Standing chest-deep in the polluted Kosasthalaiyar River near Ennore, S Kumaresan (43), plucks out a handful of blood-red Polychaete worms and puts them in a mud bowl placed on a wooden plank which floats on the river. He coughs, scratches his itching skin and rubs his eyes, but all that does not stop him from going inside the water again to catch the worms, colloquially called ‘Poochi’, a bristle-bearing segmented worm present in the sludge at the bottom of a water body.
After staying inside the water briefly for a minute, he comes up to take a breather, to go back inside water again. “It takes 20-30 minutes to dig the sludge to remove the worms,’’ says Kumaresan.
As he finally comes out, about 10 worms are in his hand but his whole body is sullied by reeking sewage and effluent which has engulfed the river, ever since industries started coming up in Ennore decades ago.
Due to excessive water pollution, most fish in the river has disappeared, and the remaining fish too are highly filled with chemical content. This also pushed many fishermen to catch these worms, which they later export as prawn feed to Odisha and Andhra.This type of fishing has come with myriad health issues, mainly skin related problems like rashes, lesions typically psoriasis and hives. ‘‘To catch these worms, we stay in chest-deep water for almost eight ours daily and earn about 500 or 600 a day,’’ tells Kumaresan, to this reporter sitting on a boat opposite to him.
Narrating his sorrow tale, he said, out of his three sons, one died allegedly of cancer three months ago while the other son faces severe rain-related problems. He puts all the blame on the contaminated water and fish caught in the river. According to the Journal of Toxicology and Health published in 2017, the Kosasthalaiyar River is ‘‘awash with toxic chemicals like paraffin, aromatics, copper and nickel’’ which may cause “permanent disturbances to the marine ecosystem, leading to ecological degradation, by not just affecting the flora and fauna but also humans through the food chain.’’
‘‘All of us in the Kattukuppam village eat the contaminated fish. This doesn’t sell in the market as it tastes sour,’’ adds Kumaresan. The story is the same for hundreds of other fishermen, who are seen standing chest-deep in the River to catch ‘Poochi’, which is illegal as it disturbs the food chain. G Dhanaraj, (39), a fisherman comes out of the water and shows his face to click a photograph. There’s a black patch just above his cheeks. In his leg, the patches are bigger. He then says it is some type of a skin-disease for which he’s getting treated.
‘‘It has developed over the years getting inside the water. No amount of skin creams were helpful and I have only wasted thousands of rupees in medicine,’’ says Dhanaraj. Since there are no government hospitals in nearby except for few Public Health Centres, Ennore fishermen need to travel ten kilometers to go to Stanley or RSRM hospital in Royapuram.
The travel expenditure adds to their medical costs putting them further in poverty. ‘‘We don’t get to save anything from the Rs 600 we earn daily as medicine costs reach Rs 5000 a week,’’ adds Dhanaraj.
Unable to pay fees for their children, the kids mostly end up dropping out, leading to them also entering into fishing at a young age.
Facing health hazards and livelihood crisis, many fishermen have left their traditional livelihood and started seeking employment in the nearby industries. But only a few have had the luck.‘‘All the industries are in north Chennai but they rope in labourers from North India for work,’’ says M Raja (43), a fisherman. However, he is not very keen on leaving fishing but wants his river and livelihood back. Traditional fishes don’t come here anymore, say fishermen.
Kanakalatha (Indian Mackerel), Vaval Meen (Pomfret), Mathimeen (Sardine), and Era (prawns), says Raja, were the traditional fish which came to the river. Now they don’t come anymore. ‘‘So much restoration plans have been made for Adyar and Cooum, why Kosasthalaiyar is left out,’’ asks Raja.
TNIE had reported numerous times in 2019 about oily effluents being let into the river. Officials of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board were quick in only inspecting the spot but has not ensured if the pollution stopped.
‘‘Pipes from many industries are interlinked and finally, it comes out from one pipe ending in the river. Hence, it is tricky to find the offender,’’ said a TNPCB official.The official added that the Engineers had enquired the nearby industries along the river and it was found that none of them polluted and that the chemicals were coming from elsewhere through these pipes.
Meanwhile, oil, sewage, and fly-ash pollution have not stopped polluting the river. As this reporter returns back to the shore in Kattukuppam, apparently a thick layer of a substance suspected to be oil floats on the river moving towards the Ennore Estuary. ‘‘Don’t come in contact with it while getting down. It can cause severe irritation,’’ tells Raja. As the dusk was about to fall, he immediately returned to the river, as he can’t miss out on his day’s catch of Poochies.