I am sure all those who travelled by mail to Madras Central in the 50s and early 60s had something pleasant to share with today’s generation. For, as the mail was heading to Madras Central early in the morning, one is greeted by fresh cool breeze from the serene blue waters dotted by lush green mangroves while the golden rays of the rising Sun in the far east of the chugging train light up the rippling waves…and amidst those glistering reflections there the fishermen sailing out in their tiny boats to Bay of Bengal in the east to catch their share of bounty of sea wealth …subtly reminding the viewers of their grit and determination — the hallmark of success… What a scene to greet the day!
Today, you travel by the same track and you would be disappointed for, the waters are no longer blue, indeed they are darkened, air smells acrid, a fine haze of toxic fly-ash hangs in the atmosphere that neither allows you to breathe fully, nor did it allow you to see the rising Sun in the far. A nearby coal-fired thermal power station discharges hot water right into the mouth of estuary destroying the very ecosystem beyond recognition. Instead of seeing dotting boats in the roaring waters you would come across beastly cranes digging out earth, fly-ash dykes of thermal plants or scores of migratory workers shovelling mud in that hellish atmosphere or rows of shanties — the so-called dwelling places of these migratory labourers.
It is sitting amidst this devastating backdrop of the coast — the Ennore Creek located about 20 km north of Chennai stretching to 5 km along the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal — that the Magsaysay Awardee, TN Krishna, a noted Carnatic classical vocalist, sang ‘Chennai Poramboke paadal’ sometime back. Wearing a gas mask, perhaps to protect himself from the air-pollution, he sings, “Poramboke ennaku illai, poramboke unnaku illai (Poramboke is not for me, it is not for you) Poramboke ooruike, Poramboke bhoomikku (Poramboke is for the city, it is for the Earth) …” with improvisations of his own to the accompaniment of violin, mridangam and kanjira. The song, lamenting at the inaction of the government and the apathy of the people at the corporate greed that is encroaching into even Poramboke lands in the guise of “growth, jobs, opportunities… just flimsy excuses” reminds the public that “Poramboke is in your care… it is our common responsibility towards nature, towards the earth.” A laudable effort to draw the attention of the otherwise indifferent government and the ignorant public towards this unmindful exploitation of nature.
To better appreciate the mocking of Krishna at the indifferent government we must first understand what ‘Poramboke’ stands for. According to revenue records, Poramboke “denotes un-assessed lands reserved for communal and public use, including commons such as cremation or burial grounds, roads, lakes, tanks, rivers, forests, grasslands, grazing grounds, and the margins of roads, water bodies and the sea.” Incidentally, the word, ‘Poramboke’ is also used as a slang to denote a useless fellow/ a fellow worth for nothing of the village.
But with the advent of independence, slowly the ruling class started encroaching these lands to maximize their economic gain. Over the years, it became so rampant that if you travel across the country you would notice occupation of these common lands—margins of roads, waterbeds, banks of water bodies like tanks, drains, canals and even rivers—for commercial exploitation by the neo-rich including corporates and for erecting hutments by the marginalized of the society.
Indeed, the occupation of Poramboke lands for erecting hutments by the marginalised of the society is so rampant that no village is today left with the once notified as Poramboke lands mostly as grazing lands for cattle. This kind of encroachment across the country has become such a sensitive issue that no government agency is in a mood to touch them.
The net result of this illegal occupation of Poramboke lands for individual/corporates’ benefit is:
- one, hindrance to the natural flow of rain-water into sea through drains, rivers, etc. leading to inundation of cities and towns and farm lands in every rainy season;
- two, pollution of water bodies by the sewage, industrial effluents and garbage discharged by these establishments;
- three, research studies indicate that concentration of heavy metals in such sites is resulting in bioaccumulation—toxicants are becoming a part of human food through plant and animal products; and
- four, air-pollution too is assuming alarming propositions.
Though neo-classical economics textbooks proclaim that markets endowed with private property rights and contracts are better equipped to deliver efficiency and equity but in the real world it does not appear to happen that way, at least always. Even the prophet of market economy, Adam Smith, is perhaps aware of it when he said: “Creating harmony between the pursuit of self-interest and the pursuit of social welfare depends on the constraints on self-interest.” But the scope for the operation of such a ‘constraint’ on man’s behavior appears slim: for ‘Man’, as enunciated by grandsire Bhishma in The Mahabharata, is a slave to money—arthasya purusha dasah.
This makes abundantly clear how important it is for the people and the government to assert and put a stop to this exploitation of environment beyond repair by greedy indiviuals/corporates, etc. And that is what Krishna and his colleagues are mocking at through their ‘padal’ song.
Incidentally, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University, USA, the first woman to win Nobel in Economics, proposed a new architecture of governance for such common pool resources. Based on her field research, she proposed ‘polycentric governance’, which involves:
- one, clearly defining boundaries of common resources;
- two, adapting rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources to local conditions;
- three, collective-choice arrangements;
- four, effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
- five, a scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
- six, cheap and easy access mechanisms of conflict resolution; and
- seven, recognition of the self-determination of the community by higher-level authorities.
Though conservatives from the Carnatic-music world denounced Krishna’s resorting to such singing, it must be appreciated that “mocking birds… sing their hearts out for us”, and aroused by it common folk must muster enough courage to assert themselves as not - porambokes but worthy and capable of stopping this perilous course of encroaching poramboke lands and ensure that poramboke lands remain Poramboke for the good of all and earth as a whole. And the least that we all could do is: not “to kill a mockingbird.”