Murky Waters

The ground realities of five decades of industrial pollution in Ennore

Women from the Irula community—which is listed as a Scheduled Tribe in Tamil Nadu—look for small prawns in Vellivoyalchavadi. Working in the river, which has been contaminated by fly ash, has given them health problems.  
Photographs by M Palani Kumar Text by Sukruti Anah Staneley
31 March, 2024

THE PHOTOJOURNALIST M PALANI KUMAR’S first visit to Ennore, in 2019, was an unforgettable experience. “I couldn’t help being awestruck seeing how Ennore is so different from Chennai, though it is an integral part of this city,” he told me. He has returned frequently since. Kumar’s work there, carried out over three years, aims to document how the presence of industry has significantly impacted the everyday lives of the people that call this land their home. He felt it would be impossible to record their intimate and changing relationship to the land without a visual approach.

Ennore is located on a peninsula, surrounded by the Kosasthalaiyar River, the Ennore Creek and the vast expanse of the Bay of Bengal. The creek serves as a natural divide between the southern and northern sections of the neighbourhood. The northern part is home to the sprawling North Chennai Thermal Power Station and the Kamarajar Port, formerly Ennore Port, one of Tamil Nadu’s three major ports. It also has the city’s largest dump yard and sees heavy diesel vehicle traffic around the clock.

In the early 1970s, the Ennore Thermal Power Station was commissioned to meet the growing electricity demands of Chennai and adjacent regions, and equipped with coal-fired units to generate electrical power. It is one of four major thermal plants in Tamil Nadu, established by the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited, or TANGEDCO. Kumar noted that the region now has over thirty large Red Category industries—ones that pose a significant risk of causing environmental degradation, discharging pollutants into air or water, and generating hazardous waste—including thermal plants, as well as petrochemical and fertiliser factories.

Govindamma stands with her mother. She was shattered by her son’s death, in 2022. “I lost my husband early. Now, my son,” she said. Govindamma lives in Arunodhaya Nagar, in Athipattu, far from the Kosathalaiyar. Despite losing her male relatives, she continues to catch prawns to support her family.