The state of the poromboke lands in Chennai signifies the deteriorating nature of its ecology. Saving them is important not just to preserve a tradition but also to safeguard growing urban spaces.
From its rather benign origins connoting a type of land classification, the term poromboke has transformed into something grotesque over the years. This term had been in use since the Cholas denoting stretches of land reserved for shared communal use which cannot be bought or sold. Tamils, who prided themselves on the richness of their culture assigned a special place for such poromboke lands which helped preserve the region’s ecological balance. Today, poromboke, however, is a mild cuss word for worthlessness and incompetence. How did this metamorphosis happen?
Noted social activist Nityanand Jayaraman traces the origin of the pejoration back to the times of the English East India Company and the British Raj. Poromboke essentially is a conjugation of two Tamil words–Puram meaning outside and pokku which refers to books of accounts. This included rivers and river banks, eris (irrigation tanks), grazing and pasture lands, kazhiveli (marshlands) and salt pans, among others. No single individual or group owned these lands and crops were usually not grown in the common poromboke lands. “As no revenue could be generated from such common lands, the Britishers termed it as wasteland—waste from a revenue point of view,” he says.
With respect diminishing over time, land use was modified to bring poromboke into the revenue fold. Now, Chennai proudly houses education institutions, office and industrial complexes on reclaimed marshlands and creeks. Rivers have turned into garbage dumps, tanks have been filled up to accommodate luxury villas and creeks have been reclaimed to house thermal power complexes. These are all essential buffers which keep the city safe from flooding. And with them gone, the city is all but exposed to the raw fury of nature. “When you consider the massive destruction of common lands, the floods of 2015 can no longer be termed unprecedented. It was very much a premeditated act,” says Nityanand.
The Vettiver Collective, a voluntary space to discuss and act on social and environmental issues, joined hands with noted Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna to highlight the continuing saga of ecological abuse in Ennore. Christened Chennai poromboke padal, the video, shot in and around the Ennore creek and its associated wetlands, questions our (both citizens and administration) understanding and attitude towards poromboke. “Poromboke translates to “commons” in English. But in Tamil, it’s a completely different deal altogether. And, this negativity reflects on how we view poromboke and how we have failed poromboke and the people whose lives are inextricably linked to them,” remarks Krishna.
Here are four prominent poromboke lands which, after having safeguarded Chennai’s ecology for decades, beg for attention now.
1. Ennore creek
Ennore Creek smothered on all sides by Thermal Power Plants
One of the northern-most suburbs of Chennai city, Ennore has been termed Chennai’s “worst environmental crime scene”. Ennore’s air and water have been subject to constant pollution ever since the thermal power plants set up shop in the area. Pipes carrying fly ash from power plants dump their toxic contents in the Ennore creek on which the villagers from three neighbouring hamlets depend on for their livelihoods. As if this weren’t travesty enough, nearly 2000 acres of the wetland complex have been earmarked for reclamation under Chennai’s masterplan, converting vast stretches of the creek into prime industrial real estate.
Ennore creek’s disgrace is only the symptom, according to Nityanand. He squarely blames agencies such as the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the State Coastal Zone Management Authority (SCZMA) and the Greater Chennai Corporation for inept administration and the many regulatory lapses which undoubtedly have scripted the great tragedy that Ennore is today. Continue reading