Tamil Nadu's Vanishing Wetlands

Conversion of vast tracts into residential, industrial layouts to affect food security, self-sufficiency of State.

Published: 23rd July 2015 04:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd July 2015 04:21 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: Tamil Nadu is among the top states in urbanisation, but the massive, unplanned development is eating away the wetlands, reducing the net sown area in the last 40 years. This, experts say, would have a serious impact on food security in the whole region.

Alarmed by this, the High Court of Madras issued a directive to the State earlier this month to prepare a report to stop converting farm land for urban use. Till 2011, the conversion was hyper active and unregulated, fuelled by the growth in service industries including IT and increase in disposable income. That year, the State amended the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act by bringing in section 47A to prevent the conversion of wetlands for other purposes.  Under this, the power to give permission to convert farm land for residential or other purposes, that was earlier vested with the tahsildar, was passed on to the district collector to prevent misuse.

However, according to M Vijayabaskar, assistant professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), the amendment would not be effective as most people bought the land and left it uncultivated. “This is how wetland turns fallow and is easy to buy,” he said. Advocate Elephant Rajendran, the petitioner who moved the High Court on the issue, couldn’t agree more. He said the conversion of wetland was going on even after the amendment came into force. Realtors admit that the conversion is happening on the sly even now. “They have evolved a backdoor method as the normal process to convert wetland into a residential or industrial layout is a tedious process as it involves the concurrence of the collectors as well as the government,” said a developer on condition of anonymity.

For a one-acre land for instance, the developer first divides the land into four grounds apiece and then approaches the local panchayats.  “He gets the approval in no time. And then, as the whole land is converted into a residential plot with due approval from panchayats, the developer or industrialist goes to the DTCP for developing the entire parcel of land,” the developer explained.

While accepting that this was indeed happening, the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (CREDAI) Chennai president Ajith Chordia said it was difficult to stop conversion of wetland until the government planned to introduce stimulus packages to make farming remunerative. With the land price in Tamil Nadu skyrocketing, selling land is seen more profitable than cultivating it, said Chordia.

A senior DTCP official blamed the panchayats for this. “The farmers want to sell their land as farming is not remunerative any more. They approach the panchayat president and a certificate is easily obtained stating the parcel of the land has not been used for agriculture for the last five years. Soon afterwards, a small parcel of land is sold and the registration official fixes the guideline value,” the source added. This is visible across the State, including in the Cauvery delta, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, where farm lands are quickly being converted into plots. Nearer Chennai, the Kancheepuram district has seen a tremendous decline in farming. Instead, the land is sold at a high price for real estate development. 

In a more worrisome development, sources in the DTCP told Express that there was also a move to bring in an amendment to regularise the layouts that came up before January 1, 2011. “Once it comes into force, the many wetlands in the State that were converted into unapproved layouts can be regularised,” the source said. The industrial sector too has voiced its opposition to the insertion of section 47A that mandates approval from DTCP. Earlier, the clearance and approvals were given by the inspector of factories and local panchayats. Sources added that most of the industries that got approval from the Industrial Guidance Bureau are now seeking exemption of no-objection certificate from the district collector. Concerned by this, planners and academicians have said that unplanned and uncontrolled conversion of farm land would have serious impact on food security and self-sufficiency of Tamil Nadu, and the country as a whole, besides affecting the livelihood of millions of farm households.

Gross Farm Loss

According to figures available with Express, the gross cropped area in the State has declined from 73.8 lakh hectares in 1970-71 to  58.9 lakh hectares in 2011

As per the Union government figures, the State lost 7.13 lakh hectare of net sown area in the last two decades (1991-2011) alone. Tamil Nadu is ranked fourth in India

The Season and Crop report of 2005-06 states that the net sown area in Kancheepuram was 1.35 lakh hectare. This dropped to 1.02 lakh hectare in 2013-14

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