Updated: Nov 11
Save Pulicat – Chennai’s Climate Movement by Yuvan Aves
I am from Chennai, a city on the South-East coast of India and ranked as one of the most climate vulnerable in the country. Global conventions and conferences make the news here, but their trickle down towards impacting lives and reality has been little.
Photo Credit: Yuvan Aves
The climate crisis arises from and manifests in a thousand different ways in different communities and geographies. I was in a school for fisher-children in Thiruvottiyur, North Chennai this week to interact with the teachers. In recent years the strength of the school had come down from 450 children to 80 children because the coast in this region is eroding fast and whole fishing villages had to resettle elsewhere. The headmistress told me how when she was a child, she would walk 2 kilometers on the beach nearby. Where her village and beach once were are now several kilometers inside the sea due to erosion triggered by large coastal infrastructure. Coasts and coastal communities are at the margins of land and are the most vulnerable to impacts of changing climate and strong weather events. In India, you find that ‘development’ is often discriminatory. A port or thermal power station is built in a place not because it is suitable or necessary. A place is chosen where the people don’t have enough political power or voice to resist it.
In my city, the climate crisis means – coastal erosion triggered by large infrastructure, vanishing wetlands due to urbanization, floods during the monsoon, water scarcity during summer, increasingly hazardous cyclones every year. On the afternoon of 6th of November, 2021, as the COP 26 carried on in Glasgow, several hundred citizens from the urban public as well as fishing communities gathered in front of Elliot’s beach, Chennai – even as rains were predicted - for an ‘Umbrella Rally’ demanding local climate action. Our primary demand was ‘Stop Adani Save Pulicat’ – the most relevant climate conversation for us at present.
Pulicat lagoon is a climate sanctuary for Chennai and its vast surroundings. It is India’s second-largest brackish water body. Three rivers flow through the region – the Kosasthalaiyar, Arani and Kalangi. They branch, broaden and then gradually empty into the brackish lagoon. When cyclones hit this coast, the lagoon wetland complex plays a crucial role as a massive floodwater catchment. Its sand barrier islands, mangrove forests, sand dunes, and associated sand systems act as critical cyclonic buffers and barricade Chennai against storm and tidal surges. On a map, this waterbody is a garland of fishing villages. Over a hundred thousand fisherfolk draw their livelihoods from these waters, which support over 200 species of birds protected by the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary and its surroundings. Migratory studies conducted over decades confirm that it is a vital stop-over location on the Central Asian flyway.
The Adani group is planning India’s largest commercial port within this sanctuary. It will build over 3000 acres of Ocean and wetlands blocking the longshore currents, triggering erosion, and erasing this bio-region from the maps by merging it with the Bay of Bengal. The consequences for Chennai could be more than its people can bear. Saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers will extinguish an unspeakable quantum of the city’s water security, at a time when the city is already acutely water-stressed. Moreover, a long stretch of the coast will be directly exposed to cyclones, without the natural land and sea barriers leaving over a million citizens living in five constituencies at enhanced flood risk.
The Adani Group’s climate crime spreads worldwide. Places/ecologies they’ve decimated or have planned upcoming destructive projects include Kamuthi in Tamil Nadu, Vizhinjam in Kerala, Bailadila and Hasdeo Arand in Chhattisgargh, Godda in Jharkhand, Mundra in Gujarat, Mollem in Goa, Talabira in Odisha, Galilee Basin and The Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Like we are seeing around the world, at the fore of Chennai’s climate movement and the campaign to save Pulicat are young people. Even when Covid sealed the streets away, school and college students made hundreds of pieces of art which poured into social media, digital, and print media. Their campaign was so powerful, even against one of the world’s richest and notorious corporates, that on 19th January 2021 it made the local government cancel the public hearing for the mega-port. Here are some of the campaign artworks which emerged, and mobilized thousands of people to give voice to this movement:
Credit: Sriranjini Raman, Sahana Subramaniam, Di Roberts, Chris Prince, Kruti Patel, Mayuri Kotian, Tvisha Pandey, and Adyasha Nayak
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About the Author
Yuvan Aves is a writer, educator, naturalist, and activist based in Chennai. His interests include reimagining an Earth-centric and child-centric education in schools, the reciprocity between languages and ecologies, and ground-up processes of change and politics. He writes on topics at the intersection of ecology, education, and human consciousness. He is the author of two books and recipient of the M.Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award. He is presently traveling and documenting stories of biodiversity and people along the Indian coastline.