Pulicat in peril

Print edition : June 10, 2000

The biodiversity-rich Pulicat lagoon system, which sustains more than one lakh people, faces a serious threat from development projects, including a thermal power station.

OVER a lakh people in 52 villages around the biodiversity-rich Pulicat lagoon and its waterspread, some 60 km from Chennai, are in imminent danger of losing their means of livelihood. Thousands of acres of land has been cleared for three projects, the North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS), the Ennore Satellite Port and a petrochemicals complex, which are progressively damaging the Pulicat ecosystem, stretching across 40 km from Ennore (20 km north of Chennai) to Pazhaverkadu. And there is no official word as yet on relief to the affected people.



Slurry containing toxic flyash is discharged into the Pulicat lagoon system from the North Chennai Thermal Power Station.

The 18,440-hectare Pulicat lagoon, which runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal across the Tamil Nadu-Andhra Pradesh border, is the second largest brackish water lagoon in the country. At the southern end, it opens into the Bay of Bengal, which is separated from it by a narrow strip of land. The Buckingham Canal, which runs parallel to the Coromandel coast, passes through the southern end. A creek joins the Buckingham Canal and the rest of the lagoon system near Ennore. Four rivers, the Swarnamukhi, the Kalangi, the Araniar and the Royyala Kalava, open into the shallow lake, which has an average depth of 1.5 metres.

Receiving a perennial supply of freshwater from the rivers, Pulicat is endowed with diverse natural resources, which include aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora. Its soil varies from sandy, clayey to fine alluvial. Its aquatic resources include white and tiger prawns, mud and lagoon crabs, mullets and catfish, edible oyster, and clam varieties such as Meretrix casta. Its rich fauna comprises rare and endangered reptiles, insects, amphibians, snakes, sea-turtles, birds and mammals. It is home to 50 species of water birds. Its natural plant species include mangroves and herbs and cultivated crops such as cashew, paddy, fruits and vegetables.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) recently declared the Pulicat lagoon system a Ramsar site of international importance and the World Wide Fund for Nature declared it a protected area. According to the 1991 Coastal Regulation Zone notification, "the coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwaters influenced by tidal action in the landward side up to 500 metres from the high tide line and the land between the high tide line and the low tide line are classified as CRZ I" and must be protected. As per this notification, the entire Pulicat water system, including the lagoon, the Ennore Creek and the Buckingham Canal, is designated CRZ I.

The Coastal Action Network (CAN) is a non-governmental organisation that studies development activities along the Tamil Nadu coast. Its reading is that the North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) and the Ennore Satellite Port pose a grave threat to this ecosystem. According to former Joint Director of the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department, A. Sreenivasan, who is also a member of the CAN expert committee, which studied the pollution problem in the Pulicat system, the NCTPS and the port have been built in the CRZ I area. The clearance for the NCTPS was secured prior to the 1991 CRZ I notification, and ports are allowed within CRZ I area. According to Dr. M. Arunachalam, who is an environmental scientist at the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University and member of the CAN expert committee, the projects violate several other laws, including the 1986 Environment Protection Act.

A petrochemical industrial complex in the biodiversity-rich Kattupalli panchayat and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal coming up close to the Ennore port are expected to make matters worse. According to ecologist P.J. Sanjeeva Raj, who has studied the Pulicat ecosystem since the 1970s, the projects would destroy the rich ecological diversity and the livelihood systems of the local people. An INSAT-1D satellite picture of the area, taken in January, shows large-scale sedimentation, which signifies a disaster-in-the-making along the coast.

The 630-MW NCTPS, set up by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), draws 44 lakh litres of freshwater from the Ennore Creek and lets out hot coolant water into the Buckingham Canal and discharges toxic flyash, in the form of slurry, into the lagoon system. Despite precipitators and chemical filters, the flyash contains toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, manganese, fluorine and beryllium. Flyash is specially harmful as it can be inhaled and can lead to permanent respiratory disorders, dermatitis, asthma, bronchitis and cancer. The silica in flyash could cause silicosis.

CAN members estimate that the NCTPS discharges every day 3,000 tonnes of flyash into the three ponds, which cover 311 hectares; earlier flyash was let into the sea. Five pipelines carry the flyash slurry into the primary pond; four to the secondary pond; and three to the tertiary pond. Two outlets from the primary pond and one each from the secondary and tertiary ponds are connected to the backwaters of Kattupalli, near Oornamedu.

During the dry season, the wind dusts the saltpans and the rich vegetation around the lake with flyash, which also causes siltation in the lake. In Athipattu village, 10 km from the NCTPS, the contamination of saltpans has forced people to give up their occupation.

Following protests by the people of Pulicat, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) issued a notice to the NCTPS against dumping flyash slurry near the saltpans. This was referred to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which constituted a solid waste management authority. But nothing has happened after that.

The discharge of the hot coolant water and the flyash has created an algal bloom, which gets entangled with fishing nets and damages them. The fishermen of Light House Kuppam, for instance, travel 25 km to fish in Andhra Pradesh, but this often leads to clashes with the local people.

According to CAN, the NCTPS has no cooling towers. The hot coolant water from the plant is discharged directly into the Buckingham Canal. Where the discharge enters the sea, there is no sign of marine life. Fishermen have reported this to the Director of Fisheries. According to Sanjeeva Raj, higher temperatures accelerate the metabolic activity of organisms, reducing the solubility of oxygen in water. This leads to oxygen depletion and results in the death of aquatic life.

The Secretary to the Tamil Nadu Department of Environment and Forests, K.S. Sripathy, denied that the temperature of the coolant water discharged was higher than the water drawn by the NCTPS. Studies by S.K. Sundar Raj, Professor of Zoology, Madras Christian College, show the temperature of the discharged water to be 40 Celsius. According to CAN, the MoEF permitted a temperature difference of 10 Celsius between the outlet and the inlet water (earlier the permissible difference was less than 5 Celsius).

Even 5 km from the plant the ground is covered by a layer of coal dust. Mounds of flyash and coal dust have collected close to the sea and water system. According to CAN, mangroves are vanishing rapidly in Athipattu village, which is close to the NCTPS. Sripathy agreed that all thermal power projects had a problem with flyash. Even though the TNPCB was the monitoring authority, it pleaded helplessness as it has no prosecuting powers. A senior government official admitted that the hot coolant water from the NCTPS affected marine life and that the Department of Environment and Forests was collecting data on this.

The NCTPS also causes problems while drawing water. The opening of the large duct by the power station to draw fresh water has led to a virtual extinction of fish resources at several places. Also, aquatic organisms and shrimp fry get beached and perish on the shores of the lake as it is drawn towards the sea. The lake is an excellent nursery for aquatic animals. The aquatic organism spawn in the lake and fry hatch out and return to the sea with the tide, completing a lifecycle. When this cycle gets affected, it destroys aquatic life-forms on a large scale.

The Ennore Satellite Port, a sheltered harbour facility, further compounds the problem. By the year-end (when fully operational), it would handle about 16.12 tonnes of coal, which is the daily requirement for the NCTPS and the thermal power stations at Ennore and Mettur. Over 440 hectares have been acquired for the port, which has been hailed as a corporate port. The first phase of its work, at a cost of Rs.927.10 crores, consists of the construction of a coal jetty, a wharf and an entrance channel and related dredging operations. In the second phase, while the government will put up common facilities, private users will build berths on a build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) basis.

The main construction work includes two berths for handling coal vessels up to 65,000 dead weight tonnage (DWT), dredging for the approach channel and harbour basin, onshore civil works, navigational aids, and two breakwaters - 4 km in the north side and 1 km in the south - close to the NCTPS and the Ennore Creek.

According to CAN, 13 million cubic metres of soil is to be dredged for the 16-metre-deep access-channel. Some 3.17 million cubic metres of sand and clay have been dumped into the sea, the nearby waterbodies, backwaters and salt marshes. The large-scale dredging has caused sea erosion, the effects of which are felt up to Pazhaverkadu, 40 km away; a large number of houses and even a couple of hamlets have been engulfed by the sea.

The construction of the breakwaters has caused the ingression of the sea 50 metres into the mainland that separates the Pulicat lagoon system and the sea. Koraikuppam and eight other fishing hamlets in the Pazhaverkadu area, which is home to an over 20,000-strong fishing community, form an island with the sea on the east side and the lagoon on the west. Sea erosion has affected these hamlets severely. For example, a community well, which was once in the centre of Koraikuppam village, is now 50 metres inside the sea. The village itself is shrinking rapidly and is now less than 75 metres wide. Soon, the people fear, the hamlet would be engulfed by the sea. The same is the case with Sattankuppam, which has lost two streets to the sea, displacing 56 families; over 115 families from this village moved to Edamanikuppam last year after their houses were washed away. In Vairavankuppam, 30 metres of the mainland is under water. Parts of Thirumalainagar, Nanduvanmathakup-pam, Therasakuppam and Kasikoil are under sea.

The construction of the Ennore Satellite Port has also choked the mouth of the Ennore Creek where the Kortalaiyar joins the sea. This not only prevents the river from entering the sea, but also turns the waterbody into a cesspool of stagnant water. This, in turn, affects drawal of water by the NCTPS, forcing it to turn to the Pulicat lagoon.

An effect of pollution, the dead fish in Ennore creek.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The flyash and hot coolant water from the NCTPS as also sea erosion caused by the port construction have led to a dramatic fall in the fish catch. Tiger prawn, mud crabs, threadfin fish and bhetki, which were found in plenty some years ago, have become scarce. The current fish stock is far below the carrying capacity of the lake. Even at a low rate of about 200 kg of seafood per hectare, the 50,000-hectare Pulicat lagoon system ought to carry about 10,000 tonnes of seafood. But, according to experts, the lagoon, in most parts, carries hardly 5 per cent of its capacity.

Kottaikuppam Fishermen Coope-rative Society president S. Rajasekaran said: "While we earned about Rs.2,000 from a single catch before, we hardly get Rs.200 now." Most big fish have vanished and those that remain are stunted, with the mangroves, their feeding and breeding ground, severely damaged. Rajasekaran's family has been fishing in the Pulicat lagoon for generations. Until the early 1990s, the family's annual earnings exceeded Rs.1 lakh, but they are less than Rs.10,000 today. Rajasekaran said: "Ours is a double dilemma: our livelihood systems are depleting rapidly, and we also live in the constant fear of being engulfed by the sea."

It is a tragic situation for the over 5,000 people who came to Pazhaverkadu in 1985, after being evicted from Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, at the time of the construction of the rocket-launching station. They survived the social tensions caused by the encroachment on their resources. C. Chokalingam of Goonankuppam said: "We feel like refugees in our own country. We do not know where we will go. The government is not even thinking of an alternative accommodation for us."

In 1990-91, following a clash in which six fishermen were killed, a compromise plan allowing only 60 fishermen to enter the sea each day was worked out. This arrangement worked for a short time. Soon everyone was affected by problems caused by the NCTPS and the Ennore Satellite Port. J. Sathi of Sembasipallikuppam said: "But, now, even the limited resources are vanishing rapidly and we all have been pushed to the wall. We have tightened our belts so much that any further tightening would kill us."

Chennai Port Trust Chief Engineer M.P. Kanagasabai agreed that the port construction has caused sea erosion and impacted upon the lives of the Pulicat fishermen. He said that 'computer-simulated mathematical models' were being worked out to mitigate the effects of the erosion. But Rajasekaran is sceptical; he says that "by the time the study is over, we would all be dead."

According to the September 1997 Environment Impact Assessment Rules, a public hearing is mandatory. But Ennore Satellite Port officials claim that as the land was acquired and clearance from the MoEF received in 1992, it is exempt from this rule.

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corp-oration (TIDCO), in its newfound role as a facilitator of industrial parks, is acquiring 2,900 hectares for the proposed Rs.6,000-crore petrochemicals industrial park. This will include 600 hectares for constructing additional berths at the Ennore Satellite Port to serve the units set up at the park. The petrochemicals complex will extend across Kalaanji, Kattupalli, Chintamanipuram, Kattu-pallikuppam, Puzhuthivakkam and Vayalar villages of Kattupalli panchayat. Kattupalli panchayat, bound by the Bay of Bengal in the east, the Buckingham Canal in the west, the Pulicat lagoon in the north and the Ennore Creek in the south, is unique for its multi-ecosystem. The area's rich ecology includes sandy stretches, abundant with casuarina groves, fine organically rich soil for farming and mangroves. Besides rare plant species of medicinal value, a wild rice relative in semi-aquatic form also grows in the area. Paddy, vegetables and fruits are cultivated on isolated patches. The region, which has several freshwater ponds, is also rich in fauna.

Fishing communities are in dire straits following severe depletion of aquatic resources in and around Pulicat.-S. THANTHONI

Private and poramboke land apart, TIDCO has acquired 468 hectares on the west and 288 hectares on the east of the Buckingham Canal, besides farmlands and wetlands. Over 12 hectares of saltpan area has been acquired for the approach road; another 160 hectares of saltpan area is in the process of being taken over by the Chennai Port Trust.

In the first phase of the petrochemicals project, 12 large units, including power, petrochemicals and oil, are to be set up. The 1,875-MW gas-based power project involves putting up an LNG terminal to receive 2.5 million tonnes per annum. TIDCO is yet to get an environmental clearance for the project. On March 27, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, however, announced with much fanfare the setting up of the petrochemicals complex.

The CRZ notification prohibits any industrial activity within 500 m of the high tide line. The proposed petrochemicals complex is hardly a kilometre from the CRZ I area. According to Sripathy, as per the district coastal zone map, the petrochemicals park does not fall within the 500-metre CRZ regulation. But, as per the September 1996 CRZ amendment notification, the Buckingham Canal is considered a CRZ I area and no development activity should be permitted on either of its banks. The petrochemicals park falls within this area. According to TIDCO officials, the MoEF has classified the area from CRZ I to CRZ III.

As part of its Environmental Impact Assessment of the project, the TNPCB conducted a public hearing on May 3 at the Tiruvallur Collectorate. The fishermen, NGOs, academics and panchayat presidents of affected villages vociferously objected to the petrochemicals park. While TIDCO General Manager K.R. Viswanathan said a high-level committee has been set up to finalise the sites to relocate those affected in Kattupalli, CAN convenor Jesu Rathnam said that her organisation has planned to challenge the MoEF on the reclassification of the area from CRZ I to CRZ III. According to Tiruvallur district collector S.K. Prabhakar, the proceedings of the public hearing will be passed onto the TNPCB, which would then take appropriate action.

According to K.P. Bhaskar, a land owner of Kattupalli village, the State government invoked Section 17 (emergency powers) of the Land (Acquisition) Act. Of the three fishing villages of Kattupalli panchayat, two (Mukhadwarakuppam and Ennorekuppam) have been acquired and some local people were given jobs at the NCTPS and the port. V. Raju of Kamarajnagarkuppam said: "Now TIDCO is promising us neither jobs nor alternative accommodation." According to TIDCO Chairman R. Gopalan, the displaced families will be given three cents of land elsewhere, but could not be guaranteed jobs.

The fishermen of Kattupallikuppam, the only fishing village left in Kattupalli panchayat, are facing livelihood problems because of the acute fish depletion within 10 metres of the shoreline. According to Dr. Vasanti Devi, former Vice-Chancellor of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, who is a member of the CAN expert committee, this is a direct effect of the pollution caused by the flyash slurry from the NCTPS. Chapakkam village is already drowned in flyash slurry.

According to S. Sekhar of Kamarajnagarkuppam, the fish catch has fallen (he used to earn Rs.400 per net, but now he gets less than Rs.50), there is no work in the cashew plantations or the farmlands (these are being cleared for the petrochemicals complex), and access to the market is hampered. For instance, before the satellite port and the NCTPS came up, the Kattivakkam market, where they sell their catch, was just 8 km away. Now they have to travel 20 km to reach the market. The extra time taken to reach the market affects the freshness of the catch and, in turn, its selling price.

Construction in progress at the Ennore Satellite Port.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The clearing of shrubs, mangroves, cashew and casuarina plantations by TIDCO for the petrochemicals complex has directly affected the lives of 2,250 families in Kattupalli panchayat. According to former Bombay High Court Judge H. Suresh (also a member of the CAN expert committee), who studied the Pulicat pollution problem, once the units are set up their effluents, in all likelihood, will be let into the sea, causing havoc to the environment and the health of the people. It would also lead to the salination of freshwater sources, affecting drinking water and farming practices.

Bhaskar of Kattupalli village alleged that TIDCO is trying to evacuate the panchayat but the people are resisting it. People whose land has already been acquired are yet to be compensated. He said: "TIDCO is offering us a pittance (Rs.75,000 per hectare) for our land. It is going to sell the plots to national and multinational pertochemical majors. So, why not offer us the market value (Rs. 12.5 lakhs per hectare) for the land? Some of us have gone to court."

The people of Pulicat have protested in various ways. They held a demonstration in Chennai in 1996 and 1997, boycotted the 1998 elections, and held a demonstration at Athipattu village, close to the NCTPS entrance, in 1999. J. Sathi said: "Many committees were set up to look into our problems. But nothing happened."

While the government has offered jobs to some people in the port, it is now refusing to make a commitment on giving employment to the displaced people. According to the TIDCO Chairman, the availability of jobs will depend on the private units that will set up shop at the petrochemicals complex.

Realising that the projects cannot be halted, C. Mahendran of Koraikuppam said: "Each affected family should be given a job at the port, the NCTPS or the petrochemical park, and also alternative accommodation." Rajasekaran said: "There is no one to represent our cause. Perhaps, we need a Medha Patkar or an Arundhati Roy to take up our case of blatant human rights violation. Or else, we are doomed."

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