29 August, 2013. Chennai. 9 a.m.
(As told to Nityanand Jayaraman)
Five male residents of Sulerikattukuppam were picked up in a midnight raid by Kanchipuram police in a bid to intimidate the villagers who are protesting the disruption of fishing livelihoods by the 100 million litres per day desalination plant. The plant’s marine structures have eroded nearly 75 metres of beach in front of Sulerikattukuppam. Several community buildings have been swallowed by the sea, and the villagers have lost the space to park their boats and nets. Rocks dumped by Metrowater inside the sea have created pockets of turbulence and danger for passing boats. Over the last three months, at least two accidents have occurred claiming one life and seriously injuring another. On both instances, the villagers filed police complaints against Metrowater. But no action was taken.
The plant is currently under shutdown because of slush/silt accumulation in the intake pipeline. Yesterday’s midnight raid was prompted by a complaint by a Metrowater Chief Engineer Mr. Sabarinathan alleging that six fishermen on a boat armed with sticks from Sulerikattukuppam disrupted marine survey work by a Metrowater team that was trying to fix the intake pipeline problem. The work was being carried out using two mechanised boats from Chennai and a fibre boat from Mammallapuram. The complaint named Ravi, Nityanandan, Kumar, Ruban, Lakshmanan and Kadumbadi as offenders. Sulerikattukuppam villagers say that they had spoken to the Mammallapuram fisherfolk and requested them and other fishing villages to not cooperate with the Metrowater until their justified demands are met. Angered by this, Metrowater has filed this false complaint, they alleged.
Yesterday, around 5.30 p.m., a team including the SP and DSP of Kanchipuram visited the fishing village and did the rounds of all streets. Apprehensive of an imminent police action, the men left the village for the night. Around 500 police are reported to have swooped into the village at around midnight. Door-to-door searches were conducted, and five men and three boys were picked up. After the women pleaded with the police and produced the college ID cards, the three boys were released. The five arrested persons include one person who was visiting his relative V. Raghu. The other four are fishermen, including G. Vijayamoorthy, aged around 35, H. Madhavan, aged around 42, Manibalan, aged around 35, and Jagadeesan, aged around 65. None of them has any complaints against them, and not one of them was among those named in the Metrowater police complaint.
In June 2013, 21 people from the village were released on bail after spending a month in jail for demanding compensation for loss of livelihood due to sea erosion caused by the desalination plant. The plant, which was set up at a cost of Rs. 500 crores, has not functioned at capacity since it was commissioned in February, and has been beset with serious malfunctions. A retired chief engineer at Metrowater has alleged serious irregularities in executing the project as per design. In May 2013, Chief Engineer (Retd) C.R. Rajan wrote to the Chief Minister complaining that the contractor and Metrowater engineers had violated design stipulations and laid the seawater intake pipeline at a wrong location incurring an additional cost of Rs. 4 crores and exposing the plant to frequent shutdowns on account of entry of slush and silt in the pipeline. See
Like in Koodankulam, where police force is being used to divert attention from irregularities in the plant construction and its failure to operate as promised, villagers fear that here too the police action is meant to shield corruption in the design and construction of the plant, and to deny compensation to the villagers affected by the desalination plant.
At the time of writing, the villagers arrested last night were still in police custody.