CHENNAI: Thousands of gallons of raw sewage are being illegally discharged into the ecologically sensitive Muttukadu backwaters on Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) every day with the full knowledge of local authorities.
On an average, 50 tankers with a capacity of approximately 9,000 litres each are making a beeline to the narrow Venkataraman Street, 7th ward in Kazhipattur, located south of Hiranandani Upscale, to carry out the unauthorised dumping into the backwaters. It falls within Muttukadu panchayat limits.
As part of a Union Environment Ministry project, the Wildlife Institute of India has recognised Muttukadu backwaters as Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas (ICMBAs) along with 15 others sites in Tamil Nadu including Pulicat, Pichavaram, Vedaranyam swamp, Palk Bay, Muthupet etc.
Following a tip-off, The New Indian Express visited the site on Thursday evening and there were at least five sewage tankers off-loading the sewage into the backwaters. When Express photojournalist Ashwin Acharya tried to click pictures of the illegality, he was stopped and threatened. One of the lorry drivers openly said they were doing this with the permission of the Muttukadu panchayat.
Besides sewage discharge, a new dumpyard has also cropped up on the banks of the backwaters at Kazhipattur. Tonnes of mixed solid waste have accumulated, which would eventually end up in the waterbody and then into the sea through Kovalam estuary.
Maj Gen (Retd) Jose Manavalan of Save the Muttukadu Backwaters Campaign said: "I am extremely distressed. Despite National Green Tribunal orders, raw sewage and waste continues to be dumped on the Muttukadu backwaters. We have sent pictures and videos of the illegality to Chengalpet district collector A John Louis, but haven't received any response. This is clear evidence that no one is ready to follow the law. I urge the district administration to issue instructions to stop this and lodge FIRs against the perpetrators," he said.
Ironically, this was the same place visited by former NGT judge P Jyothimani, Chairman of State Monitoring Committee constituted by National Green Tribunal for Solid Waste Management in October last year, after The New Indian Express reported how the Muttukadu backwaters were turning into another Cooum due to sewage discharge and illegal dumpyards on the banks. The area was cleared then, but again the dumping has resumed.
Justice Jyothimani had instructed Public Works Department (PWD) officials to maintain the backwaters. Chengalpet collector John Louis assured that police patrolling would be beefed up in the area to deter any illegal dumping again. Though one access point from where the vehicles used to reach the backwaters next to Hiranandani Upscale is closed and CCTV cameras installed to monitor movements, the tankers have found a new entrance at Kazhipattur, which does not have any houses and is easy to access.
Cleaning of Muttukadu backwaters and its banks is crucial for Kovalam to get the international Blue Flag beach recognition. One of the important parameters to get the recognition is to have good water quality. If raw sewage and mixed waste gets flushed into the sea through the Kovalam estuary, the government's initiative to develop Kovalam beach would fail.
Meanwhile, the NGT-appointed joint committee, which is assessing the extent of degradation caused due to illegal dumping of solid waste and sewage and calculate environmental compensation to be charged from violators including local panchayats, has been asked to submit its report by January 29. The nodal agency for the committee is the Union Environment Ministry.
The committee will also be coming up with long-term and short-term plans, including creating a biodiversity park and tree plantation in the area to avoid future encroachments and illegal dumping of waste along the backwaters.
When contacted, jurisdictional PWD assistant engineer Raj Thilak confessed that private sewage tankers are indeed carrying out the illegality and said: "About two weeks back, I lodged a complaint at Kelambakkam police station with photo evidence. PWD doesn't have enforcement powers. Only the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and transport department officials can seize the vehicles." Venkatraghavan, block development officer of Thiruporur, said it's the PWD's job to maintain the backwaters.
The New Indian Express has also shared the photos and details of the illegality with Justice Jyothimani, who said he will talk to the Chengalpattu collector and visit the area next week. Chengalpattu collector John Louis did not respond to Express calls or messages.