(Written in the year 2002)
When I visited the Adyar creek the other day, I saw that everthing had disappeared without leaving a trace. I decided to write the story of my closest encounter with 'development'. A real life story pregnant with passion and built on clichéd ideas like 'creating a better world to live in'.
1997 April. I was fresh out of college and had joined Exnora as a project officer. It was my first major project and what came to be called my pet project. I was part of this small team with my colleagues that organised a 15-day summer workshop on environment for college and school students. Thirty students signed up seeing our advertisement in the newspaper.
We chose the Adyar creek - estuary right at the heart of the city as our study area. We knocked at the doors of taxonomy experts, water and soil quality experts, social scientists, wildlife experts, who all enthusiastically agreed to be the resource persons. With their help, we did a fairly thorough study (for our levels of competence) of the environmental-socio-economic status of the creek. We prepared water and soil quality reports using portable kits and lab tests. We explored inaccessible parts of the creek covered with thick vegetation, prepared a herbarium of some 70 species of plants and learnt all their tongue-twister botanical names. We enumerated the fauna and grew fond of the really special ‘dhobi’ crabs. One of their two claws is longer, and when they crawl moving them up and down they really look like dhobis (washermen) in action! At the end of it all, we produced a decent report, which was the first of its kind, and made it in all the leading newspapers “Young people set out to restore the creek”. One of the several points of action suggested was to restore the mangroves along the banks. We learnt that mangroves played an important role in the estuarine ecosystem by treating the polluted water, helping in water recharge, acting as a cyclone barrier preventing erosion, and most importantly lending their complex aerial root formations for natural nurseries of fish and prawn. It seemed like an irresistible first project to me, and a few of us decided to take it up seriously. I landed in what I still consider one of my most intense learning experiences.
We just could not ignore this eyesore of a monstrous apartment building right on the bank of the creek, which was being built by this industrial baron violating every Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) rule possible. (For those familiar with Chennai, it is the place where Jayalalitha had held one of the most ostentatious weddings ever of her foster son several years ago.) When we questioned the supervisors engaged in the construction work, they threatened to run us over with their trucks. That was enough to provoke us to take them to court for ‘justice’. We carefully learnt the CRZ rules and joined hands with the Consumer Action Group (CAG) to file a PIL in the High Court. “No building may be built within 500 metres from the high-tide line”. And this building was not even 50 metres away. 50 is 450 away from 500. How could we lose the case? We dreamt of hitting the headlines “College students teach the construction baron (CB) a fine lesson.”
When I first heard the name ‘mangroves’, I really thought it was ‘mango groves’ misspelled. After sufficient clarification, I spent the next few days learning about these amazing plants that survived in brackish water, spreading out their roots embracing, protecting and nurturing other forms of life. We approached some scientists at the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) “Could you help us plant mangroves along the Adyar Creek?” Most were skeptical and some did not even take us seriously. Persistence paid, when the last person we approached, Hemal Kavinde was quite sympathetic and agreed to help. It was a feeling of immense accomplishment!
We organised a workshop on mangroves for the volunteers. Beginning with ‘what are mangroves?’, the workshop ended in drawing up an ambitious plan of action to restore the mangroves. Roles and responsibilities were assigned to everyone. Hemal was excited to see our enthusiasm and decided to work with us. We maintained a logbook, where we religiously recorded day-to-day developments. We learnt that the creek and its bank belonged to the Public Works Department (PWD), from whom we had to obtain permission. After several trips to the PWD with a carefully drafted letter edited several times over, an officer finally turned up for site-inspection. After several weeks of waiting and following-up, we were disheartened to receive a letter from the PWD “We reject your proposal because you will be interfering with the river”. Well, it made perfect sense in their worldview of “rivers and lakes as cemented channels and containers of water to be controlled and manipulated by the humans”. We even tried to pull strings through C.Subramaniam, whose son was our well wisher and used to call us young people ‘live wires’. We waited for hours at CS’s house expecting the then PWD minister who was coming there to meet him, with a rapid two-minute presentation on the need to restore mangroves. This was going to be our last shot at doing this the legal way. The minister refused and we made a decision to go ahead with our “illegal” activities.
Then followed a fun-trip to Pichavaram, this vast mangrove swamp near Chidambaram, where MSSRF had their field station. There is this variety of mangrove called Rhizophora that isn’t found anywhere in or around Chennai. Its stunning character has to be seen to be believed! We went by boats, splashed water on one another, picked and plucked 1000 seeds and propagules (drumstick like seeds of rhizophora), gathered them in huge gunny bags and returned with excitement and dreams. Like the milk lady who dreamt about becoming rich, on our way back we imagined the Adyar Creek as this thick forest that would be noticeable on a remote sensing map in a few years! We brought family and friends together for an eventful preparation of the mangrove nursery. We then set out to the fisherfolk village near the creek, Srinivasapuram, to seek their involvement in our project. “Community participation” was a new jargon, and a radical idea at that, for all of us then, which we used quite liberally in all our discussions, talks and reports.
Srinivasapuram is a huge settlement with several hundred families who have been living there for many generations. We went there with our agenda of telling them “See, do you understand that your fish catch has gone down from 32 baskets a day to a mere two because the mangroves have been destroyed? Let’s all work together to bring them back.” They got back to us with their own problem, which was that their livelihoods and their very homes were at threat by the CB, who was contemplating filling up a wetland which was a rich source of fish, and removing this “slum” from the sight of the occupants of the apartment building. “Can you do something about that?” We thought we had done our best by filing the PIL, writing about it in the newspapers and organizing signature campaigns. We saw this as a distraction from our “real work” and decided to “stay focused”.
Meanwhile we mobilised some support to build a fence around the 100 m stretch and involved the fishermen in the work. We organised slide shows in the settlement and huge crowds would gather. It was a first crack at public speaking for many of us. We wrote articles in magazines. We were giving speeches in school assemblies and other gatherings. Chennaionline.com did an online petition for us. Thus was born the “Save Adyar Creek” campaign.
We had to wait for the monsoons to come and go, so that the salinity of the estuary water reduced. Young mangroves cannot tolerate too much salt, we learnt. The day arrived for the Rhizophora propagules (seeds) and young avicennia saplings to be transplanted. Very carefully, one foot apart in four neat rows. Wearing gumboots and sinking into the slush, half sewage. Even the stench of the dirty water could not stop us. We were committed to seeing it through.
Over the next one year, we took turns to show up every morning at six to see if the plants had survived the night. If the PWD got to know of our “illegal” plantation, they wouldn’t hesitate to destroy the whole thing overnight, we were told. Or if the CB got angry, he could effortlessly do it during his morning walk. But luckily for us, nothing of that sort happened. We watched the baby plants grow. We watched as the first leaves came out, the first aerial root appeared, the first spider crawled over the avicennia and built its web, the first snail climbed onto the leaf, the first sparrow sat on the plant, and the first prawn eggs were laid at the roots. It gave us the excitement of watching a baby turn over, crawl, teeth, utter its first word, sit up, stand and walk. I adopted an avicennia plant at the right end in the second row. We regularly visited the creek to chop off the overgrown, deadly, thorny prosopis branches from around and remove by hand, used and thrown syringes, broken medicine bottles, sanitary napkins, plastic bags and other hospital wastes that would get washed onto the bank by the receding tide, choking the small baby plants. We would return with bruises all over in spite of the use of gloves and boots. We battled through missing casuarina poles from the fence stolen by some local people. One day, they were caught red-handed and beaten up by the fishermen who had worked with us and put them back in place.
On our way back home after hard physical labour, we would stop by this fish farm right next to the creek. There was a series of six ponds, where we used to spend long hours watching this beautiful, blue kingfisher catch fish and relaxing under the shade of the trees. “A humble beginning, but a great future. Even long journeys begin with a small first step.” We used to sit and dream about how the place would turn into a haven for birds, an irresistible mangrove forest. The PWD would come to chop them down. And the people would protest. May be another ‘chipko movement’. Why not? Who knows?
Gradually activity stopped, as we thought we had done our best and just waited for the plants to take care of themselves and grow big.
A year and a half later in May 1999, I was away in the USA for six months participating in the ‘World Conservation Corps’ in Seattle. Young people from all over the world worked in crews trying to restore degraded ecosystems in Washington state. I learnt that the American government was spending millions of dollars to recreate wetlands and restore the curves of straightened rivers. I was determined to take these lessons back home.
The very next day on my return to India, I rode to the site to see our baby plants again. Half of them were gone; dead or eaten by cattle. The fence had collapsed. Hemal consoled me “This is the normal survival rate. And especially given a polluted water like this one, you are actually lucky to have so many still pulling along.” My adopted avicennia was barely surviving! We organised more repair and care-taking work.
I was invited to share my experiences working on restoring river systems and lessons learnt from the US on how not to interfere with natural systems. The occasion was a workshop organized by the TN Pollution Control Board. The audience was the 21 Chief Engineers of the PWD of Tamil Nadu, who were in charge of different rivers and river basins in the state. “The Duwammish river in Washington state had been straightened for city planning and flood prevention purposes in the early 1900s. After several decades, this straightening has damaged the ecosystem. The endangered salmon fish and all the local varieties of plants are fast disappearing. The Government is spending millions of dollars trying to undo what they had thought would be a harmless manipulation of nature.” Well aware of the PWD’s similar plans for the Adyar river, I cautioned that it would be a move in the wrong direction. “Planting mangroves and other native species of plants and trees would strengthen the banks much better than cementing them.” Just as I mentioned that, the Engineer in charge of the Adyar river rose and began to scream “I was waiting for this very moment. Young lady, had you wondered all along who was the man who rejected your proposal to plant mangroves in Adyar? Now see, it was ME. You have the audacity to do it illegally, and then come here to teach us lessons? ………. ” The director of the institute had to come in to end his tirade. The sad part was that we could not have any discussion after my presentation. The good part was that some of the engineers who came to me to apologise on behalf of their colleague, thanked me for sharing this ‘new perspective’ with them. They promised to do more reading on river ecosystems.
About eight months later, I again disappeared from town for a year and returned in the summer of 2001 and rushed back to the site. Many more plants were gone. My adopted avicennia was leafless, charred and dead. The CB had started filling up with construction rubble, a wetland nearby that used to get inundated twice everyday during high tides leaving behind prawn and fish that the fisherfolk heavily depended on. They couldn’t do this! It had to be reported. We arranged for reporters to be taken to the site to be shown the rate at which the leftover extent of water was disappearing at the will of the CB. We took the Hindu reporter first, who was rather careful and shot some pictures. The security guards had taken note of them and had immediately alerted the higher-ups. The court case was at its peak then, and the CB very watchful. When we took the Indian Express reporter, we were questioned “Why are you here? What do you want?”, and we barely escaped the scene with some excuses. That night, we were getting calls from the Hindu office saying that the CB was putting pressure, even threatening them to stop them from publishing any article. The Indian Express published it anyways.
But what happened of all that reporting and writing? The CB had gotten real smart with the CRZ loophole. “No building may be built within 500 metres from the high-tide line. BUT, if a road exists, then construction may be allowed on the landward side of the road.” We had taken several pictures to prove that no road existed at all. According to the Revenue department, there was a 'cart track' that the CB claimed to mean a proper road. And while the case was going on, a pucca road was being laid, which no one took credit or discredit for. That was not all. They even managed to produce a written report from some scientists (from an acclaimed Technology Institute located in Adyar) that the building was "indeed" over 500 m from the high-tide line. The court had to believe reports of “reputed” institutions, and we lost the case after a long, hard fight.
I disappeared again for a year and returned in April 2003. I did not rush there this time. I just stopped by when I was riding my bike by that way several weeks after my return.
The fish farms were gone. With them was gone the beautiful blue kingfisher. In their place was a huge building and a metro water station. All the wetlands on the way were built up. With a deep sigh, I proceeded to check out the progress of the apartment complex. "Whew! Imagine waking up to this view every morning!" greeted a hoarding the size of a one-storeyed building. I read it out aloud to see how it felt, and continued in the same breath "and if you think those settlements of the poor are unsightly, come back in just a few more days and we would have taken care of them for you!" I proceeded to the mangrove site to see these two trees of Rhizophora grown real tall, looking healthy, flowering and fruiting, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next season. The only Rhizophora in Adyar. Just the two of them standing side by side, being there for each other. Because the dhobi crabs were gone; the birds were gone. Even the snails and spiders were gone. Just the two trees half covered by the rubble from the construction that we had once dreamt of stopping. The rubble that the CB had been heartlessly pushing into the waters so he could acquire (or create) more land, grow bigger, increase his profits. The roots of the leftover two trees were covered under the rubble, and the moment I saw them, I knew they’d be dead and gone in a matter of days.
I did my customary taking the Indian Express reporter there. She listened intently to my story and said “Mm. This time, we will do a positive story about how the plants have survived all these years, defeating the prediction of some of the experts that they wouldn’t. Let me know when they are gone and we will do a negative story.” And so she did a ‘positive story’ for the newspaper.
When I visited the creek a month ago, I saw that every inch of the creek near the building has been filled up and 'made into land' and fenced by the CB, but there was still this route to the mangrove site left open. The security guard did not even allow to go so what had happened. I tried my tricks and somehow got in preparing myself for the worst, and possibly my last visit to that place. Everthing had disappeared without leaving a trace
I was not so emotional when I began writing this story; not even during my last visit to the creek. But now as I am nearing the end of my narration, reliving every moment of joy, pain, accomplishment and passionate work, somehow my heart has become heavy.
There are many projects around the world aiming to protect and restore mangrove forests. When thousands of hectares of pristine forests, water bodies and tribal lands are disappearing, why am I making a fuss over this seemingly insignificant story that happened right in the heart of Chennai? What else can one expect in a growing metropolis? Why was this story important? There are many reasons I decided to write this story. This is the only one I have encountered closely enough to write about. Other than the remnants of the project – photo albums, reports, communication files, posters and our own distant memories – the story has left no trace. Some of my friends who were part of this effort call it a miserable failure. If the story could be recorded and shared widely, offer new insights and lessons to its readers, and contribute to the collective learning of the human kind, I would consider it a success.
The Adyar Creek campaign was my introductory course in applied science, management, advocacy, public speaking, and most importantly, what raked up tons of questions about the processes of ‘development’, urbanization and the working of the world. When I once took a long-lost friend to the creek, she did not understand my point about the plants and crabs. She looked at the soaring construction and said “Not bad! Chennai is developing so fast!!” I saw myself asking her “So what?” The Adyar Creek experience made me ask “Do I really know what ‘development’ is about, a term that I so liberally use and hear? Do I know what is involved in laying new roads, constructing new buildings, building new power plants?” The Adyar Creek campaign was the first step in my long journey to understand the nature of 'development'.
Looking back, if there is one thing that I think contributed the most to my learning through the Adyar Creek experience, it was my naïvete (actually, for many of us). I owe a lot to it because it helped me dream, churn out new ideas by the hour and try them out without thinking twice. I have shed my naivete for the most part. But even as I dig deeper into uncovering the idea of ‘development’, I still dream about taking part in “creating a better world to live in”.
This panoramic photograph (looking westward) was shot from Srinivasapuram in April 1997. Behind the photographer is the Bay of Bengal. The Adyar river flowing East to join the Bay of Bengal is on the left most corner of the picture. On the other side of the river is the Theosophical Society, which has preserved its mangroves intact. What you see here is the creek which once encircled the Quibble island to join back the river upstream. The western part of the Quibble island has been ‘developed’, and this is what was left of the eastern part. The area circled in pink used to be the wetland. This along with the rest of the area, including the small finger of water in the middle have all been filled up and fenced for further development.
I started my exploration with the definition of ‘development’. In simple terms, it means “a higher standard of living” for the people. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the measure of a country’s ‘development’ is the total market value of all final goods and services produced in a given year. In the Adyar Creek story, some people moved into a bigger apartment complex. All the construction material (goods) and construction labour (services) would have contributed to a higher GDP of India, however minutely. So, in both ways I made sure that Adyar Creek was a definite case of ‘development’.
I wondered what ‘development’ would mean, look and feel like to the different role players in the story. To the fish, crabs, mangroves, ‘development’ probably means something that they’d pray to God everyday to keep away from them; for if it appears anywhere in the vicinity, they will have to give up their homes and lives. To the water birds, ‘development’ probably means big and small square boxes in 'bird’s eye view' that would make them wonder “But, just last year around, didn’t I see a patch of fresh water right here? These humans!” To the fishermen, ‘development’ means giving up their lands, livelihoods and lives for something larger for the cause of the nation (that they would neither understand nor be part of) they would be told. To the local middle-class dwellers, ‘development’ probably means huge architectural marvels in their neighbourhood; a promise to them of a new supermarket in the locality. To the residents of Chennai who drive by the Adyar bridge everyday, ‘development’ probably means this ‘cool’ building that has changed the skyline of Adyar forever, adding pride to the city. To the revenue department officials, it probably means an opportunity to earn some extra money. To the building barons, ‘development’ probably means higher profits, some impressive numbers in their glossy brochure of the new building complex, a rising slope on their revenue graph, a promising future, a few more cars, a new bank account; service to the upper-middle class who would move in to the apartment building.
A lesson I came away with was that whether ‘development’ was good or bad, it had certain consequences. ‘When ‘development’ happens, plants and animals must relocate or die; the poor must relocate or perish. When there is resistance to ‘development’, money power can be used to buy knowledge institutions and government records, threats may be used and violence inflicted as and when necessary.’ Some of my friends whom I shared my findings with, argued that ‘development’ was possible without any of these. I thought hard but failed to understand how the crabs could have co-existed with the construction rubble, the wetlands with the building to come up on top of it; how migratory birds could have continued to visit if the vegetation was gone. If the CB had sat down with the fisherfolk for negotiation, I didn’t see how they could have allowed their very livelihoods to be taken away from them. Even if the CB had indeed adequately compensated the entire settlement, I wondered if he would have found his construction viable in the first place!
Just as I was pondering over these questions and possibilities, I came across two independent pieces of information. The stock price of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest company owning and operating prisons in the USA, increased eleven fold from January 1995 to August 1997 from $ 4.12 a share to $ 45 a share.1 Due to loss of livelihoods, the crime rate was increasing in Srinivasapuram. When I placed the two pieces together, I arrived at a terrifying picture. The fishermen were not only losers in the game of ‘development’, but also potential contributors to the country’s GDP by ending up in prisons (which could be privatised following the American model) for their crimes! In place of the mangroves, which helped treat polluted water and control floods, there could now be companies installing sewage treatment plants and building flood retention walls, further increasing our GDP. If we continued at this rate, in 2020, I wondered if our nation would be flooded with reports on ‘successful growth rates’, gazillion products and services, and a few life forms here and there, because most of it would have been either sacrificed in the process of ‘development’ or locked up in private prisons. I wondered if it would matter at all if we were to become a ‘developed’ nation fulfilling Abdul Kalam’s Vision 2020!
My next step was to investigate if India was indeed poor and underdeveloped before colonisation. Here are my findings. India was more literate than it is now. Between 1812-13, Madras Presidency had one school for every 1,000 of its population and a total of 1,094 colleges.2 any British experts, who were sent to India in the early 1800s on a mission to study Indian farming and irrigation methods and suggest improvements, resoundingly praised Indian practices as being highly developed and most appropriate for Indian conditions. Many suggested that they’d better bring British farmers to learn from their Indian counterparts.3 Indian agricultural productivity was as high as 10 tons per hectare in some villages in Tamil Nadu. The annual availability of food in Chengalpattu in 1760s averaged 5 tons per household4 (while the national average in India today is 0.75 tons) Of course our society was far from being perfect and had its share of problems. But if good health, education levels and general prosperity are any indication of development, India was far more developed than she is today.
But even this prosperous society, where people lived in abundance, were educated and were much healthier than today, did not pass my modern ‘development’ test. Vaidyas(doctors) were paid based on how healthy the people were, and not on how many varieties of diseases and patients they treated spending money and resources. Many products and services were exchanged based on their inherent values and were not given currency values dictated by a laissez-faire market economy. Communities and families were close-knit offering services like child care, old-age care and cooking, and did not have child care centers, old-age homes and fast-food restaurants. So, in so many ways our healthy, traditional society would not have contributed to the country’s GDP, whereas the modern society, which is unhealthy, disintegrating and violent generously contributes to the nations’s GDP.
I then heard Narmada Bachao Andolam's slogan "Vikas Chahiye! Vinash Nahin! (We want 'development, not destruction!' My shock combined with curiosity to understand how an entire civilisation had been led to believe 'development' to mean destruction, got me digging deeper. Harry Truman, the American President, had stated in his speech on January 20, 1949, "We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas." He declared that the post-colonial and impoverished nations with large rural populations and subsistence cultures were “underdeveloped” and that achieving American style industrial society was the goal of the ‘development’ path. Truman’s speech had placed ‘development’ on the international agenda for the first time.6 Could it be that we were blindly fulfilling Truman’s dream?
I was somehow sure that there must be someone somewhere who had cracked this question and was leading the society out of its amnesia, redefining development to mean betterment. My search took me to Rajendra Singh, Anna Hazare7 and many others, who are doing exactly this. Prosperous villages, plenty of water and food, better lives, sound conflict resolution mechanisms. They say “How does it matter to us if we do not contribute to the country’s GDP in a big way? We are happy.” Could this be real development?
A full-page advertisement appears in the newspapers every Independence Day flanked by gleaming faces of Vajpayee and Abdul Kalam proudly announcing “Marching towards a developed India by 2020”. When I saw it just a year before I had set out on my journey, I had all my hairs standing up in a patriotic sensation. Just a year after, I felt a stir in my stomach. Last year I felt a chill through my spine.
At the end of it all, I may have only more questions than answers. But I know one thing for sure. If I were to go back to Srinivasapuram with a proposal to restore the mangroves, I would not see their request for help to save their livelihoods as a distraction from my real work. That has now become the core of my real work.
2. The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian education in the eighteenth century; Dharampal; 1983
3. Decolonizing History: Technology and Culture in India, China and the West 1492 to the Present Day; Claude Alvares; 1991
4. Thirupporur and Vadakkuppattu: Eighteenth Century Locality Accounts; M.D. Srinivas, T.G.Parasuram, T.Pushkala; Centre for Policy Studies; 2001
5. Narmada Bachao Andolan is a people’s movement fighting for the rights of citizens of Narmada Valley, challenging the Government’s idea of “development” by building large dams. www.narmada.org
6. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as power; edited by Wolfgang Sachs; 1992
7. Anna Hazare revived the economy of a village in Maharashtra, and Rajendra Singh of an entire district in Rajasthan through rain water harvesting.www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/inspirational/tbs.html; www.rainwaterharvesting.org/Rural/Ralegan.htm