Living in Ashes: TN's Kattukuppam & Seppakkam Fight 30 Years of Slurry Dump
A few years ago, over 600 families lived in Seppakkam in Chennai. Now, there are just 60 homes here.
Cameraperson, Reporter & Producer : Smitha TK
Video Editor: Abhishek Sharma
When I tried looking for Seppakkam, I couldn’t find it on Google maps. The people in Chennai’s Ennore told me to follow the grey trail. As we drove through a rickety mud road, bordered by blue-green-coloured stagnated polluted water, we could see a bunch of houses in the distance. The area had a very eerie feeling to it, with all the windows shut, and ash spread over the ground.
“This is how we live. We live among ashes. We breathe ashes and bury our loved ones in this ash-mixed soil,” said Nagamma.
A few years ago, over 600 families lived in Seppakkam in Chennai. Now, there are just 60 families.
This is the result of accumulation of fly ash, a residue from the coal fired North Chennai Thermal Power station.
The Quint visited Kattukuppam along the banks of the Kosasthalaiyar river and Seppakkam that has turned into ash covered village to show the extent to which the groundwater, air and soil have been contaminated.
30 Years of Dumping Ash Has Polluted the Land, Air, and Sea
NCTPS is owned by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s subsidiary Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO). The pipelines carrying the ash slurry from the unit to the ash pond leak very often. NCPTS has dumped ash for at least 1,000 acres in this region for nearly 25 years and those affected have no means for survival.
NCTPS uses pipelines to transport coal across the Kosasthalaiyar river in Ennore in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvallur district and also redirects the ash slurry into the ash pond in Seppakkam.
Seppakkam: The Ash Village with Shut Windows
Seppakkam is located just 50 metres from the fly ash slurry of the North Chennai Thermal Power Station and is caked with ash dust so much that there is only ash as far as the eye can see.
Seppakkam has no clean water, clean air, transport, schools and hospitals and looks like a scene out of a dystopian world.
“When we dig in the graveyard, we do not find soil but only ash. We are unable to lay our loved ones to rest in our own soil. We bury them in ash and water. All this is because of people who have created industries that benefit the government. And we people who have lived here have to die in the ash,” said Prabhakaran.
There is so much ash accumulated that all the windows in the area have been sealed shut.
“The house always looks like it has not been cleaned for years. But just like how we take bath, cook food, clean utensils, we clean our house everyday,” said Nagamma.
New Breed in the Market: Ash Prawns
Konamudukku in the Kosasthlaiyar river, close to Kattukuppam village, has the richest marine biodiversity in the area. The mangroves are the lungs of the system. However, with illegal dumping of dredged spoils on salt farms and mangroves and building up of ash deposits on the riverbed due to spillage, the Ennore Creek is dying a slow death.
“Since ash began percolating into our soil, the fish and prawns populations have died down. Earlier, the water was so clear that you could see the bottom of the river. We used to bathe in the river,” said a fisherwoman.
TANGEDCO has blocked the river’s backwaters using dredged sea sand with dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper and chromium.
“This river is as rich as the Sanjevani hill with rich marine life. Three years ago, my friend and I caught fish and prawns that I sold for over two lakhs. Nowadays, we don’t even get a catch everyday. Even the fish and prawns are filled with ash,” said Kumaresan, a fisherman from Kattukuppam.
The once broad and deep waterway has become narrow and is just a few feet in depth. There are several species of fish and crab that have disappeared due to the continuous erosion of the mangroves and the ash deposits that have in fact formed several layers in the river bed.
What is shocking is that the ash has accumulated so much that the prawns have turned into ‘ash prawns'.
Respiratory & Skin Diseases Common
The people in these areas have been facing a host of health issues.
“We all face breathlessness and allergies. We often take our children to the hospital. We can’t sit outside and eat anything. I have undergone a heart operation and often face respiratory issues. I often stay somewhere else and during those times my health is good and once I return it deteriorates. I lie down most of the day as I can't handle the pollution,” said Nagamma.
An expert committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal tested samples from the water in Seppakkam and found high concentrations of toxic metals like copper, selenium, manganese, mercury and lead.
“People who are completely dependent on the river for sustenance have lost a lot which has caused a socio economic stress on their families. This has led to mental health issues. In the recent years, people have started turning alcoholics,” said Dr Vishvaja Sambath, Environment Health Researcher, Climate Action Group .
A 25-Year Long Appeal for Compensation, Clean Air & Water
On 19 July 2021, fisherfolk from Kattukuppam protested the illegal encroachment in Kosasthalaiyar river by TANGEDCO’s Ennore SEZ project. The work has been halted temporarily.
But for over 25 years, the people have been protesting and appealing to different political parties but even after 20 years, many have still not received any compensation or jobs.
In mid 1990s NCTPS Stage 1 (3,210 MW) was commissioned. In 2014, Stage 2 (2,600 MW) was commissioned. Now, stage 3 (800 MW) is under construction.
The locals have asked the company to fix the leaky pipelines, but there has not been much progress.
According to TANGEDCO 2020 report, there have been 22 instances of leaks. In two and a half hours of leakage time, 24 lakh litters of ash had leaked, suggested reports.
The people of Seppakkam don’t want to live in an ash-covered area anymore and want to be relocated. The people of Kattukuppam have appealed to TANGEDCO to clean up the accumulated dredged sand and bring the Kosasthalaiyar river back to life.
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