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Toxic Tours

Toxic Tours - VII: Why Vaideyee the fisherman will probably end up in a Chennai slum

By Shailendra Yashwant

Over 100 hamlets of estuarine fisherfolk thrived on the banks of the Uppanar in Tamil Nadu. But that was before the Cuddalore SIPCOT industrial estate altered the riverine eco-system, poisoned the river, killed the fish and robbed Vaideyee and his community of fisherfolk of their traditional livelihoods

Photograph by Shailendra Yashwant

I love boat rides but the kattumaram (catamaran) put at my disposal looked too fragile and unstable even to me. It floated like a surfboard on the Uppanar estuary off the east coast near Cuddalore, in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian east coast is an intricate network of estuaries, deltas, creeks, lagoons, salt-marshes, sanctuaries and coral reefs that serve as a natural breeding ground and habitat for various species of fish. It also protects the coast from the ravages of storms and inhibits erosion. This coast, with its unique topography, shelters lakhs and feeds millions of people through fisheries and agriculture.

I was there to study the impact of SIPCOT (State Industry Promotion Corporation Of Tamil Nadu Pvt Ltd) on the surrounding region, especially the fishing communities of Uppanar.

Vaideyee, the fisherman who took in the weight of all my camera gear, was kind enough to understand my lack of faith in the fragile craft I was confronted with. He called for another kattumaram, tying the two together so that I could free-float down-river on a raft, down to the creeks where the SIPCOT factories release their effluents.

The Cuddalore SIPCOT industrial estate is about 50 kms south of Pondicherry and 40 kms north of Chidambaram, the famous abode of the dancing Shiva. Surrounded by sugarcane, peanut and rice fields and casuarina plantations, the industrial estate sits on the Uppanar River, which provides a convenient outflow for the inevitable cocktail of effluents. Which is probably why SIPCOT invited chemical and pharmaceutical industries on a preferential basis. Bayer, JK Pharma Ltd, SPIC Ltd, Tanfac Ltd, Pentasia Chemicals, Square D Biotech Ltd and Shashun Chemicals Ltd are some of the industries situated in Phase-I of the estate while plans are afoot to set up a huge PVC manufacturing and processing facility in Phase-II, amongst other plants.

Long before the industrial complex was set up here, over 100 hamlets of estuarine fisherfolk thrived on the banks of the Uppanar. Vaideyee, my fisherman friend from a small hamlet called Sonamchavadi, was one of them. He follows the family tradition and uses cast-nets to catch his share of the rapidly-dwindling fish population in the Uppanar. Through generations of interaction with the river and other elements of nature, communities like his have played a significant role in protecting and preserving the local ecosystems. These are the communities that are being marginalised today and pushed to extinction by the faulty model of development that the State is foisting upon them in the name of liberalisation and free market ideology. Along with the community the unique eco-system is being destroyed too.

Cuddalore last hit the headlines a few years ago when over 39 fishermen were washed away in a cyclone. Otherwise this small port town in Tamil Nadu leads a quiet existence marred only by occasional stories about drug-running and factional Tamil politics. Sonamchavadi, the fishing hamlet, is lesser-known and like thousands of others along the east coast from the Sunderbans to Kanyakumari, lives off a mixed fishing economy.

Sonamchavadi comprises about 80 mud houses with the Mariamma temple, the omnipresent goddess of rural south India, at its centre. Although the village is in the precincts of soon-to-be-developed Phase-II of SIPCOT, its residents have already felt the devastating impact of the effluents from Phase-I.

Fishermen, who have to wade through water, showed me strange boil-like eruptions on their bodies which they blame on the pollution caused by the Phase-I factories. Others showed me their yellowing nets which they said didn't last like they used to, and still others showed me black tar-like leachates found in the bottom-soil of the river. Almost all agreed that the dramatic drop in fish catch was due to the change in the aquatic system of the river where fish-kills are apparently common. The local economy which had sustained them for generations suddenly seemed to be going awry and the once thriving community was being pushed below the poverty line.

Which explained the apparent confusion over resistance to the development of phase-II, especially the proposed PVC plant. Most men agreed that if they got jobs at the factory, they had no problems. Others emphatically cited their experience of Phase-I, and said that the factories wanted only skilled labour. The women were mostly concerned about the health of the river -- their mother -- but doubted that she would be able to sustain them any longer.

The people in Sonamchavadi had little or no interaction with the rest of the population affected by the development of Phase-II because of the rigid caste structure of the region. In fact, the alienation caused by the caste system was so complete that many well-meaning NGOs were finding it difficult to get the local population to attend the same meeting to discuss local development issues. To top all that, the presidents of the local Panchayat Samitis were totally clueless or deliberately secretive about their stance vis-a-vis the proposed factories and action against the existing polluting industries.

Back on the river, we saw a kingfisher diving into the river for its breakfast. We encountered many other fishermen on our journey down to the polluted creeks, some with cast-nets and others with gill-nets, some wading through water feeling for fish; others laying pots for crabs and even a couple of old ladies who had thrown in a line with a hook and were sitting patiently on small islands in the river. The catch ranged from shrimp, prawn and catfish to a variety of small silvery estuarine fish. But the prize catch of bottom-dwelling fish like Kezhangan, Udupullati and Irunpalathi is extinct today, thanks to the effluents from the industrial estate.

As we cruised further down the river, my friends explained to me that the fishing community and local population had been systematically alienated from their own land and each other to pave the way for 'development'. The local population had nothing to gain from 'development'. Those who profited from it sat far away and didn't know or give a damn about Vaideyee and his community.

The colour of the Uppanar changed to deep black as we approached the SIPCOT Phase-I estate, where we met the effluent creek. Vaideyee's frustration and anger were apparent. To demonstrate how the effluents had killed his beloved river, he threw his cast-net in and withdrew it to show me a small catch of very dead fish.

On our way back, sipping coconuts that he and his friends had actually stolen from one of the factory gardens to offer us, I asked Vaideyee what he planned to do if the catch continued to dwindle. He told me shame-facedly that he had been speaking to his relatives in Chennai. They live in a ghastly slum and work as coolies but at least they brought home enough money to manage one meal a day.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)