Conserving the Pallikaranai Marshlands

Madras, presently known as Chennai, is a thriving metropolis in Tamil Nadu. Popularly known as the Detroit of Asia, Chennai is known for its automobile and health care industries. The modern yet conservative city is also known for its geographical diversity. One such diverse ecosystem is the marshlands in Pallikaranai. As a city located close to the coast, the backwaters and marshes play an important role in the natural drainage systems. However, the growing city is creating stress on these environments, making their future existence uncertain.

The Pallikaranai marshland is one of the significant wetland ecosystems in South India. It has a geographical area of 80 square kilometres and is located 20 kilometres inland from the Bay of Bengal. The topography of this marsh is such that it retains water perennially, creating an aquatic ecosystem in the region. It is home to several rare, vulnerable and endangered flora and fauna. It is also a breeding ground for many migratory birds and many more species of birds are sighted here than in the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, making it environmentally important for the local ecosystem as well as the larger global ecosystem.

With its proximity and subsequent absorption into the growing metropolis of Chennai, the Pallikaranai marshland is vulnerable to encroachment and degradation. The problems started long ago when Chennai was still Madras in 1806 with the construction of the 262 mile long Buckingham Canal. Subsequently, there have been many projects like the National Institute of Ocean Technology, Centre for Wind Technology, several ring roads, the MRTS local railway network, construction of several IT parks and apartment complexes have slowly degraded the fringes of the marshland.

The marsh has come under serious threat from the developmental programmes adopted by the government. One such project is the storm drainage system to prevent flooding in the neighbouring Velachery area during the monsoons. This particular region is built upon the Velachery Lake, making this region more vulnerable. By building a drain system, the natural flow of water from the region into the marsh and eventually into the Bay of Bengal is prevented and the water is directly let into the sea through the drain. The natural flow of water is already restricted by the increase in building constructions, so hindering the monsoon water from flowing into this ecosystem would mean that the marshes are cut from the very water that keeps it alive.

Another problem faced by the marsh is the dumping of municipal wastes. The Corporation of Chennai is dumping up to 2200 tonnes of garbage collected from across the city in landfills in this region. Apart from this, there is a sewage treatment plant that is located in this region and another plant is planned to be constructed. Additionally, 32 million litres of untreated sewage is let into the marsh on a daily basis. Everything put together, the marsh has been converted into the biggest dump yard in the city. The chromium content in the land and groundwater is hazardously high in level. Air quality has also deteriorated as a recent study found the presence of fifteen hazardous particles whose concentration exceeds the healthy limits.

The peculiarity with the problem here is that most of the damaging problems are a result of government activity and that of the local corporation. If the state government decides to close these landfills and relocate the sewage treatment plants, most of the damage can be curtailed. However, the issue of hindered water flow across the ecosystem due to construction activity is much more difficult to address. At this moment, the possible option is to look at preserving what is left of the marsh and protecting it from further degradation.

In one of the recent judgements of the Madras High Court for public interest litigation, the court ruled for the protection of the 1716 acres of marshland and for the preservation of the specific characteristics of the land. Recently, the land has been transferred from the Chennai revenue district to the forest department. This was followed by eviction notices to encroachments in these lands by the Forest Department and several measures are being taken under the Tamil Nadu Forests Act of 1882. This is a welcoming step in the direction of preservation.

Similarly, the local body needs to regulate expansion and construction activity in the vicinity. Given that is has been transferred to the forest department, encroachment in the future may be prevented. A 1600 m long bund was constructed along the marsh to prevent the dumping of wastes and considerable improvement has been seen in the number of birds visiting the marsh. However, landfills and the sewage treatment plants continue to affect this ecosystem. The entire marsh is not under the control of the forest department and therefore only a limited area is under conservation.

More effective systems of waste management are required to address the problem of landfills and that is a huge debate in itself. Dumping of sewage by private containers needs to be monitored and severely penalised. Alternatives to the problem of sewage disposal are required to be developed. Restoration has a long way to go. On these lines, the government has initiated a three-pronged approach where the first step is consolidation followed by restoration and conservation. More than depending on the government authorities, individual action is required for protecting the marshland. Individual accountability in terms of dumping wastes and sewage must go a long way in the future.

Picture Credits : thehindu

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