they wanted a clear firing range. They decided to build a wall, which started the “Wall of Madras” project. “The indigenous people living there did not want the wall. This wall was supposed to be a divide between the portion of the city towards the north and the south. So, anybody who was to bring any goods to the city had to cross the wall and pay a tax. And that is how the ‘Wall Tax’ came up,” says Louis.

Slowly, when they started to expand the New Black Town area, they resettled the people living in paracheri (which was in the Old Black Town earlier) to the outer part of the wall of Madras. Similarly, the boatsmen who had been brought from Durga Raya Patnam were also moved out. This was because the Customs House, initially in the White Town area, was shifted out of the Fort to the north.

“Now we see that the people from paracheri were moved out, and after the shift of the Customs House, almost all of the boatsmen were also moved out. We can see a pattern here. Anyone who is doing a menial job is shifted to the north of the wall,” says Louis.

Most of these areas now came under the control of the Chettys, Pillais and Mudalis, who constituted the moneyed-class. They felt that the accessibility to the White Town was much easier if they lived in this new black town. Only when the wealthy people settled here did all the basic facilities, such as sewage and the lighting system, show up.

The pakka houses were being constructed and the government was collecting taxes for building the houses. “Once the labour-class was booted out, the government was willing to give the space to the wealthy people, who were ready to pay the tax and build their houses,” says Louis. That is how we see an entire shift of the labour-class people moving to the north and the wealthy coming and settling in the new black town part.

Now towards the north, lived the working-class people, in the middle or in the New Black Town, lived the moneyed upper-caste people; and then down south, lived those from the wealthy class. “This is how the growth has been from the north to the south. You have the oppressed caste, the middle-caste and the upper-caste,” says Louis.

The Process Of Industrialisation

Fishermen river boat
Representative Image.

Karen Coelho, an urban anthropologist, writes that apart from “a large textile mill, railway coach factory and a few tanneries”, the British didn’t focus on extensive industrial activity. When the British started the railways, Perambur was the first place wherein a labour union was started.

Louis says, “The entire labour movement of the Madras Presidency took place here and it slowly spread across North Madras, where most of the working-class people lived.” 

The Dalit community members formed the majority of the working-class population. Shalin Mariam Lawrence, author and historian, says, “It was a big thing for trade unions to come at that time and the people from oppressed classes to be a part of that.” With the construction of the BNC mill, the Buckingham Canal, and the railways, though many North Madras community members were employed, they were only given jobs of cleaning, collecting and throwing coal, etc.

“The Britishers didn’t want to eradicate the caste system, they only wanted to exploit the labour. Whoever was a Dalit, they had to be a manual scavenger. The British were working with the same mindset as that of an upper-caste person,” says Lawrence.

As witnessed in the northern parts of the city like Ennore and Pulicat today, the process of industrialisation has its foundations laid in the caste system and colonial imperial growth of the urban city of Madras.

According to Coelho, only by following the “colonial geographies” did we see the establishment of “a batch of oil refineries, fertiliser and petrochemical factories, and a thermal power plant” at the Ennore-Manali industrial corridor in the 1960s. There was a proposal to set up a refinery and CPCL, a petrochemical refinery, which became one of the first industries to come up. Around the same time, the Ennore Thermal Power Station was also set up.

Ennore-Pulicat: Then And Now

“Refineries usually create an ecosystem around them, wherein things that come out of the refineries, which are considered to be waste, act as raw materials for other industries. For example, the whole system of industries like that of pharmaceuticals, dye chemicals, pesticides and plastics, come up next to a refinery. When you set up a refinery, you know that you will be having the industrialisation of the dirtiest kind,” says Jayaraman.

The Ennore-Manali industrial cluster hosts almost 34 red-category industries. It also has the largest garbage dump in Kodungaiyur. The kinds of industries that have been set up are extremely damaging to the land. Most of the working-class and historically oppressed people made their living off the land.

The coming of the industries also meant that the existing occupations of farming and fishing were wiped out in that area. “In one city, within a distance of 25 kms, we have three ports. We have the Madras Harbour, the Kamarajar Port and we have the L&T shipbuilding yard com port,” says Jayaraman.

Fisherman river boat
Representative Image.

There was forceful eviction of the people living in the Kattupalli seaside village to make way for the L&T port in 2008. It was bifurcated in 2018. The northern breakwater and the land associated with that was handed over to Adani, and the southern one remains with L&T. Adani wants to expand the existing port and wants to go 6 kms north, build a wall and build a breakwater and take over 2,000 acres of sea and take over 4,000 acres of land.

According to Jayaraman, this form of development is not geared towards improving the lives of the people. Instead, the entire design is to secure capital. “It robs livelihoods and compensates with a few jobs, usually those jobs are insecure, they may be hazardous and they are poorly paid, with no rights for the workers,” he adds.

The public hearing regarding the Kattupalli port expansion had been scheduled for 22 January. However, it was postponed citing reasons of COVID protocol. In March, the government of Tamil Nadu moved an application to reduce the eco-sensitive zone from 10 km to 500 m. Experts say the move would benefit Adani to expand the project within the 10 km of the Pulicat Sanctuary.

Adani furthermore has been wanting the GoI to declare the 7.7 sq km of the sea around the Kattupalli port as a “no fishing zone“. The reason cited was that the fishing boats and nets were hazardous to the ships, hence a “safety concern”.

Adani wants to take over almost 3,200 acres of wetlands. Wetlands cannot be taken over that easily. The port is also set up in an area that is eroding rapidly. “The GOI law says that you cannot locate a port in a high eroding area. This area is eroding at the rate of 8 meters a year. High erosion is defined as a one-meter area. So, there is eight times more rapid erosion than what the GOI sets as a threshold,” says Jayaraman.

Therefore, the current movement against the Kattupalli port expansion needs to be seen in the context of the historical construction of North Madras and the industrialisation process that has taken place here.

According to Jayaraman, it is a land-use change issue. “Local people are fighting against land degrading activities,” he says. Adani has termed these lands as being empty and unused.

In another paper, Coehlo discusses that in the contemporary imagination of urban spaces, “ecological value” is associated with “eco-restoration” projects in the city, whereas the canals and creeks are sidelined and considered to have a high real-estate value. This form of devaluation and subsequent land capture by private enterprises for injecting “value” into it, not only degrades the land but also destroys the identities and livelihoods of the working-class population depending on the land.

“When they take away our land, they take over our culture and everything. The diversity goes away, right?” says Lawrence.

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