Exactly a fortnight after Ennore was declared an environmental crime scene by noted Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna in a song that went viral, two ships collided just outside the Kamarajar Port Ltd (KPL) in Ennore leading to a horrible oil spill that has hurt more than 45 km of Chennai’s coastline. Predictably, KPL’s first response was to contain its liability and reputational damage by issuing a trite statement assuring us that “There is no damage to the environment like oil pollution...All top officials of port are closely monitoring and the situation is under control.”
Chennai is probably the only Indian city geographically unsuited to be the site of a port but has three mega ports on a 20-km beach front. Far from being the engine of growth, Sagarmala, with its string of ports, is proving to be a noose of death for local economies.
Within a day, visible evidence belied KPL’s statement. The oil spill had become an oil slick. The slick had broken into several patches creeping southwards aided by wind and prevailing currents. Beaches in nearby fishing villages were covered in black gooey tar; the near-shore waters were a thick oily soup swaying on the waves, even as a heavy stench of petroleum lingered in the air. Petroleum – a cocktail of persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic, even carcinogenic, hydrocarbons – was in the air, water and the beach sands.
Two days later, as the slick began licking the shoreline of the Marina beach, state ports minister Pon Radhakrishnan announced that there was no spill. We were being told that our eyes were lying and the truth was what the minister said.
Oil spills are dangerous. But what is more dangerous is the impunity with which agencies such as KPL and people like the minister can deceive, deny and underplay a situation. Six days into the disaster, there is still no official estimate of the quantum of the spill or the substance that spilled.
The port was busy denying the spill even as the Coast Guard went at it with buckets and the pathetically little equipment it had. Forget Digital India.
Estimates place the spilled amount anywhere between one tonne and 20. As spills go, this is not an Exxon Valdez. That 1989 spill saw 36,000 tonnes of crude emptying into Alaskan waters. That could happen here. In fact, if it can happen anywhere, it is here that it will happen given that we have set ourselves up as a disaster magnet.
What should bother us is not whether this is a big spill or a small spill, but how we have responded to it. We did have a technological deficit. Next time around, we can improve that by importing better technology. But what are we going to do about the integrity deficit – where KPL and minister felt they could lie to us? What about the regulatory deficit? Agencies such as the environment ministry, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the State Coastal Zone Management Authority have made a virtue of rubber-stamping project licences, short-circuiting due diligence in the name of easing the doing of business. But they are absent when it comes to containing the consequences of the businesses they front.
If this is the manner in which a minor spill is lied about and mishandled, then what chance do we stand if there is a radioactive mishap in Kalpakkam or Koodankulam.
Actually, containing disasters such as oil spills and radioactive leaks can wait. First, we need to figure out how to manage the disaster that our governments and businesses have become.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist associated with the Save Ennore Creek campaign