Can we save sea turtles after driving away the fishing communities? 

December 2016

by Rahul Muralidharan and Aarti Sridhar (translated from Tamil. Originally published in The Tamil Hindu on 10.12.2016

In January every year, olive ridley sea turtles arrive on Tamil Nadu’s beaches to nest. This is an event happening since time immemorial but sea turtles are neither new nor fascinating to fishers because they have seen these turtles all their lives. Still, fishers would have never imagined that sea turtles would turn them into villains. In early September this year, the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department issued an order that bans all types of fishing within 5 nautical miles of the coast, across 90 villages in 8 coastal districts. This order was said to protect migrating olive ridleys, in the months between January and April. How and why did this happen? Let us take a brief look at the history of sea Turtle conservation in Tamil Nadu and examine what is at stake now for coastal fishing communities.

Creating a drama

A news article published in Times of India, titled “Murder most foul”, raised alarm over the death of 35 olive ridley turtles along the Chennai beach on a single day. This came to the attention of the Madras High Court which took up a suo moto case. Eventually the Fisheries Department produced a conservation plan but an expert appointed to audit the plan said it was inadequate. But the expert also pointed out that the plan was too harsh on small-scale fishers because it suggested banning all types of fishing around turtle nesting sites. Other conservationists agreed that boats less that 10 HP can fish in the waters during the sea turtle migration season but they demanded intensive patrolling and monitoring to control the types of fishing gear used in this season. The alarm raised by the media and audit reports and the extreme protection measures suggested by conservationists misrepresents the problem. 

History of sea turtle conservation

It all began in the 1970s when members of the Madras Snake Park and Madras Crocodile Bank Trust walked the beaches of Chennai to document sea turtles and their threats – Tamil Nadu emerged as one of the birthplaces of sea turtle conservation in India.

Female olive ridley sea turtles use the beach as their nesting place. To protect their eggs from being eaten, people would relocate it to a hatchery where the eggs incubated over the next 45 days. Over the years, several fishers began to participate by walking the beaches at night and helping conservationists maintain these hatcheries. Many people came and went, but finally a group of student volunteers got together to establish the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) in 1988 which is functional until this day.

Later groups such as the TREE Foundation also took the help of local fishing communities to do conservation. For instance, the release of hatchlings after 45 days of incubation is celebrated as a public event where large numbers of both children and adults participate. 

Local fishing communities have been an important part of this and also serve as educators to other people who see sea turtles for the first time in the lives. But the latest fishing ban issued by the Fisheries Department, to protect turtles, is unjust and has damaged this relationship between local people and turtles. If local fishers are not the problem, where then does the real problem lie? 

The state of marine resources in Tamil Nadu

If you ask small-scale fishers about the state of fisheries and their livelihoods, they will tell you that they are living in depressing times. Tamil Nadu was one of the first states in the country to promote modern fishing technologies such as mechanised bottom trawling and synthetic fishing gear. But such changes were unregulated and resulted in conflicts between bottom trawlers and small-scale fishers, because they all operated in the same near-shore areas. Unionized protests by the small-scale fishers resulted in the Tamil Nadu Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1983 which secures 3 nautical miles for small-scale fishing, but this has rarely been enforced. But now, this new Fisheries Department order places sea turtles protection in the forefront rather than the livelihood concerns of the fishers and what is more, it extends the ban to 5 nautical miles. It is incorrect and strange that a law originally intended to protect small-scale fishers is now being used against them. This definitely needs to be challenged.

Conservation futures

While the protection and conservation of nesting sea turtles is important, at the same time ensuring sustainable livelihoods in the already burdened fisheries sector is essential. 

Just banning fishing along the coast is simply not an answer. Conservationists need to come up with solutions that are socially just and environmentally sound, to strengthen existing relationships between sea turtles and fishing communities rather than breaking them. 

SSTCN’s sea turtle records for the past 30 years show that Tamil Nadu’s sea turtle nesting population is stable. This success needs to be seen as the result of conservationists and fishing communities working hand-in-hand to secure sea turtle populations. Conservationists and the fisheries department need to come up with better management strategies for the marine environment. How can we get them to do so without banning all fishing?



Waste Networks: Economics, Informality and Stigma



Trash talking; there’s more than cities can manage

As consumption patterns across the globe are soaring, so is the corresponding generation of waste – and some of the statistics related to this are alarming. A recent World Bank study estimates that ten years ago, the daily per capita waste generation of the world’s urban population (around 2.9 billion) was around 0.64 kg. Today, both figures have shot up: urban areas house around 3 billion people, generating 1.2 kg of waste every day – meaning that every year, 1.3 billion tonnes of garbage is created in the world’s cities. Neither does this trend show any signs of slowing down, since the same report projects that by 2025, this quantum will nearly double.

In the developing world, the chief concern is that the formal mechanisms for waste management have come nowhere close to building this kind of capacity. In developed countries, centralized approaches have been implemented to handle waste treatment but elsewhere, most cities still follow fragmented, haphazard systems of collection and transportation, and rely on landfill-based approaches to dispose of waste. If the per capita generation of garbage were to go up as projected, it’s highly doubtful that local governments in developing countries would be able to effectively manage them.

The shadow ecosystem; there’s money in your trash

Luckily, they don’t have to do it alone – parallel informal economies centered around waste management have developed across cities in the Global South. These players scavenge, sort, aggregate and upcycle waste; passing it along a well-developed waste chain until it is ultimately recycled. Such communities exist in several developing countries; kabadiwallas in India, catadores in Brazil, cirujas in Argentina, buzos in Costa Rica and cartoneros in Mexico.

Statistics suggest that they are doing a much better job of handling urban waste in developing countries. From a quantitative point of view, informal sectors have demonstrated a better percentage of resource recovery as compared to formal mechanisms in several cities. In Cairo, for example, it is a startling 30 percent to the municipal corporation’s 13 percent. It is also interesting to think about the incentives that drive the formal and informal waste sectors. For instance in India, service providers are paid according to the tonnage of waste they bring to the landfill. They are, in this sense, incentivized to collect, transport and dump more waste into the landfill. This model has lead to serious issues with regards to handling city waste responsibly. In Chennai, there have been many reports of dumping high volume, low weight plastic into the rivers, because this type of waste does not give formal service providers a high return. There have also been reports of garbage trucks picking up large stones and rubble, so as to boost the tonnage brought to the landfill.  On the other hand, informal sectors derive economic benefit from upcycling waste and the peripheral activities associated with it (sorting and aggregating) and are incentivized, instead, to find value in what is discarded everyday.

Economics of Waste; the zen of the informal waste market

Since the informal  ecosystem has developed primarily around an economic incentive, it functions in a fairly organized way – specific categories of waste are assigned prices, which are defined largely by their recycling potential. For instance, categories that have inherent value, such as copper from wiring, have extremely high price points. Those that can be upcycled into a material of value – such as high value plastic and paper – are also in high demand. On the other hand, lower value plastics are assigned lower price points and categories that have no back-end processing potential are neglected and omitted from the ecosystem altogether. It’s largely for this reason that most waste found littered on streets in developing countries include thin polythene covers, thermocol and other materials that lack back-end processing technology.

The functioning of this ecosystem is also defined by the fact that it has grown to fill a gap. All over the world, informal ecosystems develop only where formal ecosystems are unable to cope with the amount of waste generated and operate in parallel with them. Because of this, they serve an important purpose in the urban context. In Dar-es-Salaam, waste is formally collected only twice a week. Informal collectors fill this gap and charge a nominal fee that residents are happy to pay. In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, informal workers service a whopping 37 percent of the population. Indonesian waste-pickers scavenge and upcycle one-third of the country’s waste and in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it has been estimated that the economic impact of scavenging is almost half a million dollars every month. Informal players also have an advantage in specific parts of urban centres, such as slums and hilly areas that have poor roads, since their vehicles are smaller and easier to use in them.

Waste and Stigma; the invisible ecosystem

However, the informal context within which this sector operates poses its own set of problems. Informal waste players face a great deal of stigma from society and local governments. In many developing countries, their activities are criminalized and they are frequently harassed by authorities. In Cairo for example, the waste-pickers’ donkey carts were banned from the streets of the city between sunrise and sunset. In Colombia, a shocking ‘social cleansing’ program was implemented during the 80s and 90s by paramilitary forces, that regarded waste-pickers as ‘disposable’ and banished them from certain neighborhoods. The movement reached its zenith when the bodies of 40 waste-pickers, who had been killed and harvested for organs, were found at a Colombian university.

This stigma is particularly shocking given the huge service that the informal waste ecosystem performs for urban centres – upcycling waste and keeping it out of the landfill. On the other hand, popular perceptions of them are generally negative because of regressive associations with their choice of work. The informal waste ecosystem remains invisible in most cities in the Global South, with its impact unquantified. Particularly in India, no attempt has been made to improve its efficiency in delivering an effective way for residents, commercial establishments and industries to send less waste material to urban landfills.

The road ahead; incorporating the informal waste ecosystem into the formal ways cities handle their waste

Thankfully, there are examples of cities that are adopting more inclusive approaches to shed visibility on informal waste players. For instance, in São Paulo, a Brazilian graffiti artist named Mundano created a project named ‘Pimp My Carroça’. The project was carried out over a month, during which time more than 50 artists and volunteers came together to revamp the carts (carroças) that belonged to waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. The carroças were beautified and equipped with security signals and mirrors, while the waste-pickers and their families were provided with medical check-ups, psychological therapy, meals, haircuts and even massages.

As a country, Brazil has implemented several programs that seek to formalize and incorporate the informal waste economy, and this initiative has been highly successful in adding a sense of legitimacy to the work done by waste-pickers and itinerant buyers. It’s an example that several other cities can learn from. While such a large-scale inclusion program is yet to be developed in India, there are local examples: in Pune, for instance, informal rag-pickers have been formalized under a cooperative called SWaCH, provided with equipment and ID cards and roped in to collect waste for a fee. In Bangalore, a member-based organization called Hasirudala works at bettering rag-picker conditions, offering them structured employment and fair pay.

However, for a national-level model of inclusion, we require a change in mindset – a breaking down of the perception of informal waste workers as being dirty or backward, and an acknowledgement of their contribution to lessening the load on our landfills. Legitimizing the informal sector is one of the first steps in offering its players a sense of dignity, an assurance of safety in their professions and an acknowledgement that they are the silent players who are taking care of a much larger problem.

– Written by Kavya Balaraman. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘What a Waste: a Global Review of Solid Waste Management’ – The World Bank

‘The Economics of the Informal Sector in Solid Waste Management’ – the Collaborative Working Group (CWG)

‘Pimp My Carroca’ – People of Change –

Image Sources








Historical Perspectives on the Informal Waste Sector



Ever year, 42 million tons of waste is generated in India, which is the same as the amount of wheat Australia produces annually

Like most countries that are growing quickly and witnessing rapid urbanization, India is beginning to face serious concerns regarding the disposal of its waste. Until now, most urban local governments have adopted an approach to waste management that is neither sustainable nor particularly responsible – identifying landfill sites, filling them with mixed waste for periods that can stretch over decades, and eventually moving on to a new location.

The problem, though, is that leachate and toxins from untreated waste can affect a particular region for years, which is why municipal corporations are now finding it more and more difficult to appropriate areas to convert into landfills. In Bangalore, for instance, the residents of a village called Mavallipura, adjoining one of the city’s primary landfills, resisted efforts to continue disposing of waste in their backyard in 2012; the result was tens of thousands of tons of untreated waste, deposited on the streets of the city. Chennai, on the other hand, is currently routing its waste to two peripheral landfills – both of which will be reaching the end of their lifespan by the end of the year. As of now, no replacement area has been found.

Ironically, urban authorities do not need to face the challenge of sustainable waste management on their own. Most Indian cities have a robust industry of waste ‘experts’ – collectors, transporters and even recyclers – who make a livelihood out of waste, albeit under the radar. Most households sell old newspapers and cardboard to their neighbourhood kabadiwallas, but these men are merely the tip of the iceberg; in fact, the informal waste sector includes not just grassroot-level waste collectors, but series of middlemen who aggregate, sort and transport waste to the appropriate recycling facility – thus keeping it out of the landfill.

The Waste Chain

From a historical perspective, informal waste economies – at least as they are recognized today – began to develop around the 19th century. This was mainly in Europe and largely a by-product of urbanization and industrialization. As urban centres began to form and expand, the quantity of waste generated by them shot up as well. Simultaneously, the spread of the industrial revolution led to an increased demand for raw material, which proved to be infinitely cheaper when sourced from waste. As a result, an informal sector that began to identify items of value within waste streams, and then source, aggregate, process and eventually recycle them, began to form.

Spatially speaking, informal waste industries have organically formed in developing countries. While the first scavenging sectors sprung up in Europe, waste management systems in these countries were soon formalised and steered by local governing bodies, removing any room for unorganised private entities to continue making a living off waste.

However, the reverse has been true for countries such as India, Brazil, Serbia and Cambodia. These countries have witnessed rapid urbanisation, which directly translates to a huge increase in waste generation. They also experience large-scale migration of unskilled, untrained labour towards cities, most of which have no option but to turn to informal occupations such as waste-picking. Moreover, as countries develop more, their urban centres tend to produce a higher proportion of dry waste (paper, plastic, metal and the like), which have huge markets as raw material for the manufacturing sector.

On the other hand, their local governance mechanisms have not yet developed to the point of completely taking over the workspace of informal players. In India, for example, municipal corporations have the infrastructure and capacity to collect an average of only 70 percent of municipal solid waste, and even less to actually process it. This creates the ideal working conditions for a parallel shadow economy to operate.

Very few attempts have been made to actually map out and quantify the informal waste industries in different countries. Largely, this is because it’s extremely difficult – most waste-pickers and small-scale processors work under the radar and prefer to keep it that way, so as to avoid any form of harassment from city authorities. The sector itself is also a fairly disorganised one, with a huge overlap between activities, scale and hierarchy, making it tough to actually categorise its layers. However, there are exceptions to the rule. The Brazilian government, for instance, has formally recognized waste-picking as an occupation and included it as a category in their official census. This has also allowed it to introduce various schemes to better incorporate these entities into formal waste management mechanisms.

In doing so, Brazil has tapped into a potential answer to waste management concerns that most developing countries can learn from: the informal sector has huge capacity for keeping waste out of landfills. As a community, these players have a lot more collective experience in dealing with waste profitably (and as a consequence, responsibly) than most local governments. They have organised themselves into a form of hierarchy based on scale, with lower-rung rag-pickers accessing waste from dumpsites, landfills and formal collection cycles, and higher-level middleman aggregating and segregating waste streams according to market demand. Scrap-dealers at the highest end of the waste chain deal with hundreds of tons of a particular waste category on a daily basis, supplying in bulk to manufacturers looking for cheaper sources of raw material.

Incorporating parallel economies into our formal mechanisms is far from an easy task; it involves policy-level decisions and some forceful execution to actually leverage the potential of the informal sector. On the other hand, given the kind of waste crisis that Indian cities are facing, this doesn’t seem to be an option we can ignore.

– Written by Kavya Balaraman & Illustrated by Satwik Gade. Kabadiwalla Connect is a Chennai-based project that aims at reducing waste sent to urban landfills by leveraging the potential of the informal sector. Our partners include Gubbi Labs and the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras. Read the post on their blog.


‘Municipal Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities – A Review’ – Mufeed Sharholy, Kafeel Ahmad, Gauhar Mahmood and RC Trivedi

‘Waste Picker Cooperatives in Developing Countries’ – Martin Medina

‘The World’s Scavengers’ – Martin Medina

‘Statistics on Waste Pickers in Brazil’ – WIEGO 

Can we crowdsource our memories of the city?

Fellowship Opportunity – The Urban History Project

“Neighbourhoods constantly change, and this change is a result of many forces that interact, and often resist each other to create the city that we see today…We hope that through granular narratives of people’s experience of place-making in Chennai, we gain insight into how we can build a more inclusive, and supportive city.”

Let’s start with Chennai…

The Old Mount Road. Source: The Hindu

The families and students of 1965 remember the Buhari’s at Mount Road, not the expensive chain of restaurants today, dipping chicken in chilli powder and frying it in deep boiling oil to create Chicken 65. What is the use of such a memory other than inducing an association or feeling in an individual(s)? Just a year before this Bob Dylan sang on American television sets  The Times They Are a-Changing

The million plans of restoration/beautification try to make Chennai a mega/metro/singara/swachch/industrial/growing city that arrogantly ignores the lives here. You and I are meant to move with the times that are a-changing. You or I might not own a strip of land here or have the status of power to make direct changes, but we do have our memories and our lives. We are introducing you to a new group of people who want to gather these memories and aspirations of our lives in this place and channel it for constructing Supportive Cities.

This fellowship opportunity is for any writer/filmmaker/photographer/historian or anyone who does not mind being unpaid in Chennai, while they set out on a six month journey to collect, collate and curate such memories. They promise bi-weekly training and a hand-held process that will end with a public exhibition at Dakshina Chitra. We think any student looking for internships or some experience should jump at this opportunity.

Register here NOW

sam pc

The Guindy National Park (GNP) is dying a slow death by a thousand cuts – Join the campaign now


Green spaces that provided critical corridors for wildlife to move in and out of the park are being eaten into. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries require a buffer zone around them where human activities are strictly regulated and pressures on the ecosystem and wildlife are kept to a minimum. Without such buffers, parks have little chance for surviving in the long run. Such a buffer zone is legally mandated. The Tamil Nadu Government has refused to notify a buffer zone around the Guindy National Park.

This will mean that even the last remaining green spaces and the wildlife habitats around the Guindy National Park, such as the Raj Bhavan and Indian Institute of Technology-Madras’ campuses, will have no protection under law. Along with GNP, the Raj Bhavan and IIT-M campuses contain the last remaining healthy stands of the rare Southern Thorn Forests and the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest types.


Please join this campaign:

The Vettiver Collective has organised a human chain campaign with colourful banners and white shirts near the Besant Nagar Eliot’s beach police booth at 5.30 p.m. Please join them this evening to save the city’s national park.

shared by Vettiver Collective. 

Ride for Gender Freedom Tambaram – Wrap Up

Today, on 19th March 2014, Bharathi Kannan, a filmmaker, had organised four meetings in Tambaram for the Ride for Gender Freedom campaign. Rakesh rode via East Coast Road, Kalaignar Salai, Shozhinganallur, and Medavakkam to Tambaram. He lost his way for three kilometres, but eventually found Madras Christian College by 9:30 a.m. There he had some valuable conversations with NSS, English department, and Social Work department students. Some students have expressed their interest in joining the ride when it reaches their home towns and a professor saw the possibility of making the ride an internship project. After two meetings and some conversations in the canteen, Rakesh rode to West Tambaram and had an open conversation with the women and young girls and boys from that locality. Later, Bharathi Kannan joined him as a rider and both of them rode around Tambaram for an hour or so before stopping for tea. Rakesh had planned a trip back to the East Coast Road, but it has been a really long day. So, Bharathi has kindly invited Rakesh to stay at his place for the night. Thank you Bharathi for all the help today. We hope to see the cycle back on the beaches tomorrow.

Rakesh will be thrilled if you join him for a small or a big part of his journey. To coordinate with the rider follow the Ride for Gender Freedom on this blog or this facebook page.

Good night.

RGF: Birds and Buildings at Medavakkam

08:30 a.m. Rakesh spots a stretch of the Medavakkam marsh surrounded by construction.

Chennai March against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto, an international grassroots organisation, has announced that marches are being planned on six continents, in 52 countries, totaling events in over 400 cities on Saturday. Find the march nearest to you here.

Here are the flyers (in English and Tamil) for the march happening in Chennai from the Labour Statue to Gandhi Statue at 3 p.m. Please download, print and send it around.

click to view full size flyer

click to view full size flyer

March against Monsanto flyers (Tamil)

click to view full size flyer


Update: Nemmeli Desal Plant Dumping Effluents on Beach – Fact Finding Team

18 September 2013. Reposted from

A fact-finding team that looked into allegations of police excesses against fisherfolk who were voicing concerns about the Nemmeli desalination plant has found Metrowater to be in violation of environmental norms, and the Kanchipuram police to have acted in a malafide manner in dealing with the issues raised by the fisherfolk. The team comprising former I.A.S officer Louis Menezes, President of PUCL-TN & Pondy Prof. Saraswathy, High Court advocate P. Sundararajan, and writer activist Nityanand Jayaraman was set up by the Chennai Solidarity Group which was acting on complaints by villagers about a midnight raid by the police on 28 August.

The team found that Metrowater’s Nemmeli desalination plant is dumping highly saline RO rejects directly onto the beach instead of disposing it through a pipeline as per its environmental license conditions. At full capacity, the plant will discharge about 2000 litres of polluted effluents per second on the beach. This has altered the profile of the beach, and rendered the drinking water handpumps in the entire village unfit for drinking. “It is ironical that the Nemmeli desalination plant which was set up to convert salt water to freshwater, has ended up converting freshwater to salt water,” the team observed. “The Ministry of Environment & Forests, the State Coastal Zone Management Authority and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board are missing in action,” the team’s report stated. “A blatant and visible violation of the law – i.e. the discharge of saline effluents on the beach – is not only being ignored, but the violators are being offered the protection of the State Police,” the report stated.

The team also found that road-like structures constructed into the sea by Metrowater’s consultant VA Tech WABAG to transport equipment had eroded the beach of Sulerikattukuppam resulting in the collapse of several community halls. This has drastically affected the livelihoods of local fisherfolk. Several people complained that their children were being taunted by teachers because of their inability to pay school fees.

The fact-finding team found Metro Water guilty of crimes under the Indian Penal Code, including fouling public water supplies, negligent handling of a noxious substance, damaging public property, and endangering lives by causing sea erosion. Elected representatives and officials such as the District Collector have failed to effectively intervene to address the legitimate grievances of the affected fisherfolk. Ignoring lawfully articulated demands would prompt people to resort to desperate measures.

Instead of addressing the concerns of the villagers, Metrowater has sought police assistance to shut people up. The Police too have responded in a one-sided manner in accepting and acting with great promptness and viciousness on the complaints by Metro Water. The team also found that the Police have acted in a malafide manner by conducting a door-to-door midnight raid on 28 August, by verbally abusing women, using sexual innuendos, and picking up and detaining innocent people for an entire day. The team said that the “Police have acted illegally and mercilessly in beating and detaining two school students as part of their midnight raid.”

The team has made the following recommendations, among others:

  1. Withdrawal of all FIRs filed against the villagers; stern action against officials who have misbehaved with residents (particularly women and children) of Sulerikattukuppam.
  2. The Ministry of Environment & Forests and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board should institute an enquiry based on this report, and suspend Metrowater’s environmental clearance if it is found to have violaged the conditions of clearance.
  3. Tamil Nadu Government should appoint a committee to assess losses sustained by villagers to their property and livelihoods, and compensate them for it.
  4. Drinking water should be provided immediately, and children’s school fees should be paid by Metrowater.

For more information, contact: Chennai Solidarity Group

Nityanand Jayaraman. No. 92, Thiruvalluvar Nagar 3rd Cross, Besant Nagar, Chennai 600 090

Read the Full Report: