Where are the commons?

From land to creative spaces, our commons are being fenced by encroachers and even the state

The tension between ownership to tangible and intangible property and the enjoyment of the commons by all is not a new phenomenon. Fences could not have been there when land came into existence. Fences came later, encumbrances came later and so did title deeds and patta. Kuthambai, one of the ancient learned Siddhars, sang songs seemingly simple but layered with philosophical and metaphysical subtexts. One goes like this: “Vetta veli thannil meyyenrirupporkku pattayam edukkadi? (What would the one who has realised Infinite Space do with certificates of ownership?)” He was of course singing about a different space, not about tangible property like land.

Even after man felt that there was need for fences and certificates of ownership, he still recognised that some lands must be kept in common for use by all or for the sake of all. In medieval England they were called commons, a resource to be enjoyed by all. These lands and the non-arable lands were classified in Tamil as “poramboke”. The protest song “Porambokku enakku illai porambokku unakku illai porambokku oorukku porambokku bhoomikku” is about this commons and how the commons are diminishing. The words “mandai veli” and “maattuthaavani” are poignant echoes to a time when cattle had access to grazing grounds. Not now, those areas are covered by concrete structures. If we could divine the thoughts of our cattle, we would know they are wondering why their lives are protected with such violence and vehemence when all they want is grass.


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All mega projects sail into 1,090 acres of troubled waters

CHENNAI: State and Central government entities have converted over 1,000 acres of the ecologically sensitive Ennore creek — and have more in the pipeline — in violation of mandatory procedures, alleged activists on Friday in a revelation that raises serious concerns.

The creek’s 8,000-acre water spread area is classified as CRZ-1 (Coastal Regulation Zone), where development is strictly regulated, according to Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) of 1996. As per CRZ notification, this is the only approved map, and the state and district coastal zone management authorities have to refer to it while appraising all applications seeking clearance.

In two separate RTI responses to Coastal Resource Centre, an NGO, the Tiruvallur district Coastal Zone Management Authority (CZMA) and the State CZMA have revealed that neither has a copy of the approved map for Ennore creek. The district authority admitted that it relied solely on the maps submitted by the project proponents.

“The CZMP of 1996 has so far been kept under the carpet. Major establishments like Kamarajar Port and the thermal power plants have got clearances based on unapproved maps prepared by their consultants. This is a serious violation by State and Central public sector undertakings,” said Nityanand Jayaraman of Save Ennore Creek Campaign.


Some of the activities like port and oil storage containers are permitted in CRZ-1, but the basis on which the clearances were obtained was wrong.


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No new projects in Ennore creek: Former HC judge

Rampant encroachment has devasted the Ennore creek.

CHENNAI: The Ennore Creek, the biggest one on the outskirts of Chennai, has been encroached upon by various state and central public sector undertakings. This was brought to light by the Coastal Resource Centre, which managed to secure the government of India approval Coastal Regulation Zone map for the region.

s of Chennai, has been encroached upon by various state and central public sector undertakings. This was brought to light by the Coastal Resource Centre, which managed to secure the government of India approval Coastal Regulation Zone map for the region.

The approved map identifies 8,000 acres as the creek’s water spread area, where no development is permitted. Around 1,090 acres of land from the creek had already been encroached upon by thermal power plants, a port and oil companies. Any wetland larger than 1,200 acres will automatically get protected under the Wetland Rules 2010.

Speaking to reporters here about the role of the creek, former Madras high courtjudge D Hariparanthaman said the excess water from the Kosasthalayar, the Araniar and the Puzhal lake get drained into the sea through the creek. When the water spread area of the creek is encroached, it results in flooding in other areas.

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Activists claim Tamil Nadu hid a key coastal plan to facilitate Ennore Creek encroachments

A comparison of maps shows over 1,000 acres of wetlands along Chennai’s largest drainage basin have been encroached upon.

In November 2015, Chennai received its heaviest rainfall in a hundred years, causing a massive deluge in the city. Activists attributed the intensity of the floods to illegal construction that had choked the city’s creeks, which act as natural flood outlets.

Now, there is evidence to back their claims. A comparison of maps from the Coastal Zone Management Plan, 1996 – which demarcates the areas along the coast that can be opened up for construction – with current satellite maps shows that the government itself is the biggest violator of its own regulations along the city’s largest estuary, the Ennore Creek.

But that is not all. Coastal activists had initially approached several government authorities for copies of the 1996 plan, but the authorities claimed that they did not possess it. After eventually obtaining a copy of the plan, activists have now accused the government of suppressing or concealing the document so as to approve illegal constructions along the creek.

Regulating coastal development

The Coastal Zone Management Plan regulates development activity in the area within 500 metres from the High Tide Line, a geospatial demarcation of the highest point reached by the rising tide along the coast. It is approved by the state. The last official plan for Tamil Nadu was drawn up in 1996.

Although coastal activists have been identifying violations by different state and central projects along the Ennore Creek, which lies in Tiruvallur district, the exact extent of violations was unknown. This was because the Coastal Zone Management Plan for Ennore Creek was unavailable for public scrutiny. In fact, of the 31 maps that constitute this state-wide plan, only 11 are available online. Coastal activists were unable to obtain the other 20 from government organisations.

In response to a Right to Information query filed in September 2014, Tamil Nadu’s district coastal zone management authority said it did not have a copy of the Coastal Zone Management Plan for Ennore Creek.

Activists conducted a file inspection at the office of the state coastal authority earlier this year, but did not find the plan there either. The activists said that this meant that the authority cleared construction projects along the creek without consulting the official coastal regulation zone map.

This reporter attempted to contact the director of the Tamil Nadu Environment Department through phone calls, text messages and an email query asking how the district coastal management authorities, which it controls, did not have a copy of the approved Coastal Zone Management Plan of 1996. No response was received.

Activists from The Coastal Resource Centre, an environmental non-governmental organisation in Chennai, finally obtained a copy of the plan from another social activist, Jesu, who works with coastal communities in Nagapattinam in southern Tamil Nadu. Jesu had filed a Right To Information query with the environment department seeking copies of the plan shortly after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck the coast of Tamil Nadu. Tallying the maps in the plan with the current Google Earth satellite image of Ennore Creek, the activists found that 1,090 acres of the 8,000 acres of protected wetland along the Ennore Creek have been encroached upon by state and central Public Sector Units.

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Ennore residents oppose power plant

Raise the issue of other units affecting their livelihood
Angry residents expressed their opposition to the proposed construction of the 660-MW supercritical thermal power plant in Ennore replacing the old plants, at a public hearing held on Tuesday.

A large number of residents from various villages including Ernavur, Tiruvottiyur and Ennore, located along the coastal areas, participated in the public hearing organised by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB).

Tiruvallur Collector E. Sundaravalli chaired the meeting along with officials of the TNPCB and the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (Tangedco).

The participants, mostly fishermen, highlighted the main problem — loss of livelihood due to thermal power stations dumping fly ash in the Ennore creek causing reduction in fish population.

A. Lakshmipathy, a resident of Nettukuppam, said his family has been living in the coastal village for more than three generations and is finding it uninhabitable because of air, water and noise pollution.

Citing the heavy noise pollution caused by the conveyor belt transporting coal from the port and air pollution arising from coal dust, he said residents are forced to remain indoors.

The fish population had drastically reduced as the creek, the breeding ground for the fish population, has been damaged by the dumping of fly ash.

“This has resulted in competition among the fishermen to fight for their daily livelihood,” he said.

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An Open Letter to Declare Ennore Creek as a Climate Sanctuary Save Chennai; Save Ennore Creek


Over the last 18 months, Chennai has witnessed its worst flooding, a violent cyclone, a scorching summer, a drought, and a calamitous fire. All events are linked by some common threads — our collective disregard for safety; our inability to appreciate the long-term consequences of bad planning; political expediency; and our misplaced priorities that make us undervalue open unbuilt spaces. The mistakes of our past are catching up with us. But we don’t need to continue making those mistakes.

The Ennore Creek spreads over about 8000 acres. Of this, 1090 acres of wetland area has been lost to encroachments. Another 300 acres of Creek has been damaged by flyash from North Chennai Thermal Power Station’s leaky flyash pipelines. The existing encroachments have drastically altered contours by raising the level of the reclaimed land by up to 15 metres above sea level.

Kamarajar Port wants to convert an additional 1000 acres of wetland into real estate. As you read this, the Port is dumping dredged sand into newly constructed bunds to create a coal yard on 280 acres of the Creek. TANGEDCO is dumping sand and debris to block the Creek and the Kosasthalaiyar to build a coal conveyor for the ETPS power plants. TANGEDCO already has a railway line to transport coal from the port to the power plant. Why the cash-strapped TANGEDCO is constructing an expensive conveyor belt with money it does not have is anybody’s guess.

That is the bad news. But there is good news. Only 15 percent of the Creek has been encroached upon. Saving the remaining 7000 acres is a definite possibility. Arresting all further diversion of the Ennore wetlands, and reversing the encroachments wherever possible will vastly improve the region’s resilience to extreme weather events such as storms/cyclones, heavy rainfall and water scarcity. Such an action will be in line with the law and our obligations to future generations.

This is a mission that we all can – as individuals, communities and governments – engage ourselves in with a sense of shared purpose.

                                         Ennore Creek without Encroachments 1996                


  Ennore Creek Encroached 2017

1996 F MAP


The Creek

The Ennore Creek is bound on the north by the Pulicat Lake and to the south by the Manali marshlands. The worst encroached portion is also the most critical in terms of maintaining the hydrology of the region.

The Creek drains the Arani River, a portion of Lake Pulicat, the Kosasthalaiyar and the surplus course of the Puzhal Lake through the estuary at Mugatwarakuppam.

The Kosasthalaiyar has a catchment of 3757 square kilometres – more than double the combined catchment area of the Adyar and Cooum rivers. The Arani River drains about 1535 square kilometres. With a peak discharge of 125,000 cusecs, Kosasthalaiyar alone can drain more water into the Bay of Bengal than Adyar and Cooum put together.

Of the four estuaries draining Chennai – namely, Kovalam, Adyar, Cooum and Ennore – it is Ennore Creek that evacuates the largest volume of water. Four assembly constituencies – Ponneri, Madhavaram, R.K. Nagar and Thiruvotriyur – stand to be affected by floods if the Creek is compromised. If an Adyar flood brought us to our knees, a Kosasthalaiyar flood can cripple the city.

Ennore Creek can protect us against floods, storms and cyclones and seawater’s intrusion into groundwater.  That is why it deserves to be declared and protected as a Climate Sanctuary. There is much empty talk about climate resilient cities. In Ennore, the Government of Tamil Nadu and the city of Chennai have an opportunity to show the world how cities can actually be made climate resilient.

The Law

The Ennore Creek is a protected wetland under the Wetland Rules, 2010. Reclamation or setting up of new industries or expansion of existing industries is prohibited within protected wetlands.

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notifications of 1991 and 2011 too apply to the Creek, which is a tidal waterbody. The Government of India-approved Coastal Zone Management Plan, based on which all projects for CRZ clearance should be appraised, declares the entire Creek as CRZ 1 (ecologically sensitive) – a No Development Zone. Indeed, when the CZMP was approved in 1996, the Creek was free of encroachments. (See Annexure 4 – Google Earth 1996)

But, the CZMP was given a quiet burial, and projects allowed to encroach the Creek. Each encroachment is built by dumping earth or construction debris on water to create land that is anywhere between 15 and 45 feet (5 to 15 metres) above the originally prevailing contour levels. While these encroachments eat into the spread of the Creek, flyash spills from

TANGEDCO’s North Chennai Thermal Power Station have silted up deep water areas of the creek and reduced the depth of the creek from 14 feet below sea level to 2 to 4 feet. Despite orders from Madras High Court and National Green Tribunal, TANGEDCO continues to dump toxic flyash into the creek.

The Impacts

The encroachments have reduced the depth and the spread of the Ennore Creek. Once a famed fishing ground with a rich diversity of commercially valuable fish, prawns and crab, the Ennore Creek is gasping for life. Fishing economy has been badly hit, and once self-sufficient fisherfolk families in Mugatwarakuppam, Sivanpadai Kuppam and Kattukuppam have been reduced to poverty.


In December 2015, areas like Kuruvimedu, Athipattu, Athipattu Pudunagar, Ernavur, Manali New Town, Kodungaiyur, Vyasarpadi, Tondiarpet, Korukkupet —  located in the assembly constituencies of Madhavaram, Ponneri, R.K. Nagar and Thiruvottiyur — were badly affected by floodwaters because of the encroachments in Ennore Creek.

Storm Surges:

In December 2016, Cyclone Vardah made landfall in the Ennore region. The resultant storm surge of more than 1 metre above the astronomic tide inundated low-lying areas in the region. Normally, the Creek is the first shock absorber to deter the storm surge. But with its water carrying capacity vastly reduced, the Creek’s ability to absorb storm shocks has also declined. As the encroachment continues, storm surges will send seawater deep into the hinterland through the rivers, streams and channels and inundate areas that have never before experienced flooding due to tidal surges.

Salinity or Seawater Intrusion:

The AK-basin, or the area between Araniyar and Kosasthalaiyar, is a groundwater-rich area. Metrowater has six well-fields – Minjur, Panjeti, Thamaraipakkam, Poondi, Kannagiper and Floodplains — that yield upto 100 million litres per day of water for Chennai during water-scarce times such as now. The AK-basin is witnessing aggressive salinity intrusion. This will worsen as sea levels rise due to climate change.

Because the Creek stretches about 16 km in a north-south direction, tidal and storm surges are spread parallel to the coast rather than deep inland through rivers, streams and channels. The Ennore Creek’s western edges – which are the areas that have been and are being encroached – are salt marshes and abandoned salt pans. Compromising the creek will aggravate salinity intrusion and endanger Chennai’s water sources. Instead, if the western edges of the Creek are used to harvest rainwater, we can strengthen our defences against seawater intrusion.


If cared for well, the Ennore Creek can become India’s first “climate sanctuary” — a human biosphere project or conservation reserve where multiple livelihood, ecological and climate adaptation objectives are accommodated.

Restoring the river to its original depth, recovering what can be recovered of its spread, and preventing further encroachment can yield significant dividends. This is doable and should be done.

The State administration is already aware of the importance of the Creek; many within the administration are keen to protect the Creek. Their hand needs to be strengthened. Citizens need to speak up to say that we cannot afford to lose more of our wetlands, not after all that has happened to us in the last 18 months.

Write to the Chief Secretary, Government of Tamil Nadu (Email: cs@tn.gov.in)  urging her to do the following:

a) Declare Ennore Creek as a “Climate Sanctuary” and a No Construction Zone.

b) Prohibit any further encroachment; identify and remove existing encroachments.

d) Develop and execute a detailed ecological restoration plan for the Creek.

e) Restore Creek to its original depth in consultation with fisherfolk and at the expense of the polluters..

f) Protect sand dunes and natural features of the CRZ 1 areas on the Kattupally barrier island, and halt all commercial groundwater extraction ongoing in Kattupally Barrier Island.

Endorsed by:

Chandra Mohan – Arrapor Iyakkam

Sundarrajan G – Poovulagin Nanabargal

Arun Krishnamoorthy – Environmentalist Foundation of India

George – Ilanthamizhagam

Saravanan K / Pooja Kumar – The Coastal Resource Centre

Nityanand Jayaraman –  Save Ennore Creek Campaign