I H Sekar, a fisherman and environmentalist living near Pallikaranai marsh land in Chennai, is awaiting judgment for a case he filed a year back, to protect the marsh from yet another encroachment. This is the third case that he has filed so far on the marsh. This time the encroachment has been by the government itself, to build an RTO office which will be a dump yard for vehicles.
The Pallikaranai marsh used to be spread across 6000 hectares some 50 years back, but only 600-odd hectares remain now. It’s still the biggest remaining wetland in Chennai, where destruction of natural water bodies has been linked to the massive urban flooding in December 2015. A recent report tabled in Parliament by a Parliamentary Standing Committee re-emphasises the fact that encroachment of lakes and riverbeds were a critical factor behind the massive Chennai floods last year.
It is not just Chennai. Water bodies are being destroyed across the country, but this is happening at an alarming speed in major cities. Wetlands include shallow water bodies like marshes, paddy fields, mangroves etc., and deep water bodies like lakes and rivers. They recharge groundwater and are thus important for water availability. They can absorb excess water and prevent floods, and are ecosystems that nurture various plant and animal species.
But in urban landscapes today, wetlands are often perceived as ‘waste lands’, and are quickly encroached upon by private real estate and the government. Pallikaranai marsh, for instance, houses not just private property, but also resettlement colonies set up by the government and even the Chennai corporation’s garbage dump yard. Peripheries of the marsh were parcelled to IT companies.
Due to the lack of an adequate and well-defined policy to protect wetlands, governments themselves grab these lands in the name of development or allow private construction. This also means that the attempts to save wetlands are isolated and scattered among small groups of citizens and NGOs, especially since much of the urban population are migrants.
Traditional communities in cities, like fishermen, who are in fact dependent on water bodies, don’t have a say in development. Sekar, who hails from a traditional fishing family, says that many fishermen in his village Sholinganallur have quit the profession.
“The quantity of fish has decreased due to pollution and encroachments. People in the village now buy sea fish from markets,” he says. Founder of the NGO Nature Trust, Sekar has filed many cases against encroachments on Chennai’s public lands. In his current case against the RTO office construction, the authorities did not submit any response over the past one year. Instead, they went ahead with the construction this July.
For this, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a fine of Rs 10,000 on the first respondent, the Kancheepuram District Collector, and ordered him again to submit a response on the issue. The Collector then submitted an affidavit and construction has been stopped for now; the hearings are expected to continue.
There have been many campaigns to protect Pallikaranai. Some plots here have been reclaimed through individual court cases, and 317 hectares was declared as a reserve forest by the government in 2007. The Government also formed the Conservation Authority for Pallikaranai Marsh, which has reclaimed more land – the total forest area now is 890 hectares, says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan, a member of the authority and Managing Trustee of the NGO Care Earth Trust. The executive body of the authority, comprising local residents, NGOs, industry representatives etc., make recommendations to its governing body which comprises officials.
Jayshree says, “We are recommending that more land should be reclaimed, but these can only be buffer land now; they are not wetlands anymore. Marshes are shallow water bodies, unstable, and they can easily turn into dry land. Once gone, it’s gone forever.”
Jayshree says that residents, especially those who have always lived in the area, are very proactive in the executive body of the authority. But the authority had not met in quite a long time – the last one and a half years. Recently, on August 12th, a meeting was convened to discuss the demands and decide on the way forward.
CITIZEN CAMPAIGNS ACROSS THE CITY
After the December floods, Ilan Thamilagam (Young Tamil Nadu Movement), a collective of mainly IT employees that works on social causes, started an online campaign to save the marsh. George, a teacher who works near Pallikaranai and member of the group, says “Our Facebook page ‘Save Pallikaranai’ has 500 plus followers now. We are planning weekend campaigns in front of IT offices.”
The campaigners are mostly migrants, but live and work here now. “We want to create awareness among IT employees living here as they have the time and resources to engage with this, and also because IT companies are responsible for much of the garbage dumping and pollution here,” says George.
Individual campaigns and protests to save natural resources have also been seen elsewhere in Chennai. This January, fishermen at Ennore creek, through protests, forced the state government to stop the takeover of land at Ennore estuary. The estuary had been developed into an industrial area over the last two decades, forcing fishermen out of their professions. However, the government is now going ahead with takeover of 683 acres there, and protests continue.
Last December, the NGT ordered the state PWD department to remove a bund built on Porur lake and to ensure no construction happens there. George, who was involved with the campaign to save Porur lake, says that a combination of public protests and court case had led to the outcome.
THE BATTLE OF A FEW
About Pallikaranai, journalist Nityanand Jayaraman says, “As usual, there is a minority fighting for the marsh. People are not scared enough even after the floods. They are more aware, but there is no action. We should actually be scared to death about the filling up of wetlands.”
Jayshree and George say that the relatively less number of traditional communities in Pallikaranai is a major reason for the neglect towards the marsh’s conservation. Both affirm that people do not take individual responsibility; garbage dumping in the marsh is an example. “People should reduce the waste they generate, but they still think landfill is an option. The garbage dump remains in the marsh as there is no alternative for it now,” says Jayshree.
George and Jayaraman both feel that public protests are needed to protect wetlands. “Protests and court cases should happen parallelly. In the case of Porur lake, the public debates caught the attention of the press, and political parties started supporting us. That played a role in the NGT verdict,” says George.
The commitment of the government to the cause is however not beyond doubt. The central government’s new Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, have been criticised for further weakening wetland conservation. The new draft rules do away with the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority, and fully allow state governments to identify wetlands and decide how these lands can be used. This is despite state governments having a very poor record of preserving wetlands. The new rules also do away with environment impact assessment that was earlier compulsory for taking up any activity on wetlands.
In this scenario of government apathy and action by only a few individuals and groups, it seems, as Jayaraman says, that “whatever conservation is happening, is happening despite the government, not because of it.”