By Nityanand Jayaraman
P. Jagan is a kattumaram fisherman, a trade that has changed little in centuries. Early most mornings, Jagan launches his boat through the pounding surf and paddles his way to the fishing grounds of his choice. The sea, it appears, has been kind to him.
His house, situated in a row of identical concrete houses closest to the sea, is well-lit and spacious. A washing machine, refrigerator, wide-screen TV and other assets suggest that Jagan has not done too badly for himself with just the kattumaram. As boats go, the kattumaram — with its five logs hewn from the wood of the Albizzia tree, and lashed together — is an efficient and light surf-riding, beach landing vessel. Jagan has been facing one problem, though. The beach outside his home is shrinking.
“The sea has come in,” he says. Looking east from his house, the proof of his claim is visible. A 2-metre high wall of granite boulders lines the village. Unlike many of the other fishing villages on the East Coast Road, Jagan’s village — Sulerikattukuppam or Kattukuppam for short — has no beach. On the Northern edge of the village, near the temple where the line of rocks end, there is a small beach. But this too is rapidly shrinking, as the boulders divert the waves northwards. With every pounding wave and its backwash, a valuable piece of Kattukuppam is lost to the sea.
“We had 47 fibre boats, and 17 kattumarams in our village before the Thane cyclone (2011),” Jagan says. “The cyclone damaged the boats, and many didn’t feel it was worth replacing the boats. Now, there are only 24 boats and 14 kattumarams. There is no place to park our boats. The ocean trade (kadal thozhil) is finished. That’s all sir,” he says.
The cause of Kattukuppam’s misery is a 100 million litres per day desalination plant being constructed at the southern edge of the village by VA Tech Wabag for the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board.
Beaches are dynamic formations, waxing and waning with changing seasons. India’s east coast is influenced by two monsoons – the Northeast and the Southwest. For nine months, including during the southwest monsoon, ocean currents move sand northwards feeding the beaches along the way. Briefly, for three months during the Northeast, the silt is transported from south to North. It is a known fact that any hard engineering structure constructed on India’s eastern coastline will cause erosion of the beaches north of the structure.
Such erosion, they said, would not only expose them to the fury of storms but also cost them precious beach space. Besides being the space for storing craft and mending gear, beaches are also used for fishing. Kattukuppam has eight shoreseine nets. These nets are dragged into sea by a boat, with one end held on to by 10 to 15 fishermen standing on the beach. The boat then makes a loop and returns to the beach encircling the target shoal of fish. The other end of the net is handed over to a second team of 10 to 15 able-bodied men, who then drag back the heavy net, hopefully made heavier by a healthy catch of anchovies or shrimp. Shoreseines are communal nets that are deployed when the sea is flat as glass, usually in the late and post-monsoon months of December, January and February. But these nets require vast amounts of beach space, wide enough to accommodate 15 men standing 2-3 metre apart and long enough to allow for the net to encircle a 100 metre-wide shoal of fish in the nearshore waters. On a lucky day, a shoreseine can haul in several lakhs worth of fish.
Jagan is rueful. “This year, it looks like the shoreseine will not touch water even once. We even lost one net last month. We had kept it on the beach. The sea took it,” he said simply. “We have moved the remaining into the casuarina grove. They are very expensive. Each net costs more than Rs. 2 lakhs.”
Even when it was coming up, fisherfolk protested. They complained that the highly saline rejects from the desalination plant will poison the sea near their village, and harm fishing livelihoods. More importantly, they worried that the structures built in sea for sucking in seawater or discharging wastewater will trigger sea erosion.
In typical fashion, the wisdom behind the fisherfolk’s protests was brushed aside. Protestors were brutalised by the police; a few contracts were given to a handful of big people in the village. The collector assured the villagers of jobs in the water factory.
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board issued a Consent to Establish in August 2009. Experts nominated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests claimed to have studied engineering and environmental impact assessment reports and granted CRZ clearance to the project. Scientists averred that there would be no detrimental or unmanageable environmental consequences. The drone of the institutionalised expert drowned the rustic wisdom of the subaltern.
“What can a small fishing village do against these giants?” asks Jagan, looking towards Metro Water’s massive water tanks that can be seen towering over the village.
Construction at the plant began in 2010 with a row of pilings driven into sea. In June 2011, when the author visited the village, erosion was already at an advanced stage. Sandbags had been thrown at the waterline – a puny attempt to thwart the sea. The fall from the beach to the water was already very steep. The foundations of a community hall, used by the fisherfolk to mend nets, stood exposed and eroded. Storm surges had already taken a toll on the building, and cracks were evident.
These buildings were built by the Rotary Clubs of Chennai and Mumbai after the tsunami. They wanted to develop Sulerikattukuppam as a model fishing village. “At that time, the sea was far away,” said Jagan. “All that was beach,” he said with a sweep of his hands covering a 20 to 50 metre expanse of water.
Between June 2011 and now, two cyclones – Thane and Nilam – have battered the coast. “Had the sea been where it had, with the beach separating us, we would have been fine.” A row of community structures – the net mending hall, a community gathering hall, a wall-less hall with a roof supported on pillars – that once defined the eastern edge of the village now lie in ruins.
Advancing steadily northwards, the erosion is now eating into the beaches of Nemmelikuppam, nearly 1.5 km away. According to Jagan, those villagers too have now sent a letter of complaint to the authorities. A mapping study done using a handheld GPS meter and Google Earth images suggests that anywhere between 2.5 acres to 12 acres of beach may have already been lost to erosion.
“The Collector tells us that the pilings will be removed by February, after which there will be no problem. But we know that is not true. They have dumped huge concrete boulders – each weighing hundreds of tons – to anchor down the pipes for taking in seawater and letting out effluents. These boulders form a submarine wall that will prevent the sand from moving north,” he says. “Will they remove this too?”
Jagan’s wife brings out a bottle of “ice-water” for us. That water is from a hand-pump near his house. Almost anticipating my next question, she tells me with a laugh that even this water will turn salty now that the sea has moved closer to the village. It is ironic that a desalination plant set up to turn salt water into fresh water ends up turning fresh water saline.
From nuclear plants to desalination plants, the standard response to protests is police action and the banal promise of employment. About 160 people work as daily labour on and off in the water factory. “Their job is to wash pebbles,” says 30-year old housewife S. Kavitha. Men get about Rs. 300 a day, and women about Rs. 200. “My husband goes there for some extra income if he has free time. But washing pebbles isn’t exactly a livelihood,” Kavitha says with a smile.
The Government seems none too bothered by the plight of the 217 families in this village. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa plans to inaugurate the desalination plant early next year. Another plant, four times this size, is proposed at an as-yet undisclosed location in Kanchipuram district.