Mismanagement, lapses near Vedanthangal sanctuary threaten eviction of migratory birds

A series of lapses and mismanagement killed agriculture around the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary, and now threatens to evict the birds that come here looking for a home from distant lands
Ramesh, farmer from Malaipalayam, near a contaminated irrigation well. He says  he quit farming and now works as a cable TV operator (Photo | EPS)
Ramesh, farmer from Malaipalayam, near a contaminated irrigation well. He says  he quit farming and now works as a cable TV operator (Photo | EPS)

VEDANTHANGAL: Gangan, a resident of the serene Malaipalayam village, once owned five acres of land. “I used to grow paddy,” recalls the 75-year-old. The village, nestled inside the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, was a farmers’ paradise at one point in time. “The yields were very good here due to the rich nutrients in the soil and water.

The nourishment comes from bird droppings.” Now, Gangan works as a daily-wage labourer. He quit farming years back, and has sold off his land for a paltry price to a private healthcare ‘trust’. “I was forced to quit,” says Gangan. “The water in my wells, which we used to drink, became unfit for irrigation. My farming died with it.” Gangan is not alone. The entire Malaipalayam village — which has a population of over 4,000 — have quite farming.

Over the years, the lands that once produced a rich variety of food crops became barren. And then the industries came calling — real estate projects, then small manufacturing units, and later even highly-polluting industries in the red category. They slowly started eating into the land resource here, within a bird sanctuary protected by law. This despite some of these industries being strictly prohibited here.
Now, the only vegetation in Malaipalayam village are thick shrubs of Seemai Karuvelam and stunted palm trees.

Officials have remained mute spectators to changes in the village. Recently, they went a step ahead and decided to de-notify the outer 2km of the sanctuary — which is a whopping 40 per cent of its total area. When the issue snowballed, officials retracted, and said they were only declaring the area as ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ).

What’s with the water?      
So, what happened to the groundwater in the village? “It all began in the year 2000, when Sun Pharma started operations here,” claims Ramesh, a resident of that village. “In the early years, the company was discharging effluents into nearby water bodies — Sitheri and Pudhupeet Thangal — which flow through our village and empties into the Mathuranthagam lake and then into Vedanthangal lake.” Ramesh claims it’s this discharge that rendered the soil and water here unfit for agriculture. 

The summer sun was beating down, mercilessly, when I visited the village on Tuesday last week. The water bodies had dried down to puddles, but the sharp chemical stench hung over the air. “We have complained to the pollution control board authorities and to the district adminstration. They inspected the place, but do not seem to have taken any action,” claims Ramesh. Prasad, who manages a 40-acre farm growing mangoes adjacent to the pharma company, has similar stories to share.

“Two out of three irrigation wells we have here are contaminated,” says Prasad. “The water smells like chemicals. Our crop over the last three years has been dismal,” and Prasad believes it is because of the contamination of water. Sun Pharma’s spokesperson dismissed the allegations. “There is a zero liquid discharge facility at the unit and a state-of-the-art waste management system. The District Environmental Engineer there, D Vasudevan said the PCB had collected soil and water samples for testing.

The red flag
There are three red category industries currently within the sanctuary borders. The Wildlife (Protection) Act does not allow such industries to be set up inside the sanctuary limits — which covers the Vedanthangal tank and the surrounding 5 km. These industries are even prohibited even in ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) areas, which are usually located outside the protected area. Reliable sources say none of these three industries and the small manufacturing units, have applied for environmental clearance under the EIA notification, which is mandatory. 

In April this year, the Union Environment Ministry issued a memorandum allowing States to grant environmental clearance (EC) to pharma companies expeditiously — for new projects and expansion of old ones. This means, such companies are allowed to skip environmental impact assessments and public hearings. Subsequently, on May 30, Sun Pharma submits an application to the State authority, seeking EC for expansion of its plant to produce Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs). 

“The plant was established in 1993 and Sun Pharma acquired it only in 2000,” says the company spokesperson. “Since then we have been operating only with all regulatory approvals from competent authorities.” The firm has a consent to operate till March next year. They need not get a wildlife board clearance as the board itself was constituted only in 2003. But, the firm should have obtained an EC because it expanded its product mix after acquiring the old plant in 2000.

Now, the bird sanctuary was declared in the year 1998. Even if the industrial units existed prior to it, their claims would be extinguished after the notification of the sanctuary say experts, unless such claims were specifically brought to the notice of the district collector and settled. “This is in violation not just of the Wildlife Protection Act, but also the Town and Country Planning Act that requires such dangerous industries to be located in zones especially demarcated for Special Industries and Hazardous Use,” says environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman. A top government official told Express that the pollution control board was, indeed, looking into the case file of industries established inside the sanctuary. “Action will be taken if we find any wrongdoing.”   

A contaminated waterhole inside Pudhupet Thandal | Express
A contaminated waterhole inside Pudhupet Thandal | Express

‘Nothing wrong’
Cut to the recent controversy. Why is the government suddenly talking about the ESZ of the sanctuary? Senior forest officials say the department was finalising ESZ for all the sanctuaries in the State. The proposal for Vedanthangal came in January. In a media clarification, chief wildlife warden S Yuvaraj stated that efforts were being made to demarcate different areas of the sanctuary — the core area, buffer area, and ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) — within the 5km radius as most of the land is with the revenue department or in private hands.

India’s prominent conversationalists categorically refuse to the buy the argument of the department, saying the move would compromise the integrity of the catchment and drainage of the Vedanthangal tank. In a letter, former director of Bombay Natural History Society Asad Rahmani and former member of the wildlife board Bittu Sahgal, along with 11 others, have requested the board to reject Tamil Nadu government’s proposal and direct it declare a scientifically determined ESZ around the existing sanctuary. It is not clear if their request will be heeded to. But one thing is for sure, Gangan and many other villagers like him, will not and cannot return to farming in their village. Their only prayer now is that at least the birds, that seek a haven in Vedanthangal, remain safe.

M Yuvan from Madras Naturalist Society, said “Vedanthangal is a large lake with several small water bodies and paddy fields around it. Birds use these lands for nesting and foraging. Moreover, this five-kilometre region is a very important water catchment area and If construction activities arise here, it will severely affect the hydrology of the lake."

G Das, a local farmer who participated in preparation of Vedanthangal Wetland Act Plan (2013-18) that never got implemented, said tampering with existing area of the sanctuary would cause irreparable damage to the entire Vedanthangal wetland complex, which for generations attracted migratory birds in thousands each year.

Fast facts
The Wildlife Act does not allow red category industries inside sanctuary limits — which covers the Vedanthangal tank and the surrounding 5 km 

Officials had recently decided to de-notify the outer 2 km of the sanctuary — a whopping 40% of its total area

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