A Sea of Pink: For How Much Longer?
Pulicat Lake, the second-largest brackish water lagoon, is spread over Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. It supports a plethora of biodiversity, but recent legislations have put the lake and its residents at peril. Our contributor analyses the potential impacts of these legislations on this beautiful gem and the life it supports.
Even before we closed in on the vast expanse of water the loud, deep honking calls of the Greater Flamingos welcomed us. It was a bright sunny morning, clear sky and we could see the tall lanky birds, predominantly white in colour, with pink on the wing feathers, gracefully moving in the knee-deep waters of the Pulicat Lake and Sanctuary. It is a sight to see them take off to air, with a short run-up, wings spread wide, displaying bright pink-hued feathers.
Pulicat Lake, (13º 26’ to 13° 43’ N latitude and 80º 03' to 80º 81’ E longitude), the second-largest brackish water lagoon, is spread over Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Flock of Flamingoes and ducks at Pulicate Lake
The Lake – A Biodiversity Hotspot
Pulicat has been a sanctuary for this species and several others for several years now. Depending on the rains and water level of the lake, the flamingoes may be sighted in small or large groups spread throughout the length and breadth of the lake. A decade before we have sighted almost fifty thousand of this species in Pulicat Lake. Because of its sheer numbers, Greater Flamingo can be considered as the flagship species of this sanctuary.
The Lake is known for its rich biodiversity and acts as a haven for 130 species of birds. Every year, more than 75,000 birds visit this wetland and most of them are migratory that demand protection and conservation. Several species of birds reach the lake during the months of November and February every year, mainly for food. It is of scientific importance to learn that threatened species like Grey Pelican Pelecanus philippensis, Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala , Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, are found here in large numbers. Bar-headed Goose Anser indicus, a species that flies over the Himalayan range, to their nesting grounds in Tibet is also found here. More significantly the birds that breed in the Nelepattu Sanctuary majorly depend on Pulicat Lake for feeding themselves and their chicks. Grey-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola, Lesser Sand Plover Charadrius mongolus, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica, Redshank Tringa tetanus, Common Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos , Eastern Knot Calidris tenuirostris, Little Stint Calidris minuta, Curlew Sandpiper Calidris testacea are normally seen in good numbers. It is the biodiversity of the lake that ensures food for all. It has been recorded that there are 53 species of phytoplanktons and 29 species of zooplanktons, 19 species of prawns, and 168 species of fish.
The Lake’s biodiversity ensures food for a great population of humans, as well. More than 50,000 fishing folks, including Yannadi tribals, depend either directly or indirectly on the lake for their survival.
The Greater Flamingo
The Lake has also been having problems on its own. Its average area of water spread, which was 461 sq. km, has shrunk to 350 sq. km. The average depth of the lagoon has also been reducing, as per studies. Its average depth, which was 1.5 metres, is now one metre. The tectonic plates of the northern part of the lake have also been rising, leading to the flow of water from north to south, augmenting siltation as well. The siltation also narrows down the estuary, which alters the hydrology of the lake.
The hydrology and benthic substrata are the two factors that influence the biodiversity of the lake. The primary production of plankton, fisheries, and the whole biodiversity of the lake depends on hydrology. Any alteration to this will have a great impact on the dynamics of the ecosystem.
Painted stork flock
Special Economic Zones
In an odd judgment of flimsy reason, the Tamilnadu State forest department has sought no buffer area for the Pulicat bird sanctuary in 2019, during an ESZ Expert Committee meeting. The Government of Andhra Pradesh has already set a precedent by reducing the distance of the ECS. The reduction of the eco-sensitive zone by the AP government was considered as a deliberate move to accommodate a port project in their State. It is a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s order that all wildlife sanctuaries should have earmarked Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ), which would act as ‘shock absorbers’ and facilitate regulation and management of the sanctuaries and national parks. The MoEF had issued guidelines towards this end and declared that all activities in the ESZ will be governed by the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It should also be noted that the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Andhra Pradesh, through a letter dated 05-03-2007, Reference Number 779/07/WL-1, earmarked 10 km as the ESZ of the Pulicat Lake and Sanctuary. With all the scientific knowledge and awareness, the present action of the authorities concerned has evoked distress, shock, and as a result, induced a lot of criticism.
When it comes to Tamil Nadu’s portion of the Lake, one of the greatest threats to Pulicat and its environs is the proposed expansion of the Kattpalli Port – part of the Pulicat ecosystem The expansion is supposed to cover 2120.28 hectares. The port plans to use 136.28 hectares of its existing land, 761.8 hectares of government land, and acquire 781.4 hectares of private and proposed sea reclamation of 440.8 hectares of sea portion. Such a large-scale expansion will definitely have an irreversible impact on the ecosystem. Concerns have been raised not only by naturalists and environmentalists but also by professionals in the field. According to a newspaper report the Ennore Port’s first Chairman-cum-Managing Director has stated that when environment clearance was granted for the construction of Kattupalli port, it was given under conditions that there should not be any developmental activities in the northern part. He has further stated that the port itself is a non-confirmation of norms. According to the shoreline management plan for Ennore prepared by the Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management Project, Directorate of Ministry of Earth Sciences, any development further north will pose an inevitable hazard to Pulicat Lake.
Also, similar concerns were raised by other scientific organisations. For instance, the Indian Space Research Organization’s Space Application Centre (SAC) predicted in its report, that the rise in the sea level will put 10 lakh people in jeopardy as 144 sq km of land in Chennai will be consumed by the sea in another three decades. The most interesting piece of information that demands focus is that the rise in sea level is not only because of climate change but also due to human intervention in the seascape in terms of infrastructure developments like ports and harbours.
Adding to these existing perilous problems, in the month of March another newspaper report added further misery. The State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) has applied for wildlife clearance from Union Environment Ministry for a 691 acre proposed Manallur industrial park, positioned just within 10 km from Pulicat Bird Sanctuary and falls in revenue limits of Gummidipoondi taluk, 47.5 km Northwest of Chennai. The proposed industrial park is mainly intended for synthetic organic chemicals and integrated paint industries, and the environment ministry has already granted Terms of Reference (ToR) for conducting environmental impact assessment studies.
Obliteration of Livelihoods
B.N. Yadav, in his book Fish and Fisheries ( 2006), has stated that 52 fishing villages are located around Pulicat Lake. It should be noted that these families have been here surviving for generations fishing in the lake. Now a situation has come where their sustenance has become a question. It is of concern to learn that around 50,000 families rely on fishing in the sea and backwaters in the proposed expansion area. The fishing folks are already complaining depletion of resources. They say there has been a drastic decrease in the amount and number of species of fish.
Also, it is feared the dredging and other modifications in the area earmarked will affect the backwater channels and wetlands which protect most parts of North Chennai, Manali, Madhavaram, and Ponneri from flooding. This is a serious threat that will be faced by the northern part of Chennai.
Science, as well as commonsense, tell us that the Port and its related infrastructure, will no doubt put the Lake in peril and jeopardize the existence of thousands of birds and other creatures that depend on this second largest brackish water lagoon of India.
If things happen in favour of the port expansion we are sure to have ships, but the flamingos, with their pink-hued feathers, will no longer be part of this fragile ecosystem and perhaps a majority of us will not even notice their absence.
Image Credits (for all images): T Murugavel