From Chennai to Pune, citizens wage lonely battles to save wetlands

As urban wetlands increasingly fall prey to vested interests, citizen activists organise themselves to save the environment, often 'despite' the government rather than because of it.

I H Sekar, a fisherman and environmentalist living near Pallikaranai marsh land in Chennai, is awaiting judgement for a case he filed a year back, to protect the marsh from yet another encroachment. This is the third case that he has filed so far on the marsh. This time the encroachment has been by the government itself, to build an RTO office which will be a dump yard for vehicles.

The Pallikaranai marsh used to be spread across 6000 hectares some 50 years back, but only 600-odd hectares remain now. It’s the biggest remaining wetland in Chennai, where destruction of wetlands was identified as a major reason for the floods last year.

It is not just Chennai. Water bodies are being destroyed across the country, but this is happening at an alarming speed  in the bigger cities. Wetlands include shallow water bodies like marshes, paddy fields, mangroves etc., and deep water bodies like lakes and rivers. They recharge groundwater and are thus important for water availability. They can absorb excess water and prevent floods, and are ecosystems that nurture various plant and animal species.

But in urban landscapes today, wetlands are often perceived as ‘waste lands’, and are quickly encroached upon by private real estate and the government. Pallikaranai marsh, for instance, houses not just private property, but also resettlement colonies set up by the government and even the Chennai corporation’s garbage dump yard. Peripheries of the marsh were parcelled to IT companies.

Due to the lack of an adequate and well-defined policy to protect wetlands, governments themselves grab these lands in the name of development or allow private construction. This also means that the attempts to save wetlands are isolated and scattered among small groups of citizens and NGOs, especially since much of the urban population are migrants.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the civil society group SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People), says water bodies in cities are vulnerable due to high demand for real estate. “Also due to poor drainage and sewerage systems, much of the sewage ends up in water bodies. There is a tendency to dump solid waste into them, which also helps encroachment in the future,” he says.

Thakkar says that urban populations are not really involved in protecting water bodies as they don’t feel the connection with these resources at all. “People are not directly dependent on these water bodies, even for water consumption. When there is water shortage, government simply channels water from clean sources outside the city; there is good money in such projects too. Also, in cities people are not directly involved in the governance of water bodies,” he says.

In contrast, in rural areas, people are directly dependent on common water bodies for farming, personal consumption etc. Traditional communities in cities, like fishermen, who are in fact dependent on water bodies, don’t have a say in development.

Sekar, who hails from a traditional fishing family, says that many fishermen in his village Sholinganallur have quit the profession. “The quantity of fish has decreased due to pollution and encroachments. People in the village now buy sea fish from markets,” he says. Founder of the NGO Nature Trust, Sekar has filed many cases against encroachments on Chennai’s public lands. In his current case against the RTO office construction, the authorities did not submit any response over the past one year. Instead, they went ahead with the construction this July.

For this, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered a fine of Rs 10,000 on the first respondent, the Kancheepuram District Collector, and ordered him again to submit a response on the issue. The Collector then submitted an affidavit and construction has been stopped for now; hearings continue.

There have been many campaigns to protect Pallikaranai. Some plots here have been reclaimed through individual court cases, and 317 hectares was declared as a reserve forest by the government in 2007. The Government also formed the Conservation Authority for Pallikaranai Marsh, which has reclaimed more land – the total forest area now is 890 hectares, says Dr Jayshree Vencatesan, a member of the authority and Managing Trustee of the NGO Care Earth Trust. The executive body of the authority, comprising local residents, NGOs, industry representatives etc., make recommendations to its governing body which comprises officials.

Jayshree says, “We are recommending that more land should be reclaimed, but these can only be buffer land now; they are not wetlands anymore. Marshes are shallow water bodies, unstable, and they can easily turn into dry land. Once gone, it’s gone forever.” She says that residents, especially those who have always lived in the area, are very proactive in the executive body of the authority. But the authority had not met in quite a long time – the last 1.5 years. Recently, on August 12th, a meeting was convened to discuss the demands and decide on the way forward.

After the December floods, Ilan Thamilagam (Young Tamil Nadu Movement), a collective of mainly IT employees that works on social causes, started an online campaign to save the marsh. George, a teacher who works near Pallikaranai and member of the group, says “Our Facebook page ‘Save Pallikaranai’ has 500 plus followers now. We are planning weekend campaigns in front of IT offices.”

The campaigners are mostly migrants, but live and work here now. “We want to create awareness among IT employees living here as they have the time and resources to engage with this, and also because IT companies are responsible for much of the garbage dumping and pollution here,” says George.

Individual campaigns and protests to save natural resources have also been seen elsewhere in Chennai. This January, fishermen at Ennore creek, through protests, forced the state government to stop the takeover of land at Ennore estuary. The estuary had been developed into an industrial area over the last two decades, forcing fishermen out of their professions. However, the government is now going ahead with takeover of 683 acres there, and protests continue.

Last December, the NGT ordered the state PWD department to remove a bund built on Porur lake and to ensure no construction happens there. George, who was involved with the campaign to save Porur lake, says that a combination of public protests and court case had led to the outcome.

Bangalore’s struggle to save the wetlands

A handful of success stories can be seen in other Indian cities too.

The wetlands of Bellandur lake, the largest lake in Bangalore, was saved because of court cases filed by citizen groups. They got an order this May from the NGT to stop construction of an SEZ that was coming up on the wetland. They had fought the case for three years. The project was being built without proper and necessary permissions and had encroached a major storm water drain connecting two lakes.

According to an assessment by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the project would deplete groundwater in the area, cause flooding and huge traffic jams. In this case, the NGT also ordered that buffer zone around wetlands be increased to 75 metres, as opposed to 30 metres earlier; this would be applicable to all future constructions in Bengaluru. In addition to the court case, resident associations in the area had held sustained campaigns and protests to draw attention to the issue.

Public action has also led to rejuvenation of some Bangalore lakes. For example, Puttenahalli lake was rejuvenated by the PNLIT (Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust), which was formed by residents in its neighbourhood. The city corporation officially handed over maintenance of the lake to this Trust in 2011.

Similarly, residents formed a Trust called MAPSAS (Mahadevapura Parisara Samrakshane Mattu Abhivrudhi Samiti) to formally maintain the Kaikondarahalli lake. Both lakes had been reduced to marshes before intervention by these groups.

Voices from Pune

Parineeta Dandekar, Associate Coordinator at SANDRP in Pune, says that there have been many recent citizen initiatives in the city for wetland conservation. One such is the NGT case filed by Indu Gupta and others against the encroachment of the Ramnadi river.

“This river used to flood because of encroachments, and a major flood in 2011 affected Indu’s house too. Once she filed the case, more people came forward to support her. None of these people were activists, they were just common people. And they turned the problem of flooding into that of river conservation,” says Parineeta.

The NGT has ordered removal of encroachments from the river banks. The campaign ‘Save Ramnadi’ is becoming more popular as well.

In another case, an architect Sarang Yadvadkar got an order from the NGT to stop the construction of a proposed road through Mutha river bed by the Pune city corporation. The NGT ordered the corporation to shift the road outside the flood line of the river.

Parineeta says that the NGT has helped expedition of many cases, and that most of these cases are against the administration itself, which is the major encroacher. And it’s not just affluent citizens who file these cases.

“I’m currently helping 2-3 parties, who are from rural, less educated backgrounds, to file NGT cases. Subhash Ram Krishna Patil, who filed an NGT case on pollution of Mula Mutha rivers due to lack of proper sewerage system, is an example,” she says.

In Delhi, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a collective of citizens and NGOs have been working to protect the Yamuna river system since 2007. Similar initiatives exist in every city, but the scale of such actions are far too small compared to the scale of wetland destruction.

Battle of the few

About Pallikaranai, journalist Nityanand Jayaraman says, “As usual, there is a minority fighting for the marsh. People are not scared enough even after the floods. They are more aware, but there is no action. We should actually be scared to death about the filling up of wetlands.”

Jayshree and George say that less number of traditional communities in Pallikaranai is a major reason for the neglect towards the marsh’s conservation. Both affirm that people do not take individual responsibility; garbage dumping in the marsh is an example. “People should reduce the waste they generate, but they still think landfill is an option. The garbage dump remains in the marsh as there is no alternative for it now,” says Jayshree.

George and Jayaraman say that public protests are needed to protect wetlands. “Protests and court cases should happen parallelly. In the case of Porur lake, the public debates caught the attention of the press, and political parties started supporting us. That played a role in the NGT verdict,” says George.

The commitment of the government to the cause is however not beyond doubt. The central government’s new Draft Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, have been criticised for further weakening wetland conservation. The new draft rules do away with the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority, and fully allows state governments to identify wetlands and decide how these lands can be used. This is despite state governments having a very poor record of preserving wetlands. The new rules also do away with environment impact assessment, that was earlier compulsory for taking up any activity on wetlands.

In this scenario of government apathy and action by only a few individuals and groups, it seems, as Jayaraman says, that “whatever conservation is happening, is happening despite the government, not because of it.”

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