From 50 kms to less than 5 kms: How Pallikaranai Marsh shrank in 50 yrs

Amid enthusiastic World Environment Day celebrations, one of Tamil Nadu’s most important wetlands, the Pallikaranai Marsh is struggling for survival, having fallen prey to land grabbers and real estate sharks who have taken over around 40 kms of protected marshland
From 50 kms to less than 5 kms: How Pallikaranai Marsh shrank in 50 yrs
Pallikaranai Marsh Land in 1989 and 2018

On fifth of June, like the past few years, the 50th World Environment Day was celebrated enthusiastically across the globe, mostly on Twitter and other social media platforms with the hashtags #WorldEnvironmentDay and #OnlyOneEarth trending everywhere. World leaders, including some of our own, launched new initiatives to save the environment, which they claimed were global while some local leaders highlighted the initiatives they introduced to save the environment like introducing manjappais (yellow cloth bags).

Actors and artistes took selfies with pots of plants, got photographers and videographers to record them planting saplings of trees.

More visible environmental activists and nature lovers went bird watching, trekking etc. while college students here were given assignments of taking videos of them segregating garbage and even collecting plastics from roads. Others who were too lazy to wake up on a Sunday and get out just retweeted these messages and went back to sleep.

If one sought to understand anything about the environment or actually going about protecting it from these trending stories or reels, the social media hysteria was, at best, a disappointment. By evening, the trends shifted to #NupurSharma, the BJP spokesperson who was suspended, and #ShameonBJP, the counter story. #Environment will have to wait a year to hog the social media limelight again.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Afghanistan on Monday joined several Muslim nations to condemn the controversial remarks of a BJP leader against Prophet Mohammed, stressing the importance of respecting all religious beliefs.

The genesis of World Environment Day

Exactly 50 years ago, world leaders met in Stockholm between 5-16 June at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, the first ever conference of that magnitude for environment when the World Environment Day was born. A total of around 122 nations, including India, were party to the declaration that evolved at the Summit.

The Folkets Hus building in Stockholm which hosted the  1972 conference
The Folkets Hus building in Stockholm which hosted the 1972 conference

Founding principles 1,2, and 4 listed in the declaration document of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment include: Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life in an environment of a quality that permits a dignity and well-being and he bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations. The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, land flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate. Man has a special responsibility to safeguard and wisely manage the heritage of wildlife and its habitat which are now gravely imperilled by a combination of adverse factors. Nature conservation, including wildlife, must there receive importance in planning for economic development.’

Importance of Pallikaranai Marsh

Back then, five decades ago, the Pallikaranai Marsh, one of the last remaining natural wetlands of Chennai city, spanned across 50 square kilometers. According to Tamil Nadu State Wetland Authority, the Pallikaranai Marsh has the important function of draining an area of 250 kms of South Chennai encompassing 65 wetlands through two outlets viz., Okkiyam Madavu and the Kovalam creek and falls into the Bay of Bengal.

The topography of the marsh is such that it always retains some storage, thus forming a classic wetland ecosystem.

The marsh is also one of the few natural coastal aquatic habitats that qualify as a wetland in India. This uniquely heterogeneous hydrology and ecology also makes the Marsh one of the most diverse natural habitats of the country. Biodiversity of Pallikaranai Marsh is typified by the presence of species representing various faunal groups, of which birds, fishes and reptiles are the most prominent. It is the natural habitat to some of the most endangered reptiles such as the Russel’s Viper and birds such as the Glossy lbis, Pheasant-tailed Jacana etc., The marsh also has the distinction of new records of reptiles and plants being described, on a rather regular basis since 2002.

Map of the marsh land
Map of the marsh landTN State Wetland Authority

Today, the wetland is flanked by the Buckingham Canal and the Old Mahabalipuram Road, which houses the Information Technology (IT) Corridor on its eastern periphery. The southern and western boundaries are typified by mixed residential and institutional land use. To the North of the marsh, there are dense human habitations and public infrastructure such as the Mass Rapid Transit System.

Mysteriously disappearing wetlands

In 2019, an amicus curiae appointed by the Madras High Court had found that more than 100 acres of land in the Pallikaranai marshland area has been encroached upon by the central government institutions, IT companies, and other residential buildings. The HC initiated the suo motu PIL after the Supreme Court directed all high courts in the country to safeguard wetlands. According to the report submitted in the court, the wetland, which had extended more than 50 sq km about 30 years ago, reduced to 5.99 sq km in 2007 and has further reduced to 3.17 sq km (793 acres) at present. Today, real estate developers proudly announce construction projects with the destination as Pallikaranai Marshland. Most tourists who visit the marsh, declared as a tourist spot recently have little knowledge about this mysteriously disappearing wetland as not much information is available at the actual site.

Did you know?
According to the report submitted in the court, the wetland, which had extended more than 50 sq km about 30 years ago, reduced to 5.99 sq km in 2007 and has further reduced to 3.17 sq km (793 acres) at present.

However, the good news is that nature is highly resilient and if nurtured, bounces back in no time. And proof lies just a few kilometers away in RA Puram. Until 2007, the area surrounding the Adyar Creek on Greenways Road in RA Puram used to be a garbage dump and a giant sewage pit. Yet another case of a wetland gone down the drain, literally. It was around that time, the Tamil Nadu government began an ambitious project of bio-remediation and regeneration of native vegetation along the Adyar Estuary and surrounding wetlands measuring around 58 acres. After stopping the flow of sewage into the waterbody and clearing the debris, officials of the Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT) covered the land surrounding the waterbody with fresh soil and planted trees, shrubs and grass.

A total of 1,43,818 saplings from 177 species of tropical evergreen coastal species, including mangroves and its associated plants, were planted there to restore the wetland ecosystem.

While planting the green cover, park managers planted mostly mangroves and mangrove associated species near the water front and Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest species in the surrounding areas. When the restoration effort began, the biologists had planted 177 different plant species, all of which are native to this region. At least seven different varieties of mangroves were planted along the banks and are presently thriving. Besides these native plants that were physically introduced, several new species of plants have also been introduced here by the migratory birds that bring seeds of a diverse range of flora from different parts of the country and deposit here through droppings.

Over the years, the Tholkappiar Poonga has become a seasonal home to painted storks, purple herons, five different species of kingfishers including the Black Capped Fisher, Yellow and Black Bitterns, and even a handful of Forest Wagtails, Indian Pittas, Paradise Flycatchers and other avian visitors.

Take a pledge

At the just-concluded 50th anniversary meeting of the United Nations Conference on Environment, Stockholm+50, the participating nations resolved to ‘Place human well-being at the centre of a healthy planet and prosperity for all, through recognizing that a healthy planet is a prerequisite for peaceful, cohesive and prosperous societies; restoring our relationship with nature by integrating ethical values and adopting a fundamental change in attitudes, habits, and behaviours, to support common prosperity… Recognize and implement the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, through fulfilling the vision articulated in the first principle of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration.’

Fifty years have passed and by some measures, the world is back to square one as evident in the Stockholm+50 resolution. But, it’s never too late and steps forward in the right direction could reverse decades or even centuries of damage done to the environment as the Tholkappair Poonga success tells us.

And, it begins with every individual in simple, small ways that begin at home by replacing plastic bags with manjappais, avoiding buying PET water bottles and, perhaps, nurturing a tree belonging to a native species.

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