Over the past few decades, North Chennai has seen pollution taint its air, land and water.
Studies by various organisations have shown that a key factor behind the rising pollution in North Chennai is the major industries that operate in the Ennore-Manali region, including the state-owned thermal power plant.
Pollution has affected the lives of scores of residents in North Chennai and robbed many of their livelihoods.
While the polluters should be held responsible, it is equally important to hold the regulator, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), accountable.
The TNPCB has been entrusted with the duty to curb pollution by a variety of measures such as issuing show cause notices, taking legal action and issuing directions for closure, stoppage of power and water supply for erring industries/agencies for non-compliance of pollution control legislations, conditions and standards.
But little has been done to curb pollution that dominates the landscape of North Chennai.
Pollution impacts livelihood in North Chennai
“Due to industrial pollution, our catch has greatly reduced. Today we have to travel at least 18 km by boat spending Rs 600 on overheads such as diesel and ice. On most days it is hard to make this money from the catch” says S Kumaresan, a fisherman from Kattukuppam.
The fisherfolk in the area also have few takers for the catch due to fear of contamination of the fish in the region.
In the past, inland fishers in North Chennai were able to catch around 25 varieties of fish in the area. Now, that has dwindled to five or six varieties only.
Pazhaverkadu is known for crabs, particularly the variety of crabs called ‘pachai kal nandu’ which is exported to various places.
“There was a time when these crabs were abundantly available in Ennore. Today, even the prawns that are available in Ennore have been polluted with fly ash,” says Prabhakaran Veeraarasu, Environmental Engineer at Poovulagin Nanbargal.
Before the industries came about, fishing was the primary occupation for many in North Chennai. When the thermal power plant was set up, the fishing villages were promised that one person from a family will be given a job.
“If there are 500 households in a village, only 60 people were given a job. The livelihood of the rest was affected,” says Prabhakaran.
While catching fish, shrimp and crab was the job of the men in the families, the women sold them door-to-door. Due to the fallout from the pollution, women too have had to seek other employment.
Health effects of pollution in North Chennai
Not only did Kumaresan lose his livelihood due to pollution but he also paid a huge price for it.
“My younger son died of cancer a few of years ago. My wife has been suffering from dermatological issues for decades. Fearing stigma, many do not discuss their health issues, particularly cancer, but there are many people who have died of the disease in the North Chennai region. This cannot be a coincidence,” says Kumaresan.
Shajitha H, of Ennore Makkal Nala Sevai Maiyam, has been living in Ennore since 1973.
“Ennore used to be a beautiful place with abundant natural resources. Today, industries release poisonous gas beyond the permitted limit. People in the surrounding areas end up with eye irritation, sinus, wheezing and other sorts of respiratory issues. Further, due to water contamination in the locality, many children have weak bones and yellow teeth,” she says, adding that she also lost her father to lung cancer a few years ago.
Dr Waseem Ahmed, a doctor from Government Unani Hospital in Royapuram, has been running special health camps in Ennore as part of the Central government scheme ‘Special Central Assistance to Scheduled Caste Sub Plan’. He observes that the health of the residents in North Chennai is highly compromised.
“Respiratory issues have become very common here. People of all age groups ranging from children to senior citizens are suffering from either wheezing or asthma even during summer which is unusual. In recent times, I can also see some neurological cases developing in this locality,” says Dr Ahmed.
A report by a Joint Expert Committee (JEC) constituted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to examine the issue of fly ash pollution in Ennore found that the risk of non-cancer disease (also known as hazard index) was very high for the Ennore area children exposed to lead and cadmium and ranged between 3.36 and 5.01 respectively, while the Hazard Index should be less than 1 for a healthy population.
Citing a study conducted by Poovulagin Nanbargal, Prabhakaran notes that due to long-term exposure to fluoride contamination in areas like Thalanguppam and Sathyavani Muthunagar, many people of all age groups have been affected by both skeletal and dental Fluorosis.
“Two in ten people have skeletal fluorosis. Dental fluorosis is also common among children. People lose all their teeth at the age of 50 or 60 in this locality. Even the milk teeth of a newborn are yellow in colour,” he says, adding that incidences of cancer, kidney stone, and dermatological issues are high in the North Chennai region.
Sheik Mahboob Basha, a resident of Ennore, says, “The fertilizer units in Ennore have stored ammonia and sulphate in the open. This is near the railway station where there is high footfall. There is a high risk of an accident similar to the Bhopal gas tragedy if this is left unattended.”
However, the regulator is of the view that the health issues faced by the residents are not linked to pollution by the industries.
“There is no proof that the pollution was the contributor to such health issues. We cannot conduct a health survey as it does not fall under our purview. We can only do an environmental impact assessment,” says an official of the TNPCB who does not wish to be named.
Studies reveal regulatory failures in North Chennai
A study by Chennai Climate Action Group (CCAG), ‘Poison in the Air’ in 2020, revealed that six major industries in the Ennore-Manali region have been contributing to pollution during 59% (215.35 days) in 2019.
The study analysed over 18 lakh hours of the stack emissions data of TANGEDCO’s North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) Stage I, NTECL Vallur power plant, Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd (CPCL), Tamil Nadu Petroproducts Ltd (TPL), Manali Petrochemicals Ltd (MPL), and Madras Fertilizers Ltd (MFL) obtained from TNPCB’s Care Air Centre through the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
While the rules mandate that industries such as the above that fall under the ‘red category’ monitor their stack emissions on a real-time basis, and share emission levels instantaneously with the TNPCB for facilitating immediate regulatory measures, the study found that the industries have violated the rules and the violations continue unabated.
Similarly, a report released by Healthy Energy Initiative India, a global collaboration of health professionals, health organizations, and health researchers engaging in science-based advocacy, analysed the emission data of the eleven public sector Thermal Power Plants (TPPs) in Tamil Nadu in 2021.
The findings showed extended periods of time where permissible emission levels were exceeded by the thermal power plants.
The report also states that all public sector TPPs have failed to even monitor emissions for varied periods ranging from 2% to 100% of the time in the year 2021.
“Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) irritates the lining of the nose, throat and lungs and may worsen existing respiratory illnesses, especially asthma. Similarly, exposure to Particulate Matter (PM) emissions from TPPs can lead to reduced lung function, development of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, increased rate of disease progression and reduction in life expectancy,” says Dr Vishvaja Sambath, Program Lead, Healthy Energy Initiative-India.
“The alarming exceedance periods expose the TPP’s continuous disregard for emission norms and failure of regulatory action for the same by the TNPCB,” she adds.
Responding to the points raised in the study, the TNPCB official says, “The stack monitoring is only an alert system that helps in fixing the issue when the notification is received. We cannot take that into account and say the emission levels are high since it is only a momentary record.”
Inaction by TNPCB on pollution in North Chennai
TNPCB has the authority to inspect the industries at any time and take samples to test for pollutants. It also has the authority to regulate and control the industries.
Unless the residents lodge a complaint or the media reports on the pollution or the National Green Tribunal orders the TNPCB to take action, there is no initiative by the TNPCB to regulate the polluting industries, say the residents who also find the grievance redressal mechanism of TNPCB ‘inaccessible’.
“Tonnes of fly ash is being released into the backwaters in Ennore. There are frequent leaks in the ash pipelines. Once we complain, the officials of TNPCB collect the sample. Sometimes, fines are levied on the industries but the change is not reflected on the ground,” says Kumaresan.
“The stack emission data is on the TNPCB website. Whenever you open it, it is always above the permissible limit. This is their acknowledgement of the violation. However, all they do against the violation is that they levy a fine on the industry once a year. Does imposing fines reduce the violations or the pollution caused by them? One government body is imposing fine on the other government body. The fine amount paid comes from people’s tax money. This is illogical. These violations are affecting the health and lives of the residents in the locality directly and so it should be considered a criminal offence,” says Prabhakaran.
“The practice of ‘red lining’ – the government dumping highly polluting industries in areas where people from low-income groups reside – is followed not only in India but also in all countries across the world. The issue in North Chennai is just one to do with the environment but also of class and caste. Compared to South Chennai, North Chennai is a densely populated area. The impact is greater on the people here,” says Prabhakaran.
Dr Vishvaja says, “Unlike areas like Perungudi, where the officials attend to the public complaints immediately, the complaints filed from North Chennai are from the people of the working class. It seems who makes the complaint also matters in addressing the issue here.”
Curbing pollution in North Chennai
“A study on carrying capacity should be conducted before the expansion of existing industries or establishing new industries. While it is important to study the pollution created by individual industries, it is more important to study the capacity of the area to bear the cumulative pollution created by all the industries,” says Dr Vishvaja.
Prabhakaran says, “A health impact assessment is required to enumerate the compensation that has to be paid to the residents of North Chennai who are affected by the pollution.
“Ennore plays a major role in Chennai’s flood mitigation. If the pollution here is not controlled, the people living in all parts of Chennai will be affected,” says Kumaresan.
“Based on the JEC report, we have given an action plan to the industries to control pollution. There is no possibility for large-scale industries to be involved in unauthorised activities or violations as there are strict regulations for them and so they tend to comply with the norms. When small-scale industries are involved in unauthorised activities, we issue show-cause notices and orders to close them on a case-by-case basis,” says the TNPCB official.
“The TNPCB is not aiming to shut down industries. We give them an opportunity to course-correct through notices, hearings and action plans. Only as a last resort, we will issue orders to shut down the plants,” says the official.
The official also points to the challenge of both the TNPCB and the industries under the scanner in North Chennai being part of the same government machinery, making compliance a tough task for the regulator.
“Our work is to make them comply and we do that,” says the official.
The lived experience of the residents presents a picture that is in stark contrast to these claims.
“Development does not mean that 10 people are adversely affected in order to improve the lives of 100 others. It should be that all 110 of us can grow together,” says Kumaresan.