The fluid materiality of water in liminal spaces like deltas and coastlines have prompted generative discussions about social and political organization.1→Franz Krause, “Towards an Amphibious Anthropology of Delta Life,” Human Ecology 45, no. 3 (June 2017): 403–8.
→Debjani Bhattacharyya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Within interdisciplinary environmental scholarship, following the movements of fish has been a powerful way to narrate the changing ecologies and social relations around water.2Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999More Info → In popular writing, one might read a climate story like this one, “Warming Waters, Moving Fish,” that narrates the stories of rising ocean temperatures in Iceland by tracing how fish are moving away to cooler waters. But what happens when an ethnographer of water tries to “follow the fish” in an industrial coastal region of India?

In Ennore, a heavily industrialized area of Chennai, India, a researcher attempting to follow fish often stumbles; even boats get stuck in the layers of fly ash from coal-fueled powerplants in the region. Since at least the 1960s, Ennore and the extended North Chennai coastline has become a site for the construction of industrial infrastructures such as coal powerplants, fertilizer manufacturing plants, and a port that handles dirty cargo like coal. Coastal waters from the river, estuary, and sea are drawn into pipelines to cool processed coal at the government-run coal powerplants or used as a sink to release hot oily industrial effluents from several privately owned fertilizer and chemical factories.

“To understand water in a place where it is deeply entangled with industrial toxics, one cannot simply follow fish through the polluted waters.”

The saturation of coastal waters by industrial substances has given rise to a context where any mention of fish and water is hyperpoliticized. When asked about fish, fishers in Ennore promptly respond with a long list of fish species that were once abundant but can no longer be found. At the same time, for fishers who still depend on fishing as their primary occupation, talking about fish is hard because it draws too much attention to the decades of water pollution. To understand water in a place where it is deeply entangled with industrial toxics, one cannot simply follow fish through the polluted waters. Instead, I follow what I call “fish-talk”—fishers’ narratives about fish that braid together moral ecologies about water, the political economy of the coast, and representation. To put it simply, I propose taking seriously how fishers talk or don’t talk about fish in order to understand the complexities of living with toxic industrial waters. Contrary to dominant imaginations of the fluidity of water, thinking with industrial water from places like Ennore demands attention to the moments when conversations about fish do not flow and when water itself does not flow.

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Image 1. View of a fisherman fishing in the river waters, surrounded by bridges and conveyor belts of the power plants. Photo by author.

Getting stuck in industrial waters

I had been in Ennore for several months and I hadn’t yet managed to meet anyone from Sivanpadaiveethi Kuppam, a fishing village where river fishers who work only in the Kosasthalaiyar River and the Buckingham Canal live. Within the social hierarchies in the region, they are one of the most precarious fishers, who operate small fishing crafts that can carry only one person at a time. They belong to the Sembadavar caste, which is different from the other seven villages in Ennore made up of Pattinavar caste fishers.3A. Bhagath Singh, “Social Control and Resource Utilisation among the Pattinavars, A Fishing Community in Northern Tamil Nadu,” (PhD diss., Pondicherry University, 2016). The occupational difference in fishing gear also maps on to lower social and caste status among fishers. Kannan Thozhar,4All names have been changed to protect the identities of the research participants. Thozhar is the Tamil word for “comrade,” used by people who share broad ideologically Left ideals. Anna is the Tamil word for “elder brother.” a new friend in Ennore, had relatives in the village and spent weeks trying to arrange a visit for me. But his relatives were wary.

One of those relatives, Mani Anna, depended mainly on fishing for his income. He would fish in the river and his wife would take the fish to markets to sell them. But as the pollution of the river water worsened, he was forced to take up wage-work elsewhere to support his family. Recurring events, ranging from leaking coal pipelines to an oil spill at sea, drew public attention to the quality of fish and water. Over the previous months, fish sales had fallen drastically due to news stories about chemicals in the water. Mani Anna and his family were scared that I might be a reporter who would take photos of the river, talk about pollution, and bring further attention to the quality of their fish. They only relaxed when they learned that I was doing this for research purposes and would not file any local news reports. Going on a boat ride with river fishers was an attempt to follow the fish and to trace the flows of water. But fish-talk pointed to a reluctance to draw public attention to fish and water. More broadly, this tense ethnographic encounter revealed what it meant to live with industrial waters.

“Our starting point that day was very close to an outlet pipe that released kazhivu neer (wastewater) filled with oily and chemical effluents from various fertilizer and oil companies along the riverbank into the river.”

Typically, river fishermen of Sivanpadaiveethi Kuppam navigate the waters of the Buckingham Canal and Kosasthalaiyar River on a kattumaram—a small, almost flat fishing craft, curved slightly at the edges, and designed to carry one person at a time. To support our party of four that day, Mani Anna and his friend tied two of the kattumaram boats together to make a larger craft. Though it was not very deep, the men had trouble pushing off the boat and getting it unstuck from the silted-up riverbed. Our starting point that day was very close to an outlet pipe that released kazhivu neer (wastewater) filled with oily and chemical effluents from various fertilizer and oil companies along the riverbank into the river. As Mani Anna tried to push off the boat, he remarked, “This happens often these days, there is simply too much seru (mud) for the boat to keep moving…we have to travel longer distances to be able to even see the fish these days.” Though he had been hesitant to talk about the quality of the water initially, the boat getting stuck on the silted riverbed made the inability to follow fish through familiar waters immediately apparent.

As we moved closer to the mugathwaram (estuary), the color of the water turned lighter and the oily film that seemed to coat the river water was less visible. Mani Anna jumped out of the boat at this point and exclaimed, “The water used to be so high that our kol (a long bamboo pole used to nudge the boat) would not even touch the floor. But look at me walking in knee-deep water now!” Near the mouth of the estuary, we inched closer to other pipelines from the North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS), which released sudu thanni (hot water) from coal powerplants into the estuary. The toxic chemicals from the industrial effluent often combined with other household wastewater flowing in from the rest of Chennai city killing the fish in the river.

Throughout this boat ride, fish-talk, or narratives about fish, was noticeably set in the past tense. My friend Kannan Thozhar recalled his childhood days growing up in Sivanpadaiveethi Kuppam when he could see prawns and different shoals of fish right by the shallowest parts of the water. Mani Anna laughed and said that it had been ages since he had seen fish right by the riverbanks. He remarked that the mugathwaram, especially the mouth of the estuary, was typically the most fertile grounds for fish to grow because of the mixing of the sea and waters. But the hot waters being released altered this ecology, making the water too warm for many varieties of fish to grow. To follow fish-talk about the sheer absence of fish in the estuary required understanding the conditions that make water industrial.

“The pollution in the river was palpably visible to us all and the water’s toxicity had implicitly become the subject of discussion.”

I had been told by my friend to refrain from asking direct questions about the chemical levels in the water or the toxicity of the fish. But at some point, the pollution in the river was palpably visible to us all and the water’s toxicity had implicitly become the subject of discussion. We spent the next few hours at Mani Anna’s home discussing the shifting river-fishing practices and the drastic changes in their lives as fishing became harder. Almost as if I had learned enough to correctly contextualize the toxicity of fish, my friend turned to me and explained, “You know about the controversies about there being formalin in the fish? All those stories affect their livelihood. Recently they also found selenium in the river waters and fish.” He referred to the 2017 scientific study by an expert panel convened by the National Green Tribunal, which was reported in the news as: “Loaded with poison, Ennore Creek fish not fit for consumption: study”.

Mani Anna shook his head saying, “There will be one issue or the other…some minister will eat fried fish and issue a statement saying there is no chemical in the fish, and it is safe to eat…but two months later, someone will start another rumor…they will say wastewater is flowing through the Buckingham Canal and the fish are polluted.” A long pause followed. He asked me, “If there is a dead rat lying on your path what would you do ma?” I replied, “Probably throw it away?” He ignored my comment and explained, “The fish are also living beings; will they stay in the same place where there are all these chemicals and stink? Will they not move away to where the water is good?” Yet, while he tried to follow fish out to cleaner waters, he was stuck living with the pollution.

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Image 2. View of the estuary framed by seawalls. Note the bluer color of waters at the estuary where the river waters meet sea waters. Photo by author.

Of rumors and scientific reports

Thinking with water from the boat drew our joint attention to the fish that moved away, the entanglements between water and toxic industrial substances, and the remaking of the estuarine waters into industrial infrastructure. How do we, then, make sense of Mani Anna’s account that the toxicity of the water was a rumor? It is tempting to return to the scientific reports on the chemical levels in the water to establish an empirical truth about water and its pollution. But what if we take these scientific accounts not simply as fact, but follow the work they do in the world, as narratives that reify the toxicity of places and the bodies of people who are already vulnerable? And what if we take accounts about water’s toxicity-as-rumor as a theory about how water behaves in a context where its toxicity was too real and consequential? Writing about seawater, Stefan Helmreich suggests that water is not simply a “theory machine” to think metaphorically about social life.5Stefan Helmreich, “Nature/Culture/Seawater,” American Anthropologist 113, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 132–44. Rather, water is simultaneously abstract—people have their own theories about water—and real. Thus, following fish-talk refers not only to the missing fish or polluting industries, but also to the complexity of living in a messy, polluted world. Both the scientific reports and the narratives that insist pollution is a rumor point to a messy politics of living amidst industrial waters.

Alongside fish-talk that is marked by silences, Ennore’s fishers also take part in a louder form of fish-talk that insists on calling attention to pollution. During my fieldwork, several fishers in sea, river, and estuary fishing villages in Ennore collaborated with activists and journalists over the Save Ennore Creek campaign. These forms of activism rely on an evidentiary politics of documenting the presence of chemicals in water and generating public awareness. They also seek to hold institutions accountable through legal representation. River fisher-activists in neighboring villages explain that their lives have already been affected by the pollution in the waters. They reckon that the additional scrutiny might at least bring awareness among a broader public and might generate support against further pollution.

“Both fisher-activists and fishers like Mani Anna, who are reluctant to speak about fish, share a landscape where fish and water in Ennore have become inseparable from industrial substances.”

Within the social hierarchies among fishers in the region, fishers in Mani Anna’s village are considered lower in social status compared to others in estuary or sea-fishing villages who work on bigger boats. Though all fishers were impacted by pollution, people like Mani Anna had fewer resources to shift to other forms of work and still hoped to make a living by fishing in polluted waters. They were less inclined to talk to reporters and document pollution. The differentiated responses among fishers also begs the simple question: Who feels able to speak loudly and who feels unable to? Both fisher-activists and fishers like Mani Anna, who are reluctant to speak about fish, share a landscape where fish and water in Ennore have become inseparable from industrial substances. In a heavily industrialized place like Ennore, where water is hyperpoliticized, both silences and speech of fishers reveal how fishers situate themselves in an uneven terrain of politics around water in the area. The louder, activist forms of fish-talk and the quieter, reluctant forms of fish-talk both reveal the ambivalence around how to live with and respond to toxicity.

Writing about the politics of toxicity, science technology studies scholars declare, “We take as our starting point a permanently polluted world.”6Max Liboiron, Manuel Tironi, and Nerea Calvillo, “Toxic Politics: Acting in a Permanently Polluted World,” Social Studies of Science 48, no. 3 (June 1, 2018): 331–49. As opposed to privileging politics that seek to expose pollution and bring about change through governmental action, they draw attention to quieter actions that are nevertheless political. This is not to suggest that environmental movements do not matter, but to point to the multitude of actions that offer other ways of acting in a permanently polluted world. Taking the knowledge that Ennore’s waters are toxic as a starting point, the puzzle posed by my story is not to rediscover or prove that pollution exists. Rather, I think with Mani Anna to pay attention to the quieter forms of fish-talk that articulate the ambivalence of fishing and living in visibly polluted waters. Can we imagine a politics of water that attends to these uneven, reluctant forms of actions that stake out ethical living in an already polluted world?

Banner photo: Niranjan Ramesh/Flickr.

References:

1
→Franz Krause, “Towards an Amphibious Anthropology of Delta Life,” Human Ecology 45, no. 3 (June 2017): 403–8.
→Debjani Bhattacharyya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
2
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999More Info →
4
All names have been changed to protect the identities of the research participants. Thozhar is the Tamil word for “comrade,” used by people who share broad ideologically Left ideals. Anna is the Tamil word for “elder brother.”
5
Stefan Helmreich, “Nature/Culture/Seawater,” American Anthropologist 113, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 132–44.
6
Max Liboiron, Manuel Tironi, and Nerea Calvillo, “Toxic Politics: Acting in a Permanently Polluted World,” Social Studies of Science 48, no. 3 (June 1, 2018): 331–49.