CHENNAI: In 1906, the Pallikaranai marshland was spread over 8000 hectares all the way from East Coast Road to Madhya Kailash junction. Today, it has dwindled to smaller patches of foliage in southern Chennai amidst highways and IT parks like emerald ink blots on a grey scaled newspaper page.
While this multifaceted ecological landscape is home to common sandpipers, painted storks, greater flamingos and 163 other local, migratory, and endangered species, it is also choked by the Corporation’s Perungudi dump yard that stretches across the horizon of Pallikaranai till as far as the eyes can see. Currently, the Perungudi landfills sit on 200 acres of land in the city.
“10 lakh people are coming in every year. And the state needs to accommodate these people, give them employment opportunities and protect them,” the founder of Nature Trust organization TVRK Thiruvaranan says. “For the government, people’s welfare comes first. So these ecosystems that are vital to the environment are not as important to them,” he adds. This was before the government's conservation efforts in the marshland started.
This flat, low-lying land is significant due to its numerous inlets of freshwater that spread across 45 hectares. It flushes back stormwater into the sea from the southeastern parts of Chennai to the Bay of Bengal. "Cities would flood if these inlets weren't there. People build makeshift houses near the bio-fences that the Tamil Nadu government has built and when the water level rises and floods these houses, they complain," he adds.
He says that nature will balance itself if untouched but interventions like forcing open the sea mouth to let water out will suck the wetland dry resulting in an ecological imbalance.
Forest ranger Natarajan, 32, refers to the devastating 2015 Chennai floods to underscore the dangers. "It’s because of us, our irrational intervention that mother Earth is angry at us," he stresses.
Various government and private institutions and industries were set up on the marshlands as it was considered a wasteland until 2003 when it came under government protection. The presence of these buildings meant that when the floods hit, the stormwater inundated the city. This was one of the reasons, apart from the encroachment of lakes and rivers in Chennai.
Marshlands are also important because of their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but according to a study conducted by Anna University researchers, the marshland is emitting a whopping 8.4 gigatonnes of methane every year. Most of the methane arises from the five-decade-old dump yard tucked away in a corner.
The tech park surrounding the remaining marshland is spread over 20 lakh square feet. The urbanization that followed played an important role in the present condition of the Pallikaranai landscape. Ground water depletion, a never-ending garbage dump yard, sewage treatment facilities and many more outcomes altered the dynamics of the environment.
According to a New Indian Express report, tankers are known to dump sewage into the marshland under the cover of darkness in the wee hours but the recent dumping of paint effluents is a first, say forest officials. This paint sludge can harm birds on prolonged exposure.
The sighting of both local and migratory birds has been increasing steadily over the years in Pallikaranai owing to the state’s conservation efforts. Eco-restoration work by the state forest department started around six years ago. The Conservation of Pallikaranai Marshland Authority and many environmental organizations like Nature Trust and Care Earth have been working towards building bio-fences around all remnants of the marshland to prevent further encroachment.
Currently, eco-restoration work has started for 695 hectares under the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change which will run for five years till 2023.
A retired forest ranger who wishes to remain anonymous said he was the first person to work on the newly protected land back in 2003. "I saw a flamingo for the first time in my life in 2008 and I was so happy because such appearances are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem," he said.
Thiruvaranan, along with other NGOs and the Conservation of Pallikaranai Marshland authority, has recorded 167 species of birds, with an average of 50,000 birds arriving every year.
Bird-watching enthusiasts come from all over the country to witness the magic of Pallikaranai. Thiruvaranan has always appreciated it. Frantically, he takes out his gigantic zoom lens camera and shoots a patch of sludge and water hyacinths. He points at the photo of a plump duck with a broad brown bill that is hiding behind blades of grass next to a water hyacinth and says admiringly, "This bird flew in from Siberia. It feeds here and breeds there.”