I look out of my classroom window, as my biology teacher drones on about ‘meiosis cell division’. I stare at the vast expanse of marshland ahead of me. Looking out at the area, reveling in its vastness and enormity, I consider what my friends had told me before class: the Pallikaranai marshland is only about a tenth of the size it was in the late 1960s. I contemplate how this landscape used to be littered with exquisite birds rather than plastic and factory waste; how one could walk past the scenic Pallikaranai Main Road without being assaulted by the noxious fumes from the burning plastic and rotting biodegradable waste; how the people living around the marshland would make the flora and fauna of the marshland a part of their everyday life, rather than avoiding it out of fear of catching diseases. Yet, as I think of this idyllic state, I remember the cause of the problem. Us.
A few metres from the marshland, a Chennai Corporation maintained Earth Mover dumps garbage onto the marshland. Though the wetlands of Pallikaranai were brought under the reserved region by the state government ten years ago and are currently under the jurisdiction of the forest department, the city corporation itself seems to be using the marshland as a dumping ground. Moreover, the greywater from temporary sheds built for construction workers in the area also drains into the Pallikaranai Marshland, leaving the restoration work, carried out by the forest department, all but redundant. The stormwater drains constructed by the corporation and the sewage lines from the city are also letting untreated sewage into the marsh. Moreover, the MRTs and, ironically, the National Institute of Technology, as well as the centre for wind energy technology have recently been found to have encroached upon approximately 100 acts of the marshland, alongside with IT parks and possibly even schools like my own, which were built upon the marshland.
Of course, one may ask, whether such criticism is fair in a nation such as ours, where most individuals are not part of the formal economy and need access to the banking sector and many urbanised and developed areas, where they may find employment. It is clear that the MRT and other government systems allow this, as even a bad sewage system is greatly superior to the absence of one as in many parts of rural India.
While this is certainly true, it is an idea, which hinges upon the idea that nature and economic growth may not cooperate. Like with Perungudi lake, the Pallikaranai Marshland is a water basin for the Thoraipakkam area. After the last week’s heavy rains and the past years’ unnatural floods, one may only be thankful for having such a large water body. Moreover, the damage done by it inside many houses would likely be far lower if it were the size that it was 30 years ago, at a grand 50 sq.km, as compared to its current, relatively puny size of approximately 3.17 sq.km.
This is not to say that all infrastructure be abandoned for the sake of the marshland; OMR and the IT sector that it created in our city has been incredibly beneficial and created many thousands of skilled office jobs; and the MRT connects the area to the centre of the city – a much needed measure in an area, where many do not own cars or bikes. Rather, it is important to note how vital the preservation of these lakes is and find a way to construct around the area – not to appeal to our conscience and some vague idea of a greater connection to nature, but to look at the clear benefits that water bodies such as the Pallikaranai Marshland offer to our city, the opportunities it presents in terms of business (especially tourism) and the need for having such water bodies for a long-term, sustainable growth.
One might now be wondering how it is possible to return such an area to its former glory, ten times its current size. Here, we may have a moment of relief, as with the support of restoration work by the forest department, and organisations such as EFI, which are merely being mindful of the garbage in the are and picking it up when possible and bringing the waterbody closer to its original size. In the future, I hope to see the Pallikaranai marsh as it originally was.
The above is a guest write-up by Hrsh Venket, one of our interns and student, who studies at a school in Thorraipakkam.