Why do we see fewer migratory birds in Pallikaranai?

Unabated dumping of garbage in the waters of Pallikaranai and rampant encroachment by the Chennai Corporation as well as the people have dealt a big blow to the biodiversity of the area.

The scenic Pallikaranai Main Road with patches of greenery and occasional glimpses of migratory birds in winter would have been a treat for the passer by, but for the unbearable stench. The smell of rotten biodegradable waste and  noxious fumes from burning of plastic waste assail your senses every time you hit the road. A few metres from the marshland, a Chennai Corporation maintained earth mover dumps the mixed waste on to it.

The wetlands of Pallikaranai were brought under the reserved region by the state government 10 years ago and are now under the jurisdiction of the forest department. But, ironically, the city corporation itself seems to be using the wetland as a dumping ground without any checks.

The wetlands, once home only to flora and fauna including  the migratory birds that came from as far as North America, now host all types of waste: electronic waste, vegetable waste, construction debris, biomedical waste and effluents. Earth movers are seen pushing the mixed garbage from the northern side right into the waters.

According to Devan T, an activist, “The waste dumped here is comprised mostly of organic products, which upon degradation releases gases and spreads a foul smell. But they are not the only things to be found; the waste also includes plastics bags, chemical detergents, nylon clothes — things which take thousands of years to degrade.”

Apart from the garbage, toxic chemicals from hospitals, and waste water from restaurants and the shopping malls in the vicinity affect the free flow of water and pose a threat to the biodiversity here. A lot of new construction activities are seen in progress in adjoining areas, including Thoraipakkam and Pallikaranai.

The grey water from temporary sheds built for construction labourers in the area also drains into the Pallikaranai marsh, defeating the restoration work carried by the forest department. Besides, the storm water drains constructed by the corporation and the sewage lines from the city are also letting untreated sewage into the marsh.

“It is a matter of deep concern that such dumping is being done on marshland, that actually soaks water and cam prevent flooding in several areas. We are worried that during monsoon these dumps will spread disease,” says Raghu, a resident of Pallikaranai. 

However, despite such concerns, burning and dumping of waste in the wetland continues, defying the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Not surprisingly, with such changes in the ecosystem, there has been a dip in the migratory bird population.

Winged visitors turn away

“Pallikaranai marsh is home to nearly 115 species of birds, 10 species of mammals, 21 species of reptiles, 10 species of amphibians, 46 species of fishes, 9 species of butterflies. Some migratory birds here include White ibis, cormorants, herons, and coots. It has a bird biodiversity of about four times that of Vedanthangal,” says Devan T, an activist. Indeed,  a huge number of migratory birds, such as water fowls and waders, are also sighted on the mud flats of the marshland between June and December.

However, their population has sharply dwindled now due to dumping of garbage in the marshland. “The dumping not only affects the bird species, but also other flora and fauna found in the region,” says Devan.

Due to the pollution caused by waste dumped, aquatic life in these waters including fish, snails and frogs are often found floating dead on the surface of the water by bird watchers. “If the dumping of waste is not checked somehow, there won’t be any birds or fish left in the ecosystem,” says M Kandhan, a bird watcher.

Some birds like spot-billed duck, Indian-spotted eagle, fulvous whistling duck, booted eagle, osprey have already disappeared from the wetlands of Pallikaranai. This creates an ecological imbalance in the system: if the predators such as eagles become rare, the population of reptiles increase.

Citizens at stake

The pollution in the area has also had a very adverse effect on the residents staying near the dump yards. The offenders here are primarily the Corporation of Chennai and some households. 

Educational institutions are also being built on these wetlands, even though these buildings cannot possibly have strong foundations. “Encroachments for construction and dumping of waste have ruined the ecology in Pallikaranai. Toxic chemicals from factories make the water acidic and unfit for growth of life in the marshland. There exists a hospital right near the marshland; the pollution can spread diseases to the patients. Even the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), a governmental institution, has been built on the marshland, in gross violation of the environment,” says A Parveen, a resident.

Citizens of the area have complained to Perungudi zonal officials, but any action on the front is yet to be seen.

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