The Case for Chennai’s Ramsar Site

by Rahul Jayaraman

It was still dark as I set my tripod on the ground, absorbing the view around me. A few minutes in and I saw a silhouette of what looked like a Grey Heron just staring back at me, until it took off to search for food on the other side.

It was my first birding session to Pallikaranai, I clearly remember preparing two days before hand and ensuring no lockdowns were going to be announced because I knew that this was something I would hate to miss. I am quite sure that anyone who lives in Chennai would have crossed the marshland multiple times, or may even live nearby, given how it is a “developing residential area”. But what they may not be aware of is the fact that Madras used to be a low plain, intersected by three rivers many years ago, and marshlands like Pallikaranai are the remnants of what used to be Madras.

Figure 1 – Grey Heron in Flight.

Even though I could easily spot numerous birds that I would not be able to spot near home, even with this excitement, I knew that this wasn’t a balanced ecosystem, and it was facing grave challenges.

Waste Management
From being classified as a wasteland until not very long ago, Pallikaranai is now in a real battle against becoming an actual wasteland. Even after legal segregation allowing for separate dumping sites, cases of illegal dumping, encroachment and development are rampant.

Figure 3 – The garbage dump at Pallikaranai in 2014 – Photo: V.Ganesan [1]

Out of the 5000 metric tonnes of solid waste generated in a day in Chennai, Pallikaranai marsh overlaps one of the two dump yard grounds in Chennai – the Perungudi wasteland. Even with protected status, day by day it is being intoxicated by man-made waste and sewage. Hence, ground-birds such as Egrets and Wagtails are forced to perch elsewhere or continue to live in grounds that are often shoveled and dug for reuse.

And this issue gets even worse with urbanization taking place right.

Ecological Damage –
This marshland houses more than 100 species of birds right now, where previously more than 150 species could be spotted including threatened species such as the Spot-billed Pelican and Black Headed Ibis. It has also been identified as a very important breeding and resting ground for several migratory birds using research including radio tagging [2] and one such important migratory flight path is the Central Asian Flyway.

Out of the very few resting grounds in a long flight path for these birds, it is critical that our avian visitors get the natural hospitality that they need for about a third of an entire year. Birds such as the greater flamingoes – which have become quite rare to spot, the black tailed godwit, glossy ibis are all critical species that should be taken more seriously.

In the little attention that birds of the marsh do get, sometimes the other residents – freshwater fish, reptiles and other organisms which are equally important and at risk don’t get as much attention. Changes that frequently take place, like construction of small stands and construction of temporary sewage pipes that I witnessed during my visit affect all these organisms in the long run.

Apart from regular encroachment activities and dumping of waste, what’s even more shocking was the plan to dredge the marshland by the state government. This does more harm than good to both the city and the wetland. [3]

Recognize that this marshland continues to work as a stormwater drain Chennai is a flood-prone city because of abysmal planning with regards to water.

Over the years the wetland has shrunk drastically in size leading to groundwater depletion because of massive construction projects and dumping. But even in this situation, many migratory birds do visit the marshland such as the Painted Stork, but if the marsh is dredged then these birds most certainly are not likely to visit.

Encouragingly for us, the Madras HC has given a notice against the plan to dredge the marsh recently. [4] But this is not enough, the way forward would be to include Pallikaranai as a Ramsar Wetland part of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

Checking all the boxes to become one of these sites, Pallikaranai needs the international focus that is needed to keep a check on the activities that cause it harm. [5] Apart from the regular benefits firstly, this could generate the awareness that our marshland needs from local communities and citizens ; secondly, it makes all activities undertaken by the government a lot more accountable, and finally gives a chance for both native and foreign birds to continue making the marshland their home for many more years to come.

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Published by LakesOfIndia

Lakes of India is an E.F.I initiative aimed at sensitizing the larger public on freshwater habitats across the country. A blog platform where one can read about lakes across India. You can become a guest blogger to write about a lake in your hometown and initiate an action to protect that lake.

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