Protect common land - Indian classical singer makes unusual appeal

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A popular Indian classical singer stars in a new music video appealing for the protection of common land in Chennai city, amid an increasingly bitter fight over the use of communal lands for industry and development.

'Chennai Poromboke Paadal', or Chennai common land song, sung by Carnatic music vocalist T.M. Krishna, is about the destruction of Ennore creek in the southern Indian city.

While the world "poromboke" in Tamil originally meant community land, including water sources and grazing land, it has come to be used as a pejorative term for both people and places.

"Poromboke is in the margins, and people who are dependent on them are also relegated to the margins," said environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who drew attention to the destruction of the creek, which activists say is being polluted by thermal power stations and a port.

"These lands are important to communities dependent on them, and are of great importance to the environment. But the word itself is now a dirty word, and it's reflected in our devaluing of common lands," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Common lands, including government forest areas, make up more than a third of India's total land area, according to the last survey in 1998.

Common lands provide food, water, fodder and livelihood to rural communities, and also help maintain ecological balance.

As demand for land rises in India to boost growth, common lands are being taken over for industrial and development projects, including mines, power plants and colleges.

"The takeover of common lands is arguably larger in scale than the takeover of private lands, affects far more people, and is often more brutal," said Shankar Gopalakrishnan at rights group Campaign for Survival and Dignity.

While several laws have been introduced to protect the land rights of farmers and indigenous communities, the laws are diluted and poorly implemented, activists say.

The Ennore creek, a network of rivulets and mangroves, is the pathway for two rivers draining into the Bay of Bengal.

In the music video, a group of musicians wearing pollution masks sit at the edge of the creek, with Krishna singing the colloquial Tamil song in classic Carnatic style, as smokestacks and transmission towers gradually appear in the background.

"Poromboke is not for you, poromboke is not for me; it is for the community, it is for the earth," he sings.

"Poromboke is in your care; poromboke is in my care. It is our common responsibility towards nature, towards the earth."

A panel set up to study the effects of the damage to Ennore creek last April recommended penalties on polluting industries, as well as a moratorium on their expansion.

It also blamed government agencies including the pollution control board and coastal management authority for turning a blind eye to the damage.

In response, government officials said the industries were asked to dredge the creek ahead of the monsoon rains, and monitor the dumping of fly ash and earth.

The music video, which has been viewed more than 55,000 times on YouTube since its weekend launch, may help spur more action, said Jayaraman, who tapped his friends for money to make the video.

"We need to change our notion of poromboke - the common land, as well as the word itself," he said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit to see more stories.)


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