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Vol. XXXIII No. 20, February 1-15, 2024

The Pathetic state of Pallikaranai marsh

-- by Sriram V.

Last fortnight saw some interesting statistics emerge from a hearing of the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal. Of the 1,206.59 hectares that the Pallikaranai Marsh is supposed to span, only 749 hectares or 62 per cent remain with the forest department. This edifying statistic was revealed by the Tamil Nadu Government after its two-year long survey of the marshland in response to an order to do so by the Bench. The rest of the revelations did not make for good reading either. The encroached 38 per cent is now occupied by a mix of institutions – public and private, and several housing colonies, apart from the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) which has one of its dumping yards here. The challenge now is to restore the marsh to its original extent.

There are several disturbing takeaways from the report. The first is the way the Government has merrily been allotting the marshland to several of its institutions. The railways for instance has been in occupation of 47 hectares and the Electronics Corporation of Tamil Nadu is sitting on 163 hectares. The bigger offender is the GCC whose dumping ground occupies 174 hectares. The National Institute of Ocean Technology and the National Institute of Wind Energy are two others. How is it even possible that the Government, which is supposed to be the custodian of our natural heritage, has been parcelling out the marsh to so many of its own institutions? And how could the Corporation which is after all the apex body when it comes to civic administration treat a wetland as a dump yard?

The illegal occupation of Pallikaranai by private institutions and real estate developers is yet another troubling aspect. None of these could have happened without the active connivance of the authorities and those in power. That entire information technology parks and large-scale housing colonies have been built on a marshland that comes under the Ramsar Convention shows what scant regard our administration has for internationally accepted safeguards.

The greater challenge ahead now is the restoring of the wetland. The Green Tribunal has said that the private institutions will have to move to Siruseri and elsewhere where land is available in plenty and earmarked for such activities. The Government institutions have also been asked to move. Acknowledging that nothing can be done about the railways, it has said that they will have to pay for maintenance. The GCC has said it will find an alternate space, initiate biomining in the present dump and hand the land over to the Forest Department. It is significant to note here that the GCC is still planning only to identify alternate land for dumping. It does not seem to have any scientific solution for waste disposal as yet. Should a world-class city as it is often claimed Chennai is, be still looking to bury its waste?

A third aspect of the judgement – the wholesale proposed eviction of the housing colonies – is bound to spark protests. And in this we also need to consider that the buyers of those plots probably never knew that they were in the violation of the law. They have been hoodwinked by developers and politicians/bureaucrats who will go scot-free in all probability. There is also no compensation likely to be given. Will the Government have the political will to administer such a step as eviction? In all likelihood no. In which case we will have to accept encroachment of the marsh. It is interesting to note that even as the survey was in progress, there were fresh encroachments taking place!

How do we prevent such occurrences in future? Citizen activism seems the only answer.

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