Shrunk to less than half, Chitlapakkam Lake cries out for action

A lake that once spanned 83.89 acre is now just 33.95 acre, thanks to rampant encroachment. Added to that is the problem of dumping and contamination. Bhavani Prabhakar presents a stark look at the state of Chitlapakkam Lake today.

Once a source of water for irrigation and household use, the Chitlapakkam Lake is now brimming over with all kinds of garbage. It has been 18 years since the local residents first raised an issue over the encroachment of the lake and dumping of garbage in it, but notwithstanding the long struggle,  the freshwater lake has shrunk from 83.89 acre to 33.95 acre!

Remembering the lake that once was

Chitlapakkam lake receives water from the Pacha Malai Hills. Until the onset of urbanisation, there were agricultural farms in the area and water from the upper catchment area irrigated these farms.  

The excess water from Chitlapakkam Lake reaches the Sembakkam Lake. There was a time when water from these two lakes were enough to meet the water requirements of the entire neighbourhood.

“I remember how Chitlapakkam was when I came here in the mid-1980s. We did not have roads, electricity, street lamps and other amenities. All it had was copious water; the residents were able to get water at a depth of just 5 ft, which isn’t the case now. Due to perennial water scarcity in other areas, many people were forced to migrate and this locality instantly became famous due to the presence of two lakes — Chitlapakkam and Sembakkam in the same neighbourhood,” reminisces Viswanathan, convener, Chitlapakkam Residents’ Association Coordination Committee.

In the 1990s, there were rumours that the government would be constructing a bus stand, the Tambaram Taluk office and a court on the lake bed for benefitting the residents. In addition, the Tamil Nadu Housing Board was planning to construct houses funded by the World Bank. The project was planning to be implemented under the Tamil Nadu Urban Development (TNUD) scheme, in which houses for the economically backward people will be allotted. However, the project was scrapped with residents acting against the plan.

“Everyone migrated to this village just for water. We felt a strong urge to sensitise people about the implications of such plans, and formed a coordination committee, organised campaigns and began talking to them,” says Viswanathan.

Residents’ efforts to restore

Since 1990, the local residents’ welfare associations have been striving to save the lake.  It started off with a signature campaign in the early 90s, but that did not create a strong impression. The Association then organised a meeting with the political parties with the agenda to pass a resolution opposing the TNUD acquiring the lake for the construction of houses. This succeeded with some support from NGO Consumer Action Group (CAG), albeit after a few bitter incidents.

“In 1999, we staged a demonstration under the name ‘Save Chitlapakkam Lake’ and formed the Chitlapakkam Lake Preservation and Development Committee, headed by C Rajendran, then Chairman of St Thomas Mount Panchayat Union. We collected funds from the government and residents that enabled construction of the lake bund in 2004. We made sure that the base of the lake bund is 40 ft wide and tapered to 10 ft on the top with a height of 13 ft. It was created to avoid encroachments and the lake was also de-silted,” explains Viswanathan.

The present status

Despite the presence of a Lake Bund, there has been rampant encroachment by both citizens and the government, including on the the outlet which makes it difficult to desilt the lake.

“Nagavalli Temple located in the neighbourhood had encroached the lake and had plans to expand the temple premises. After filing numerous complaints, petitions and meeting the collector of Kancheepuram, we managed to get attention and made sure the expansion work was stopped and destroyed the encroachment. To remove other encroachments, we have filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and I’m hoping for the best,” says Sunil Jayaram of Chitlapakkam Rising, an NGO that has been fighting for the lake and other local issues.

Following the petition filed by Sunil Jayaram and lawyer Vaidyanathan, the Madras High Court ordered the Chitlapakkam Town Panchayat to stop encroaching the bund and walkway and demolished the half-constructed temple.

Apart from encroachment by temples, residential houses and government buildings, another major present issue is the mixing of sewage water from the neighbouring areas. Dumping of trash has also been continuing despite concerns raised by a section of the local residents. There is a Public Health Centre and a government school in the vicinity, just adjacent to which garbage is dumped in an open area.

Would you believe that this is one side of the lake? It’s overflowing with garbage dumped by the Town Panchayat. Pic: Bhavani Prabhakar

With raw sewage being let into the lake and dumping of garbage, the water is contaminated to the core. There is no treatment plant either. “One of our volunteers, who resides near the lake told me about the sticky nature of tap water that they get, which indicates the presence of trash or chemicals in the lake water,” says Jayaram.

Need of the hour

The residents now demand an underground sewage system, designated land for dumping and a separate municipal body to deal with these issues. The sewage water from neighbouring places like Tambaram enters the Chitlapakkam lake, but even after discussions with the Chitlapakkam Town Panchayat, the issue has not been sorted, since the neighbouring Tambaram municipality must also take action.

“The sewage from the drainage can be sent to a pumping station where the water can be treated, instead of polluting the lakes. The complexity of the work can be reduced if a corporation is formed. We would not have to wait for the neighbouring panchayat/municipality to act,” said Viswanathan.

The Executive Officer of Chitlapakkam Town Panchayat, Venkatesan says “We have not received the funds to construct underground drainage yet. The PWD has given an order to the house owners who have encroached the lake and we are also likely to get a vacant land in Keerapakkam in the month of July, the garbage would be moved to Keerapakkam and subsequent process will be carried out there.”

While the government has promised to allot a dumping yard in Keerapakkam, Jayaram argues that the local residents of Keerapakkam are also opposing the move as it will environmentally impact their neighbourhood. “Ultimately, the government should work to implement segregation of waste at source and manage it efficiently,” Jayaram emphasises.

The Assistant Director of the Town Panchayat has acknowledged the local petition to bring an end to dumping trash, sewage water and encroachment. Tenders to recycle the trash and remove the trash from the lake premises have been promised by the Panchayat.

In addition, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has vouched to take relevant action for safe and scientific proposal of garbage and creation of an underground sewerage scheme.

Meanwhile, local residents are trying to galvanise action on the lake by various agencies, including citizen groups, government and NGOs. Arun Krishnamurthy, the founder-leader of one such NGO, Environmental Foundation of India (EFI) says, “We are studying how the Chitlapakkam Lake can be restored and protected. Considering long-term implications, restoring the lake for recreational purposes only should be avoided as it would not cater to the real water needs of the neighbourhood. If we work together for a decade along with the government, I’m sure the lake water will have a positive effect on the groundwater table in the area at large. The lake restoration can be kick-started if the sewage inflow is stopped, for which the local residents have made an appeal to the concerned authority.”

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