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Swamped by problems

Pollution and poaching are posing a threat to the Pallikaranai marsh ecosystem. PRINCE FREDERICK finds out more

THIRUNARANAN HAS had a special bond with the Pallikaranai marsh. As a teenager, he used to walk around this wetland to watch the birds there. The hours spent training his binoculars on the avian life would rejuvenate him. For the middle-aged naturalist, the marsh continues to hold an attraction. But today a visit to the marsh is not as inspiring. It only leaves him angry.

Over the years, naturalists like Thirunaranan have been helplessly watching the marsh diminish in size and value. The wetland once spread over 5,000 hectares, extending from Velachery to Sholinganallur in the east and Jalladampet in the west. As the juggernaut of progress rolled on inexorably, the marsh kept shrinking.

Around the mid-1990s, the Tambaram-Velachery Highway was re-laid. Thanks to this well-laid road, the area has been blessed with "enviable development". However, in proportion to this "development", the marsh is losing its value as a well-balanced ecosystem. Constructions, sanctioned and otherwise, have stripped the swamp of a large extent of land and squeezed the fauna and flora into 750 hectares. For an MRTS station at Velachery, a large slice of the wetland has been parcelled out. The Oceanography Institute and other such educational institutions have also taken huge bites out of it. Not just legalised land alienation, but also illegal structures are eating into the wetland.

These constructions, effected without regard for the natural contours of the wetland, have resulted in the clogging of the natural conduits in the marshland. The result, the runoff into the low-lying marshland gets blocked.

The ecological balance of the marsh is facing a threat from other quarters as well. The Municipality has appropriated 180 hectares of the marsh for dumping and incinerating garbage. The burning plastic emits hazardous carcinogen-like toxins. A private sanitation unit is also dumping tonnes of garbage. A pathway has been laid through the marsh right into the core areas for facilitating the movement of vehicles to dump garbage. This waste, loaded with pathogens, poses a serious health hazard to the residents of the area.

Raw sewage from the surrounding localities is brought by the tanker load and discharged directly into the marsh. This could cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem by depleting oxygen and throttling plant and animal life.

Poachers - narikoravas and local weekend shikaris - seem to be working overtime to denude the wetland of its bird life. They do not discriminate, and shoot or trap even rare winter visitors like avocet, curlew and godwit. The tiny stints and sandpipers are also targeted. These poachers set up clandestine roadside markets for the day.

The proposal to create an industrial park on the southern fringes between Sholinganallur and Jalladampet, conceived around late 1990, is yet to take off. This proposal is fraught with grave consequences for the wetland as a large part of it could be alienated for the park. Such a move would deal a body blow to the Pallikaranai ecosystem.

Avian abode

THE WETLAND was once a habitué of numerous birdwatchers. Over the years, many of them have turned their back on the deteriorating marsh. Today, naturalists like those belonging to the Madras Naturalists' Society are making every effort to reclaim the marsh for the birds and the birdwatchers. They say the marsh is home to a wide variety of avian species. "During winter (October to February), a large number of wetland birds congregate at the marshland. Egret, cormorant, open-billed stork, an occasional ibis and painted stork, rail (like coot), waterhen and moorhen, pheasant-tailed jacana and bittern are resident birds. Migratory birds include waders like curlew, avocet, sandpiper, godwit, an occasional duck (the graganey) and wagtail. Except for likely breeding by bitterns, no other wetland bird has been sighted breeding in the locality," says naturalist V. Gurusami.

Apart from the 106 species of wetland birds - resident and migratory - it is home to, the wetland supports 45 species of fish, nine species of frog and 21 species of reptiles, besides 62 types of wetland vegetation.

"During seasons of copious North-East Monsoon rainfall (October to January), it stores an average of 3.5 to 4.5 feet of water. This marshland is a catchment area that recharges groundwater," says Gurusami.

In other words, this wetland is of inestimable value not only for birds and animals, but also for rain-starved Chennai-ites.

Efforts in vain?

IN RECENT times, concerted efforts have been made to save the Pallikaranai marsh. In this regard, the local residents, NGOs and naturalists have been making a laundry list of representations to the powers-that-be. Some of the organisations involved are the Madras Naturalists Society (MNS), Care Earth, Save Pallikaranai Marshland Forum, Exnora and Pasumai Thayagam.

Such activism seems to have nudged the Environment Ministry into action. Last month, a committee of experts led by Vijayan from the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History was deputed to study the wetland ecology. Rare earth scientists, local residents, NGOs and naturalists pitched in and helped the experts with feedback.

Without covering the waterfront, the team looked into as many aspects of the problem as it could in one day - October 21.

If not a searing indictment of the poor management of the ecosystem, their report was a painful rap on the knuckles for the powers-that-be. The gist of the committee's report is: "Withdraw the remaining area from the Corporation's control. Declare the entire remaining area a sanctuary for wetland birds. Reclaim alienated areas and carry out afforestation. The Corporation has to shift its garbage dump to some other location".

The committee has also requested the Central Government to speed up inclusion of the Velachery-Pallikaranai marsh in the National Wetlands Conservation Programme. Construction of a sewage treatment plant at Velachery is one of the other recommendations.

Has the experts' visit and recommendations stemmed the tide of pollution in and around the marsh?

Two weeks after their visit, a newspaper report (November 4, 2003) disclosed the continuing practice of garbage burning in the marshland. In broad daylight!

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