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.
The activists allege that state authorities suppressed or concealed the 1996 plan so that illegal constructions could go ahead.
Dodgy project approvals
Activists from The Coastal Resource Centre said that district authorities were giving environmental clearances for projects based on plans submitted by the project proponents and not on the approved Coastal Zone Management Plan. They said that the submitted plans may have been drawn up by authorised agencies such as the Institute of Remote Sensing or the National Institute of Ocean Technology, but should have been verified alongside the approved 1996 plan.
For instance, the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, submitted unapproved maps from the Institute of Remote Sensing to secure clearance for its project site near the creek, reported The New Indian Express. Now, the 1996 Coastal Zone Management Plan shows that the entire project lies in Coastal Regulation Zone I, a zone where such projects are prohibited.
“It is the responsibility of the district and state coastal zone management authorities to refer the project proponent’s map with the approved coastal zone management plan,” said Pooja Kumar of The Coastal Resource Centre. “They need to see that the projects do not fall under ecologically sensitive zones as demarcated by the approved plan.”
Disaster zone or climate sanctuary?
Apart from the 1,090 acres of encroachments, the Ennore Creek, which is Chennai’s largest drainage basin, is subjected to continuous dumping of waste and hazardous material by the industries that have proliferated in the area.
According to information collected by The Coastal Resource Centre, the Kamarajar Port is now creating a coal yard on 280 acres of the creek. But the port authorities deny this. “We are not violating any rules,” said the deputy general manager (civil) of Kamarajar Port. “Whatever we are dumping is beyond CRZ [Coastal Regulation Zone] area.”
Activists have also reported that the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation, the electricity board, is blocking the creek by dumping sand and debris to build a coal conveyor for the Ennore Thermal Power Plant, which is on the banks of the Creek. The Director (generation) of the Corporation was not available for comment.
Another thermal power plant, the North Chennai Thermal Power Station, has been accused of damaging 300 acres of the creek through its leaky fly ash pipelines. The assistant engineer of the power plant declined to comment on this.
Activists have now asked the government to declare the Ennore Creek a climate sanctuary in the hope that, with this, the creek will finally get the protection it requires.
“Ennore Creek can protect us against floods, storms and cyclones and seawater’s intrusion into groundwater,” said an open letter endorsed by various non-governmental organisations in Chennai. “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.”
This article appeared in Scroll on June 21, 2017. It can be accessed here.