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Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 3

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing the last in a 3 part series on Chennai’s restoration of its marshlands. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story! 

(Featured Image: Mylapore Tank holds water even during the dry season, but only because its bottom has been paved over.)

Temple tanks

As in most Indian cities, Chennai’s piped water supply is available for just a few hours a day. And many parts of the city have no water connection at all. So many people pump groundwater, either on their own property or from government wells on the street. Others hire tanker trucks to fill their cisterns with water that has also been extracted from underground. “A huge quantity, almost 200 MLD [million liters daily] of water, is being shipped every day,” a water utility official told me. But surface and groundwater are not separate sources; they are linked by gravity and hydraulic pressure. So when people pump groundwater, they are ultimately depleting surface water as well, and near the coast, they are turning their water salty. 

With little monitoring and few restrictions, the city’s groundwater table is dropping by some 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches) every year. That’s why finding creative ways to recharge groundwater within the dense, paved city is a critical step toward having enough water for people and for nature. And that’s where many small projects come into play. Recharge wells are becoming more common around neighborhoods in Chennai, their round perforated covers, a little larger than manholes, pocking city streets and sidewalks. Those covers lead to wells averaging 4.5 meters (15 feet) deep that simply give water a path into the permeable subsurface, and eventually into the aquifer. 

Through water as leverage, Madras Terrace, a local architecture firm, has proposed another approach to getting water into the ground across the city: temple tanks, a remnant of the eris system. In the past, “you cannot find a village without a temple, and you cannot find a temple without a water body,” says KK. Lots of those villages and temples have now been subsumed by the city.

One bright, blue-sky day, just before I leave India, I meet with Sudhee NK, an engineer and financial planner with Madras Terrace. We rendezvous in charming, bustling Mylapore, a neighborhood centered around Kapaleeswarar Temple, marked by a 37-meter-high (120-foot-high), pyramidal tower intricately carved and painted with some of Hinduism’s more than 3,000 gods. Vendors sell flower offerings, clay cups meant to be broken after drinking, and small deities. One of Chennai’s most notable tanks, occupying a city block, sits alongside the temple. With its top at street level, an inverted, stepped pyramid descends into the ground so people can continue to access water as the table falls.

Sudhee explains that, historically, the tank bottoms were unpaved so that groundwater replenished the tank from below, and rain and runoff from above helped to recharge the water table. Temple tanks were connected to larger eris systems and also served ritual purposes. Today the Kapaleeswarar tank holds water—ducks swim along the side and turtles bask in the sun—but only because the bottom was paved about 10 years ago to retain water for religious ceremonies. This water is effectively a mirage, says Sudhee.

To show me the true status of the water table here, he leads me across the street to another temple tank, Chitrakulam Pond, believed to be more than 2,000 years old and not cemented. Its bottom is carpeted with a mat of fresh grass, sprouted from recent rains, but the water has descended deep underground. “This is the real situation,” says Sudhee. Too much pavement and too many borewells are to blame for water levels more than 18 meters (60 feet) below the surface, he says.

Tanks that have not been paved over reveal the true state of Chennai’s water table, which, during the dry season, often lies dozens of feet below ground.

Sudhee and colleagues want to restore temple tanks across Chennai to their natural, unpaved state, to move water underground. The city government, Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), is connecting stormwater drains to temple tanks wherever possible to allow for groundwater recharge. And Sudhee’s team is also helping to raise the water table by collecting rainwater from buildings via vegetated ditches, called bioswales, placed strategically along streets, on hotel properties, in backyards, and in schoolyards. The Mylapore project is expected to provide on average 4 million liters (1 million gallons) of water per day. Replicating the project across 53 other temple tanks in Chennai could result in 60 million liters (16 million gallons) per day of recharge, according to the Water as Leverage team’s projections.

Reconnecting with culture

Despite stated government support for these slow water projects, getting utility engineers to embrace green solutions is difficult, says Balaji Narasimhan, the hydrologic engineer who is also involved in the Dutch-local partnership. That’s in part because the systems are more complex than concrete-lined drainage channels, levees, and dams. Slow water projects usually have a biological component, such as plants that may require soil amendments to achieve the chemistry or filtration they need. Silt traps must be cleaned. Also, because such projects tend to cover a larger area than concrete solutions, the public is more likely to come in contact with them, so project managers need to cultivate community support. But that requirement can be a benefit, says Narasimhan, reconnecting people with their water. 

KK tells me, “Even 200 years ago, people used to worship rivers as goddesses. Because of that, we were preserving water. Now we’ve lost those cultural values; we forgot.” When water “magically” arrived via centralized distribution, people stopped caring for their water bodies. In North Chennai, parts of which remain somewhat rural, Jayaraman, the activist, has witnessed that loss in a single generation. “Among the older people, there is a far more intimate knowledge of hydrology, of seasons,” he says. “Among the younger people, that is eroding quite quickly. It erodes with the landscape. Your culture goes with the landscape.”

But the reverse may also be true. As government agencies and NGOs hold and reclaim space to reestablish slow water, and as people harvest some of their personal water from local supplies, Narasimhan says he hopes they will become newly motivated to keep them clean and replenished. 

One project is directly targeting the next generation. On a warm, partially overcast day in early December, I grab an autorickshaw to Tholkappia Poonga Eco-Park, a 24-hectare (58-acre) green oasis in the heart of the city, near the mouth of the Adyar River, which bisects Chennai. Separated from the beeping traffic outside by concrete walls, the tree canopy is thick here, and the peaceful walking paths and the air above are bustling with butterflies, beetles, blue-and-yellow grasshoppers, crane flies, lizards, lorikeets, and other birds. 

Despite the significant loss of wetland habitat, an astounding array of native biodiversity clings to life in and around Chennai.

Years ago, an area creek feeding the river was filled in for development and this place became a dump, piled high with garbage and human waste and used for illegal activities. To counteract pollution and biodiversity loss, local NGO Pitchandilkulam Forest Consultants and city agency Chennai River Restoration Trust began restoring the area’s former river and estuary habitats 12 years ago. 

My guide during this visit is K. Ilangovan, an ecologist and wetlands specialist who has overseen this project from the beginning and has himself planted thousands of trees, including mangroves and 250 other species of plants. Since forest restoration here began, he’s observed snakes, mongooses, mice, and even jackals that feed on crabs and fishes. “We didn’t introduce anything here,” he says. After the replantings, “everything came.”  

People from nearby neighborhoods were involved in the planning and planting so that they would better understand the area’s purpose, and some still have jobs here taking care of the plants. During the monsoon, the whole park becomes flooded, storing water, says Ilangovan, and the surrounding neighborhoods have seen higher water levels in wells and reduced flooding, including during 2015, when they were spared the worst of the flood. The microclimate has also changed, keeping it a little cooler than the concrete jungle elsewhere in the city. The third phase of restoration is now underway; ultimately 145 hectares (358 acres) will be restored. 

Aside from offering homes to a variety of creatures in the middle of the city and mitigating water problems, the Eco-Park is a favorite field trip destination for school children, who come here and are blown away, says Ilangovan. Living in the city with little exposure to nature, “They are so happy to touch and feel the plants. You can see the brightness in their faces.” That outreach is critical to changing the direction of society, he says. “We can’t go and change the people with 40 or 50 years’ age,” he says. “So I focus more on the kids.”

Amidst growing environmental awareness of the general public and the government, four of the seven projects proposed by the Dutch-local partnership are moving forward, says Jayshree Vencatesan, including the Mylapore tank and Muttukadu Backwaters. Separately, her nomination of Pallikaranai as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, is under consideration by the central government in Delhi. But development pressure remains intense. “We as a country are trying to become more of a wealthy nation,” says Vencatesan. “And if we assume that people don’t want that, we are wrong.” 

Back at Pallikaranai Marsh, walking down a muddy path at the edge of shallow open water, we pass trees planted by Care Earth Trust, trunks wrapped in cuttings of an unpalatable plant to deter nibbling cattle. Bee-eaters and kingfishers whiz by, and a fan-throated lizard darts under a rock. The sun glints off an iridescent green jewel beetle with black spots, bumpily navigating stems and leaves. Antennae waving about, it suddenly flips, revealing a bright orange undercarriage. There’s still plenty to amaze here.

Educating people about the value of water systems and biodiversity is a long-term process, says Vencatesan, one that she’s been working toward with her characteristic persistence for decades. Near the spot where I was stuck in the minivan, she is planning to reroute traffic away from the marsh and build a pedestrian “ribbon walk,” where people can interface with nature. “They should see a value in it,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s not going to last.”

Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story!


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. Find Part 1 here!

The Eris System

The people of Chennai don’t have to look far for inspiration on how to work with nature to finesse water cycles. Starting at least 2,000 years ago, ancient Tamil people ensured that they had water year-round by building a series of connected ponds on a slope from the Eastern Ghats (“mountains” in Hindi) east to the Bay of Bengal. These eris, the Tamil word for tanks, are open on the higher side to catch water flowing downhill, while the lower side is closed with an earthen wall called a bund. An overflow divet in the top of the bund gives excess water a path to continue on to the next eri downhill. “System eris” were built off of rivers and creeks to capture their peak flows, while “non-system eris” were dug in areas without natural waterways to capture rainfall in a series of connected depressions. Eris were described in early Tamil literature and temple engravings, says Krishnakumar TK, an amateur historian and local travel writer who works in information technology and goes by the name KK.

The eris system is the opposite of modern development’s tendency to move water off the land as fast as possible. The early Tamils understood that, by slowing water’s flow, the eris reduced flood peaks and prevented soil erosion. They gave water time to seep underground, filtering it and keeping the water table within reach of wells. The eris also served as visual indicators of water availability because they were connected to the water table, says Vencatesan. Seeing the water level in a pond signaled to farmers when to sow their crops. Cultural rituals dictated system maintenance and water sharing. Tanks were also part of every temple complex, bringing water into the heart of religion and culture.

And because many eris were connected to creeks, rivers, coastal wetlands and freshwater marshes, they provided natural waterways their due along the way. Even eris not directly connected to rivers helped to feed the local hydrology because underground aquifers are extensive, so water absorbed in one place could feed a river some distance away. The words “lake,” “tank,” and “water body” are interchangeable here because, after so many generations, no one remembers whether a particular water body is natural or human-made. 

British engineers in the 19th century were amazed by the scale of the eris system—reportedly more than 53,000 bodies of water across southern India—and the deep knowledge of topography and hydrology required to build it. Alas, British respect had limits. Their centralized management supplanted the traditional system by which villages managed their local eris themselves, removing accumulated silt each year and using it to fertilize fields. The British neglected this maintenance and the eris fell into disrepair, making it easier to justify filling them in and building on top of them—a pattern that continued after independence.

As they built roads, the British obliterated the flow pathways that had linked water bodies, says KK, giving the rainwater nowhere to go. “They did not understand our system,” he says. Today, many famous city landmarks and neighborhoods—Loyola College, Central Chennai Rail Station, T. Nagar, Nungambakken—sit atop former tanks and lakes, says KK. Street names such as Spur Tank Road and Lake View Road commemorate ghost water bodies that once sustained and protected their neighborhoods. Fewer than one-third of the 650 water bodies that KK has documented in and around Chennai remain. The surface area of water decreased from 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) in 1893 to less than 3 kilometers (1.1 square miles) today, so in heavy rains, water floods into city streets, homes, and businesses.

Ironically, given KK’s passion for finding and documenting historic water bodies, the IT company he works for is in a special economic zone built atop Pallikaranai Marsh and the neighboring Perumbakkam wetland. He chuckles ruefully, showing me the area on a map. “We used to have hundreds of thousands of migratory birds visiting this marshland some 20 years ago. I have seen [it] getting destroyed in front of my eyes.” With just 10 percent of the marsh area remaining, “Even I can’t [see] the water from my workstation, and I’m on the fourth floor.” But as the title of Krupa Ge’s book invokes, Rivers Remember. This area hasn’t forgotten it is a marsh. During the 2015 monsoon, it flooded to the second floor.

Kids bird watching at the Marsh.

Wetlands = wastelands

Another British legacy that facilitated the destruction of wetlands was their official designation as wastelands. To Jayshree Vencatesan, the notion of wetlands as wastelands is anathema. “I grew up in the hinterlands, where this notion of waste doesn’t exist,” she says. “To us, nothing is a waste.” That attitude was once widely shared across southern India. Many areas the British saw as “waste” were shared-use commons, called poromboke in Tamil and dating back to medieval times. The ethic surrounding the use of the commons is even older, says Vencatesan, rooted in Tamil scriptures, which described the resources that wetlands provide—fish, seasonal agriculture, fodder for animals, medicinal plants—as well as the requirement to protect them, including penalties for those who didn’t. People understood and accepted that wetlands and other ecosystems were multifunctional habitats, supporting not just humans but other organisms as well. As a common property resource, water was subject to rules regarding how it was allowed to overflow from one water body or wetland to another. “This is essentially upstream-downstream equity, you know?” she says.

As she learned more about wetlands throughout her career, in part by working with Indigenous people who continue to live close to the land and water, Vencatesan internalized those values of multipurpose landscapes. She also learned that it’s critical to allow certain wetlands to follow their natural rhythm and go dry part of the year, to support the natural life cycles of animals and plants, including crops. “All of our melons and gourds and stuff like that used to be grown when the moisture is retained, but the surface flow is not there.”

In contrast, the British viewed land as property, so the commons, which could not be bought, sold, or built upon, “presented a very peculiar problem for them,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, who goes by Nity. A local community activist with a collective called Vettiver Koottamaippu, he works in North Chennai, where industrial facilities like coal plants are displacing fishing communities. “From a revenue point of view, it was wasteland.” As surrounding lands were developed, tension mounted over these two sets of competing values. “Of course, the old values lost,” he concludes. “And what we have is a disaster called Chennai.” 

The lost values are arguably as significant as the declines in sustainable subsistence and healthy, functioning ecosystems. People’s identities are entwined with their place. When development annihilates a place’s natural heritage, people also suffer cultural loss—loss of identity. For example, Pallikaranai Marsh is home to neithal (Nelumbo sp.), an endemic, striking, blue-violet water lily, one of the earliest flowers described in Tamil literature, says Vencatesan. Other beloved creatures of the swamp include the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and, perhaps surprisingly, the hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale), one of India’s four venomous snakes. “Snakes are revered in Tamil Nadu,” says Vencatesan, who grew up in a neighboring state. “They think it’s a god, so, yeah, they have no problem with snakes.”

Today Chennai’s wetlands are still officially classified as wastelands, which has made Care Earth Trust’s progress thus far, conserving 620 hectares of Pallikaranai Marsh, all the more remarkable. The organization is also working to restore numerous other “wastelands” that are, or were, connected via water pathways to Pallikaranai. On a visit to a few of these sites with Care Earth staff, I see candle flower (Senna alata), a medicinal plant whose flowers exude a milk that soothes skin injuries, as well as bronze-winged jacanas (Metopidius indicus), fish eagles (Icthyophaga humilis), black bazas (Aviceda leuphotes), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), and many other native species.

At Thalambur Lake, we walk along a new levee that they pushed up with a bulldozer to keep water in the lake longer so that fish can lay eggs once again. The levee is pocked with young saplings of peepal and native bamboo. Looking down into the lowland, I can see the small islands they built and planted with trees to serve as nesting sites for birds.

At another spot just off of Mahabs Highway is a dock where you can rent paddle boats to explore Muttukadu Backwater, south of Pallikaranai. Dozens of pelicans sit on the water, bobbing on its calm surface. Here and in other neighborhoods near the ocean, excessive groundwater use has allowed seawater to push in, turning aquifers salty. Muttukadu has grown too salty for some of its native fish, and water levels have dropped. In response, Care Earth Trust has begun educating local people, petitioning the government to regulate water extraction, and restoring pathways to allow fresh water to flow into the wetland and replenish it. They’ve also started replanting mangroves to improve breeding habitat for fish.

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. To reduce flooding and bridge droughts, India’s southern coastal metropolis is using ancient knowledge, community action, and wetlands restoration to better harness its monsoon rains.

Half the story

From a minivan on the shoulder of Old Mahabalipuram Road on the south side of Chennai, hemmed in by honking trucks and autorickshaws, we watch a painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) move with studied dignity through the long grasses of Pallikaranai Marsh. With each step, knee flexing toward the rear, the webbed foot closes, then spreads open again to find purchase on the soft land. As it tips toward a fish, striped white-and-black tail feathers spread, flashing a surprising red whoosh. Nearby an endangered spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) swirls in for a landing, green-backed herons (Butorides striata) fish, and gray-headed swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus) tend to young among cattails and sedges—just a few of the 349 species of flora and fauna found here. We are watching from the vehicle because, with the traffic hurtling by, it’s not safe to get out. It’s a claustrophobic feeling—for myself, but more so for this delicate ecosystem. Just across the marsh, not far away, a network of power lines, buildings, and roads stretch beyond view.

In the last 50 years, this marsh has been literally decimated, losing 90 percent of its area to malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and information technology firms. It’s part of a global problem. Over the past three centuries, 85 percent of the world’s marshes, sloughs, swamps, fens, and bogs have been drained, filled in, and built or planted upon. The relatively new IT corridor here is an echo of California’s Silicon Valley, where Google and Facebook squat on filled-in marsh. Over the past few decades, Chennai has sprawled into India’s fourth-largest city, from 48 square kilometers (18.5 square miles) in 1980 to more than 426 square kilometers (165 square miles) today.

And that development has not just harmed Pallikaranai Marsh. The natural landscape on which Chennai was built is particularly rich in water. Pallikaranai is linked hydrologically with a complex system of rivers, backwaters, coastal estuaries, mangrove forests, and ancient human-built lakes in a mosaic of movement—freshwater, brackish, salt—that once covered 186 square kilometers (72 square miles). But an assessment by a local NGO, Care Earth Trust, found that Chennai lost 62 percent of its wetlands between 1980 and 2010. That destruction has depleted habitat for wildlife and spawned dueling water problems for the people of Chennai.

In summer 2019, Chennai grabbed international headlines when it ran out of water. Government trucks made deliveries to roadside tanks, where people queued with vessels and occasionally brawled, resulting in at least one death. When I visited in mid-November, water trucks still plied the streets. But 2019 wasn’t an anomaly. Over the past two decades, Chennai has regularly run out of water during summer months. That’s because paved surfaces throughout the city prevent rain from being absorbed and replenishing groundwater that could be used during the dry season, says Balaji Narasimhan, a professor of engineering who specializes in hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. The simple fact is, Chennai shouldn’t be running out of water at all. During its few months of monsoon, the city actually receives 1.5 times more rainfall than it consumes annually. But today’s water managers do their best to rush rain away in stormwater drains and canals, moving it rapidly out to sea. When they need water later, they turn to dwindling groundwater, distant supplies, and desalination plants.

During monsoon rains, water often floods vast swaths of the city. Among Chennai residents, more emotionally and politically jarring than routine water scarcity was the 2015 flood that killed at least 470 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left many stranded in their homes for weeks. Ironically, it was likely the local mindset of water scarcity that made the flood more deadly. As writer Krupa Ge documents in her book about the flood, Rivers Remember, reservoir managers were reluctant to release stored water ahead of the monsoon rains; when they finally recognized the threat, they discharged too much, too fast.

In addition to poorly planned development, climate change is also exacerbating these water swings. The city has seen increasingly frequent and intense cycles of both flooding and drought over the past two decades. As moderate rain fell early last December and streets began to flood, one local aptly captured Chennai’s dysfunctional relationship with water in a tweet: “till last week, the residents were booking water tankers and from today they will book rescue boats. What a city!”

These bifurcated water disasters are all the more tragic because early Tamil people, whose cultural and linguistic heritage continues proudly in today’s residents, developed an elegant system for capturing the precipitation that fell during monsoons, saving it for the dry season. Their method also replenished groundwater and minimized erosion from heavy rains. And it supported rather than devastated wetland habitats. 

Back to the future?

Beneath the peepal (Ficus religiosa) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica) trees, amongst the flower stalls and idli restaurants, greater Chennai’s 11 million people go about their business as cows and dogs wander and nap at will, and jungle crows (Corvus culminatus), Oriental magpie-robins (Copsychus saularis), and dragonflies swirl above the fray. Chennai is more chill than the northern megalopolises Delhi and Mumbai, but it shares that quintessentially Indian sheen of chaos that, upon longer observation, reveals an innate order. An unspoken dialogue of push and pull among countless beings following their individual paths somehow manages to keep the whole in a constant state of flow.

Image of Oriental Magpie in Chennai by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Non-human lives, though, have less and less space to exist across India, where 1.4 billion—with a “b”—people jostle to survive and thrive in a land area one-third the size of the United States. Even so, solutions to this inherent tension don’t have to be an either/or. Reclaiming some of the ancient ways, restoring flow paths and space for water on the land, could provide greater water resiliency for humans and other organisms alike. Today a loose team of people in government, academia, and NGOs are working toward that vision.

The 2015 flood forced the city to acknowledge that poor development planning played a role in amplifying its water disasters. The Dutch office of International Water Affairs advised officials on flood recovery, underscoring that message. The following year, it offered them the opportunity to participate in a multi-year design and development program, called Water as Leverage, in partnership with local water experts and communities. Together they produced two reports that linked existing projects and laid out new ones that would conserve and restore natural and human-built water systems across the entire watershed. The aim was to harness nature, because protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and organisms is a way to also provide resources that people need. 

This concept is part of a “slow water” movement that’s beginning to take hold around the world. Generally speaking, modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. In our many attempts to control nature, we’ve sped up water, channeled it, and rushed it away. We’ve forgotten the fact that when we give water a chance to linger on the landscape, floods are softened, water is stored, and natural systems are sustained. Champions of the slow water movement think that the key to greater resilience, particularly in the face of climate change, is a kind of de-engineering that reclaims space for water to pause on land, supporting natural and human-made communities. 

Although it may seem like an unimaginable challenge to restore space for water within a densely inhabited city, many experts think it’s possible. It requires thinking differently. Unlike standard gray infrastructure—dams, levees, stormwater tanks—slow water approaches typically involve many small projects scattered across a landscape that each absorb and hold some water. This dispersed approach is similar to the way that solar panels on every house can add up to a significant amount of electricity generation. 

That any natural water arteries still remain in Chennai is thanks in significant part to Jayshree Vencatesan, a 50-something biologist who founded the NGO Care Earth Trust in 2001 to protect Pallikaranai Marsh and other bodies of water around Chennai. When she began, “people said it was the stupidest thing anyone could do,” she says. “But if people challenge me, saying you cannot do a bit of work, I will take it up.” Based on her years of accumulated knowledge, in 2014 Vencatesan documented the cascading system of 61 wetlands and ancient human-built water bodies across the watershed that drain into Pallikaranai and later juxtaposed them with time-series maps showing what’s been lost. Catalyzing public awareness, her findings were the basis for a ruling by the Honorable High Court of Madras to prohibit further encroachment on wetlands by development, and to implement a state plan to restore some of these ecosystems.

Vencatesan and Care Earth Trust have been heavily involved with the Dutch-local Water as Leverage initiative. Initially, she says, “the government was amused” by the groups’ presentations, given the officials’ general bias in favor of the more typical development approaches of desalination plants, dikes, and filling in wetlands to “reclaim” land. But “when they looked at the final proposal, they were taken by … the in-depth understanding about the city and its hydrology,” she says. This initiative, the court ruling, and other recent events have put the city on course for change. “Until now, nature has been treated in Chennai as an externality, never factored into urban planning.” As this revolutionary shift takes shape, she predicts that sand dunes, marshes and other wetlands, and remnant patches of dry forest will once again become “the natural buffers to the city’s shocks.”

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Maitri at Sevathon 2019

Cultural Norms, A Generational Curse For DV Victims

(Featured Image: Maitri at Sevathon 2019 walking to support Domestic Violence Victims)

As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, India Currents presents a 2-part series discussing abuse and its impact within the South Asian American community. This is the second and final installment, which discusses the cultural implications of domestic violence, and how these expectations have changed amid the pandemic. Find the first article here.

I know of people who are being subjected to a lot of violence and they are people you wouldn’t even suspect”, emphasizes Kasturi Basu.

Immigrant women often don’t walk away from abusive marriages because they fail to recognize the abuse. Rather, toxic and aggressive behavior is miscoded as spousal affection. In a phone interview, domestic violence survivor Mala Sharma recalls forgiving her second husband “many times” despite his threats and derogatory language. 

“I convinced myself that he wasn’t so bad,” Sharma says. “My first husband used to hit me, this one only swears.” 

According to Neelofer Chaudry, Executive Director of New York-based nonprofit Domestic Harmony Foundation, South Asian American victims are taught to internalize their abusers’ attacks from a young age. Cultural taboos create troublesome expectations for immigrant families. 

“These women grow up in a South Asian household and are [told] not to say anything about what happens in the house. Do not talk to anyone about it, even relatives,” Chaudry says, echoing the stifling attitudes within these households. “Because it [domestic violence] is so taboo and shameful, there’s this internalization — ‘what’s wrong with me, is it my fault that I’m being abused?’” 

Kasturi Basu echoed Chaudry’s thoughts in her own narrative, discussing the prevalence of domestic violence in her own social circles. “My friends knew, but in the South Asian community, people don’t want to talk about it. I would put makeup on my bruises and go to parties” says Basu. Guilt and community expectations also work against abuse victims. “If the children didn’t perform to his expectations, he would make our lives miserable with verbal, physical, and emotional abuse.” 

America’s Model Minority Myth, the expectation that Asian Americans represent financial and familial success, further restricts victims from speaking out. In a 2017 op-ed published by the New York magazine, political commentator Andrew Sullivan attributed Asian American “prosperity” to the maintenance of the ‘solid two-parent family structure.’ The assumption that all South Asian American households are ‘solid’ and monolithic, Chaudry suggests, is problematic. 

“It’s been hard,” Chaudry says. “There’s this pressure on our community to be perfect. When we first started talking, we were heavily criticized by [fellow] South Asians. We were called home wreckers, asked ‘why are you airing out our dirty laundry?’ We’re scared to discuss what’s considered a ‘private issue’ between husband and wife. Abuse is never private. It’s the responsibility of the community to speak up.” 

Organizations like the Domestic Harmony Foundation offer emotional support services for their clients, where trained professionals can address survivors’ conflicted emotions about their relationships. They also host annual youth leadership programs to empower the next generation and dismantle toxic social norms. 

“When it comes to abuse, there’s a tendency to repeat behavior,” Chaudry adds. “If a son sees his mother being abused, he is more likely to repeat that. It’s a social moray, which is [why] we want an opportunity to break the cycle. When you bring survivors together and have them share experiences with one another, they see that they’re not that different.” 

Reaching out, moving on 

In 2017, Sharma ‘nervously’ reached out to Houston nonprofit Daya after divorcing her second husband. She had no source of income. Her phone was flooded with desperate messages from her ex-husband, many of them threatening or pornographic. She removed his name from their apartment’s lease and changed the locks, prompting further harassment. 

“Daya really helped me,” Sharma said. “They first helped me secure a restraining order against my husband, who later went to jail after I filed a complaint with the police. Daya worked hard, offered me counseling services where [I learned] that I am not wrong,  that this is not my mistake.” 

Sharma is an exception. According to the US National Library of Medicine, only 11 percent of South Asian women who report domestic violence actually receive counseling services. 3 percent are successful in obtaining a restraining order against their partner. The numbers are low, says Daya Executive Director Rachna Khare, because mistrust and disillusionment run high in the South Asian American community. 

“It’s discouraging because there are some immigration protections for survivors of crime,” Khare says in a Zoom interview. “But they’re difficult to access. For example, if you’re married to an H1-B visa-holder and you’re a dependent..it could take years to get a U-Visa, if ever. Is it safe to wait?” 

Khare is referring to the U Nonimmigrant visa, which permits victims of crimes such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking to remain in the United States. Although U-visas are designed to protect the immigration status of all abuse victims, only 10,000 of them are accepted a year. Those denied are “given priority” for the next year, which is why so many South Asian women who apply are expected to remain undocumented for years. 

Law enforcement across the country also has a history of undermining U-Visa petitions, as indicated by an assessment from The Center of Investigative Reporting. According to their analysis, U-Visa petitions have dropped since 2018 because “nearly 1 of every 4 [agencies] create barriers never envisioned under the…program.” The effects, Khare says, are devastating — and not just for the victims. 

“It’s interesting that people look at domestic violence work as just charity.  In reality, our work is about keeping our community safe,” Khare says. “Abusers are likely to continue their violent behavior if we ignore this crisis… Their children will need extra interventions and support at school and their families are more likely to experience negative health effects… Domestic violence prevention and services  are investments in public safety and healing that hold abusers accountable and allow survivors to stay in their homes safely and flourish.”

COVID-19: Locked in with an abusive spouse

The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably aggravated the situation. Lockdown restrictions have forced victims into a vulnerable space with their aggressors. The usual support systems, such as neighbors and family friends, are no longer available. 

Boston-based organization Saheli reported an increase in 911 emergency calls where their advocates had to assist non-English speaking South Asian Americans.

Meanwhile, the advocacy organization Domestic Violence Women United says that the coronavirus pandemic has added “multiple layers” to the atrocities of violence that are permissible within South Asian American households. DV Women United was formed by three women — Kasturi Basu, Sushmita Dutta, and Ms. Ghosh. Some being domestic violence survivors themselves founded the organization eight years ago as an anonymous support system for other victims. 

“When you have children in a violent relationship, they are not going to school or having any other outside interaction during COVID,” said Kasturi, a principal at Alum Rock Elementary School. “When they’re at home more often, they witness more abuse and may also be subjected to more violence themselves. It’s a completely different environment.” 

Kasturi also said the virus itself can be weaponized against victims of domestic violence. Many abusers prevent their spouses from seeking any outside support, using the pandemic as their rationale. In some relationships, Kasturi mentioned that aggressors even threaten to spread the coronavirus to partners, thus adding to an unhealthy power dynamic. 

After the fact 

Three years ago, Sharma was alone and unemployed in a country she says she did not trust. Today, Sharma is a qualified beautician and proud business owner. With Daya’s help, she established her own salon in Houston where she pursues her passion within the beauty industry. 

“Daya really worked for me, to show me how to do business. They helped me to get a business loan, taught me how to run a business, find clients, meet with people…they taught me [the way] you teach a schoolchild,” Sharma says. 

Although financially independent, Sharma’s fight continues. She is the mother of two children who are still living in Nepal and is struggling to obtain green card status in the United States. Sharma lived with domestic violence for more than 13 years, an experience that has colored her vision of South Asian marriage and cultural expectations. 

“Asian men need to compromise,” Sharma says. “Even my own father and brothers never gave my mother any respect. And [Asian] women need to speak up. They need to connect with other people. I want them to know how much power they really have.” 

She ends the call on a hopeful note. 

“I’m not afraid of anyone anymore,” Sharma says and laughs. “I feel like I’m flying in the air.” 

If you or someone else is struggling with domestic violence, please refer to the resources below. 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

Maitri Helpline: 1-888-862-4874 (https://maitri.org/)

Narika Helpline: 1-510-444-6048 (https://www.narika.org/

Domestic Harmony Foundation: 1-516-385-8292 (http://dhfny.org/

My Sister’s House: 1-916-428-3271 (http://www.my-sisters-house.org/


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the Youth Editor of India Currents, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, and the Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay. Follow Kanchan on Instagram at @kanchan_naik_

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

‘I Blamed Myself’ Says Sharma on Staying in an Abusive Marriage

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, South Asian American victims of domestic violence have fewer options than ever. As Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to a close, India Currents presents a 2-part series discussing abuse and its impact within the South Asian American community. 

*Certain names have been altered to protect the privacy of the interviewees. 

45-year old Mala Sharma met her second husband at a student union in 2012, and they soon shared a cramped Houston apartment to begin their new life together. Sharma had recently fled Nepal and an abusive marriage, gaining asylum status in the United States for her condition. She had endured the violent, volatile tendencies of her first husband for more than ten years. 

A local politician, her first husband had an unhealthy control over her life even after divorce, prompting Sharma to “go undercover” for fear of being killed. She says she trusted her new partner, believing that she knew and understood domestic abuse. 

She was wrong. 

“He was so nice to speak to in the beginning,” Sharma says in a phone interview. “But as I came closer to him, his real habits were revealed. He began swearing at me, pushing me everywhere…there was lots of verbal abuse.” 

These incidents only escalated. Sharma says her husband isolated her from friends and family, threatening to ruin her reputation if she retaliated. When she finally divorced him in 2017, he spent days waiting outside her apartment, screaming. He constantly harassed her online, on “everything from phone calls to text messages to Viber.” Their marriage ended in a restraining order and jail time. 

“I was so scared,” Sharma says. “I blamed myself, kept telling myself that I was a bad wife, bad daughter, a failure.”

Kasturi Basu came to the country when she was 25 years old to live with her once-divorced husband. Soon after she landed, she got pregnant. A little while after that she found that she had married a dangerously violent man. With two daughters, she was stuck in a physically abusive marriage. Over the years, the police came out to her house a dozen times but it wasn’t until police found her bleeding and insisted on documenting the episode that her husband finally went to jail. 

After several years, Basu managed to secure a restraining order, but her husband took her to court contesting it. When she tried to extend the order, he contested it again. Basu was emotionally and financially destitute after years of her husband’s manipulation — and so she finally gave up. Basu has been subjected to multiple divorce trials by her husband and currently is fighting the divorce in appeals court. Still, with some distance from her abusive husband, she was able to begin the slow, painful process of healing and recovery. 

Sharma’s and Basu’s stories echo one told by thousands of South Asian American women suffering from domestic abuse. Violence, insults, intimidation — these are only a few of the atrocities immigrant women experience and are slowly taught to accept. 

At the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and precarious immigration status, Indian American women are more vulnerable to abuse than ever. 

Statistically Unsafe 

According to a 2003 study published by the US National Library of Medicine, roughly 40% of the 160 South Asian women sampled from Greater Boston, Massachusetts reported ‘experiencing intimate partner violence,’ including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Most of these women had freshly immigrated from South Asia within the past two years and had no family or social support system in the United States. The study also indicated that a majority of the non-US born participants initially had no knowledge of support services for domestic violence victims or did not have the bandwidth to reach out. 

And the numbers are on a troubling rise. A 2010 study published by the National Institute of Justice indicated that younger generations of Indians and Pakistanis immigrating to the United States today are much more likely to endure all kinds of partner violence than their older counterparts. 

New Country  

“Immigrant populations are more vulnerable than other populations”, says Zakia Afrin, Manager of the Client Advocacy Program for Maitri. Maitri, an SF/Bay Area-based organization, provides legal help, housing, counseling, resources, and a live helpline to South Asians in situations of Domestic Abuse.

“It is heightened when you are away from your home country,” affirms Bindu Oomen-Fernandes, Executive Director at Narika, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to assisting South Asian survivors. “Imagine…you don’t know anybody but your husband, you don’t know things like 911, you don’t have access to local resources, and you’re afraid of deportation.” 

Aggressive partners assert financial and legal superiority over their spouses, often by holding their immigration status hostage. Fernandes discusses how many husbands on an H1-B visa withhold their wives’ papers — what Fernandes calls ‘immigration abuse.’ 

“There have been cases where we question a survivor and she says she doesn’t even know her visa status,” Fernandes says. “And in circumstances where the abuser files for divorce, she realizes she doesn’t have her documents, doesn’t know where the passports of her children are. She can’t even make plans to leave because her status changes rules around deportation.” 

“Financial dependence is huge,” says Maria Arshaad, one of Narika’s program managers. “When these women come into the country, they’re not able to work. Even if they have a degree back home, [often] the credentials don’t transfer or their visa doesn’t [allow] them to get a job.” 

Without economic autonomy, domestic violence survivors cannot care for themselves or their children. Nor can they afford appropriate legal services and counseling. Sharma, for example, spent several months living with her second husband even after divorcing him. 

“I was working at a salon for $3 an hour,” says Sharma. “He was working at a local gas station. I did not want to live with him, but he convinced me to stay together to save money.” 

Even if a survivor can make plans to leave, where can she go? Restrictive visas and income inequality leave few options for South Asian American women. 

“This is not the end of the road. There are services available and the systems and communities have come a long way in recognizing that. Just talk with a DV advocate. Please explore your options before you give up,” urges Afrin.

Maitri and Narika are great resources if you are in the Bay Area. Sometimes the best, first step is letting someone know that there is a problem.

Find the second article HERE.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the Youth Editor of India Currents, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the Global Student Square editor for Newsroom By the Bay. Follow Kanchan on Instagram at @kanchan_naik_

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

The Serenity Project Transforms Pain

Serene Singh is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford completing her postgraduate studies in Public Policy but it is her work outside of academics that initially inspired her. As former America’s Junior Miss and Miss Colorado Teen, her pageantry and modeling experience created a space for her to empower women worldwide. She created The Serenity Project nonprofit to give confidence and self-love tools, improve, and provide access and opportunity to at-risk women.

The Serenity Project was founded in 2016 after Serene lost a best friend, a survivor of violence, to suicide.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for at-risk women in the U.S., womxn who unduly battle body dysmorphia. While working in the US Senate on violence, trafficking, and rape policies she noticed womxn survivors were never in-charge of the settings where changes impacting survivors were created. Serene dreamt of empowering survivors to dream again. In the face of a culture of mental health stigmatization, societal shaming of survivors, and a lack of tools for at-risk womxn to gain confidence, Serene’s vision to support and empower women has made waves and had an impact spanning across the United States and reaching hundreds of womxn. Previous project participants include (but are not limited to) survivors of domestic violence, attempted suicides, PTSD, human trafficking, etc.

Empowering womxn survivors to transform their pain into their power is what The Serenity Project is about.  

The Serenity Project empowers “at-risk” womxn by challenging 1) unhealthy beauty standards 2) the rising number of suicide attempts and 3) the lack of support, tools, and skills survivors receive to grow through the trauma they have gone through. 

The Serenity Project begins with a 10-15 at-risk womxn to participate in a kick-off fashion show (featured in the Documentary) followed by a 12-month curriculum called the Soaring Curriculum, alongside a globally-based mentorship program. The curriculum builds skills (i.e. self-compassion, meditation, public speaking) while womxn mentors from around the globe are able to serve as mentors and support survivors to develop passion projects that help the womxn pay their experiences forward and invest in their dreams.

The Serenity Project’s recent release of The Serenity Project documentary captures the very first year of the project lifting off the ground. The visceral impact of witnessing womxn gaining confidence and unapologetically being their true selves touched everyone’s heart. The Live Zoom event followed by the Youtube Premiering of the Documentary brought tears to the eyes of many viewers who were survivors themselves. 

Serene Singh states, “There is nothing more powerful and inspiring than a woman who discovers her wings and uses them to build herself up and bring others with her too. That is what this nonprofit is all about.” 

For more information or inquiries, visit their website or email theserenityprojectofficial@gmail.com