No man's land

The Ennore creek choked by fly ash. (Screen grab from the Chennai poromboke paadal)
The Ennore creek choked by fly ash. (Screen grab from the Chennai poromboke paadal)

From its rather benign origins connoting a type of land classification, the term poromboke has transformed into something grotesque over the years. This term had been in use since the Cholas denoting stretches of land reserved for shared communal use which cannot be bought or sold. Tamils, who prided themselves on the richness of their culture assigned a special place for such poromboke lands which helped preserve the region’s ecological balance. Today, poromboke, however, is a mild cuss word for worthlessness and incompetence. How did this metamorphosis happen?

Noted social activist Nityanand Jayaraman traces the origin of the pejoration back to the times of the English East India Company and the British Raj. Poromboke essentially is a conjugation of two Tamil words--Puram meaning outside and pokku which refers to books of accounts. This included rivers and river banks, eris (irrigation tanks), grazing and pasture lands, kazhiveli (marshlands) and salt pans, among others. No single individual or group owned these lands and crops were usually not grown in the common poromboke lands. “As no revenue could be generated from such common lands, the Britishers termed it as wasteland—waste from a revenue point of view,” he says.

"Wastelands are the remnants of colonial construction of natural resources," mentions ecologist Jayshree Vencatesan. This was mainly to foster stronger state control over natural resources. She goes on to explain that in the system of land classification post 1858 when the administration of Indian territories passed on from the English East India Company to the British crown, the colonial administration distinguished between cultivated and uncultivated lands, marking the latter as wastelands, mainly to make revenue administration less tedious. This system, however, failed to acknowledge traditional practices such as the seasonal cultivation of paddy in certain poromboke lands.

With respect diminishing over time, land use was modified to bring poromboke into the revenue fold. Now, Chennai proudly houses education institutions, office and industrial complexes on reclaimed marshlands and creeks. Rivers have turned into garbage dumps, tanks have been filled up to accommodate luxury villas and creeks have been reclaimed to house thermal power complexes. These are all essential buffers which keep the city safe from flooding. And with them gone, the city is all but exposed to the raw fury of nature. “When you consider the massive destruction of common lands, the floods of 2015 can no longer be termed unprecedented. It was very much a premeditated act,” says Nityanand.

The Vettiver Collective, a voluntary space to discuss and act on social and environmental issues, joined hands with noted Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna to highlight the continuing saga of ecological abuse in Ennore. Christened Chennai poromboke padal, the video, shot in and around the Ennore creek and its associated wetlands, questions our (both citizens and administration) understanding and attitude towards poromboke. “Poromboke translates to “commons” in English. But in Tamil, it’s a completely different deal altogether. And, this negativity reflects on how we view poromboke and how we have failed poromboke and the people whose lives are inextricably linked to them,” remarks Krishna.

Here are four prominent poromboke lands which, after having safeguarded Chennai’s ecology for decades, beg for attention now.

1. Ennore creek

The Ennore creek smothered on all sides by thermal power plants.

One of the northern-most suburbs of Chennai city, Ennore has been termed Chennai’s “worst environmental crime scene”. Ennore’s air and water have been subject to constant pollution ever since the thermal power plants set up shop in the area. Pipes carrying fly ash from power plants dump their toxic contents in the Ennore creek on which the villagers from three neighbouring hamlets depend on for their livelihoods. As if this weren’t travesty enough, nearly 2000 acres of the wetland complex have been earmarked for reclamation under Chennai’s masterplan, converting vast stretches of the creek into prime industrial real estate.

Ennore creek’s disgrace is only the symptom, according to Nityanand. He squarely blames agencies such as the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the State Coastal Zone Management Authority (SCZMA) and the Greater Chennai Corporation for inept administration and the many regulatory lapses which undoubtedly have scripted the great tragedy that Ennore is today.

2. Buckingham Canal

A clogged Buckingham Canal near Chepauk.

Though a man-made structure, the Buckingham Canal served as a potent flood proof for the city of Chennai in addition to providing inland navigational assistance for which it was originally commissioned. The canal connects three of Chennai’s major waterways--the Kosasthalaiyar, the Cooum and the Adyar rivers--in addition to accommodating flood waters from all across Chennai channeled by several medium and micro drains.

Thanks to mindless encroachments and relentless pollution, the canal now finds itself in dire straits. From municipal sewage to industrial waste, the canal has since transformed into a toxic drain. Its width has reduced from the original 100 metres to less than 30 metres in many parts between Ennore and Muttukadu along the east coast. Work towards removing encroachments, plugging of sewage inflow and restoring natural water flow need to be taken up in earnest to enable the canal to function as an effective shock absorber and to save the city from flooding.

3. Pallikaranai marsh

Perungudi dumpyard located right on the Pallikaranai marsh.

The rapidly expanding southern suburbs have systematically gobbled up Chennai’s largest kazhiveli--the Pallikaranai marshland complex. The massive composite floodplain, which once extended from the Indian Institute of Technology campus in Adyar to the Kovalam creek, has shriveled to less than 600 acres from its original 6000-acre expanse--a whopping 90 percent destruction of the marsh and related ecosystem over a 50-year period. Given Chennai’s flat terrain, the Pallikaranai marsh functioned as a crucial floodplain retaining some of the floodwaters before letting it all out into the Bay of Bengal via the Buckingham Canal.

While the National Institute of Ocean Technology and the National Institute of Wind Energy--both autonomous institutes established by the Government of India--sit right on the marsh, the Velachery-Tambaram main road and the Pallavaram-Thoraipakkam 200-feet-road cut right through the wetland complex. With massive building complexes concretising major portions of the marsh, the floodwaters now have nowhere but inside the offices and homes to go to. This was evidenced during the 2015 floods where entire neighbourhoods--like Velachery, Madipakkam and Keelkattalai--along this stretch went under water for days together.

4. Chennai’s missing eris and shrinking floodplains

Encroachments along the Ambattur eri's periphery.The absence of perennial river systems and the flatness of Chennai’s terrain necessitated the construction of eris or tanks to hold rainwater. Together with the neighbouring districts of Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram, hundreds of irrigation tanks dotted the cityscape. As the city grew at a hurried pace, earthen tanks disappeared one by one, starving the city of the crucial conduits which channeled floodwaters out of human habitations.

From 214 acres, the Villivakkam eri has shrunk to less than 20 acres; the Chitlapakkam eri has reduced from its original 80-acre expanse to less than 40 acres today and the Velachery eri now spreads over 55 acres as against its original area of 265 acres. These tanks are not alone; the stories of many others including the Ambattur eri, the Madhavaram eri, the Rettai eri, the Korattur eri and the Pallavaram Lake are glaringly similar. In addition, the banks of the Cooum and the Adyar rivers have been extensively abused with slum clearance board settlements and airport runways constructed right on the latter’s floodplains with utter disregard for local hydrology and natural water flow.

Just as the word poromboke has come to signify worthlessness, these critical formations have also been relegated to insignificance. This leaves the poromboke lands open to thoughtless ecological destruction over and above what the urban territory can handle with the ramifications that may choke the city for decades to come. Lack of awareness about common property resources should no longer be a reason for civic and administrative apathy. It’s time we stand up for our poromboke.

Sign the petition to save the Ennore creek!