A rescue mission called Ramsar
CHENNAI: It was a high point for ecologists, especially those in Tamil Nadu, when the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change declared 10 more sites in the State to be added to the list of Ramsar sites – wetlands designated to have international importance.
Along with the three sites that were announced in July, and one that was identified two decades ago, the State now has 14 wetlands – the highest in India – that now have a protective sheath.
The addition was celebrated by the leaders and officials at the Centre and State, and also ecologists and activists who have been raising concerns about the alarming degradation of wetlands due to rapid urbanisation.
As significant as it is, it perhaps is prudent to take stock of the situation on the ground. Being a large and geographically diverse State, Tamil Nadu has several such ecologically important assets.
There are as many as 75 wetlands of international importance in India now.
While the Ramsar tag helps ensure these 14 sites in TN would be protected from any further pressure, the fate of the remaining ones depends on how serious the governments are about saving them from destruction.
That private entities, both individuals and businesses, encroach upon these precious natural habitats is not surprising.
It is, in fact, only natural – no pun intended.
That is where strict legislation, close monitoring and effective implementation become important, all of which are part of the basic mandate of governance.
What is alarming is the callousness with which government agencies have dealt with Nature.
The image that this newspaper carried along with the report about Pallikaranai marshland being chosen as a Ramsar site offers a stark example of this: a road cutting through the vast wetland, with a lush green swath on the one side and a dusty, barren land on the other.
The latter was a dumpyard where thousands of tonnes of putrid waste accumulated for years, with contaminants leaching into the groundwater table.
It does not require international recognition to know this was wrong. Are the sites that are not lucky enough to have the Ramsar tag dispensable? The answer to that question is clear.
However, it still takes orders – and warnings for not obeying those orders – from the Madras High Court and the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal to protect lakes and tanks in our neighbourhood.
Equally worrisome is how trees are felled for various projects. The Shenoy Nagar park, once a cherished green alcove for Anna Nagar, is reduced to a balcony garden.
After the Metro Rail station was constructed below it, the majestic trees were replaced with smaller trees and plants.
Now that the Metro is expanding to different localities, more trees are being axed.
Most infrastructure projects, like highway expansions and proposals for new ones like the Chennai-Salem expressway entail chopping trees, flattening hills, and filling fields and waterbodies.
After all, green cover is often a nuisance, or even an obstacle, when juxtaposed with a prestigious greenfield project.
But we must remember the experience of countries and our own neighbourhoods overrun by the fury of Nature.
As scientists have pointed out, Nature is indifferent to the best laid plans of mice and men; if it does not find lakes, wetlands or fields, the runoff water during heavy rains would flood burrows, hospitals and airports without discrimination.
Ecological sensitivity is not simply a matter of protecting high-profile assets.
Rather, as an all-encompassing and interconnected unit, it needs a wider view. As the impact of climate change is becoming increasingly visible, our options are simple: protect the environment or be ready to perish without the farcical display of consternation that accompanies every man-made calamity.