Two lakes, One mission

Over the last few years, huge metropolitan cities worldwide are seeing an increase in urbanization and development programs. In India, close to 35.39% of our population lives in urban areas. Before discussing peri-urban we have to establish the meaning behind the word “urban.” Different countries have different measures to classify an area as “urban” or “rural.” India uses a threefold definition consisting of the following:

  1. An urban area has a minimum population of 5000 people
  2. 75% of the male working-class population cannot be involved in only agriculture
  3. A density of population of at least 4000 people per sq. km.

All of the biggest metropolitan cities of India such as Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, and Mumbai fall under this definition. To understand the rapid growth and proliferation of urban trends we need to situate the phenomena of urbanisation historically.

As the city grows and encompasses more land and starts including more rural areas on paper, those rural areas transform into peri-urban areas. The name peri-urban stems from the root “peri”-pheral. These areas are categorized by dynamic population growth, shifting economic activities, and a complex juxtaposition of formal and informal land conversion and land appropriation. This expansion of huge metropolitan cities in India takes its inspiration from the theory of Western urbanization as seen in the US and the UK which is largely based on capitalist expansion as more people climb the ladder of class and don’t need to rely on the city center for job opportunities. This model however cannot be blindly pasted onto most South Asian and South East Asian countries as the middle class is the only class that keeps increasing. This means that the price of land keeps increasing, decreasing the affordability of land for people who are from EWS (economically weaker sections of society) or LIG (lower income groups).

Peri-urban areas are built-up megastructures that consist of both informal highly dense settlements and formal sparsely populated communities concentrated around transportation hubs. This sort of amalgamation of various communities and different types of people from differing socio-economic backgrounds leads to legal pluralism in the system. The actual governing authorities themselves are unsure about their own jurisdiction. It is highly evident as peri-urban areas are very diverse the municipality corporations and the panchayats are themselves unsure of the correct appropriate governing policies for that specific geographical region which can lead to a host of problems. In peri-urban areas, since suburban gated communities exist, the municipal corporation has formal laws and regulations in place but due to the fact they are undergoing the process of transition from rural to urban, rural informal customary and traditional frameworks are also employed. The biggest contention point is land tenure where there are bound to be disputes about land ownership. This unique legal pluralism also has adverse environmental impacts. Three of the main adverse effects are waste management, air pollution, and of water pollution. Informal and traditional waste management practices are bound to conflict with formal regulatory waste management policies. Many peri-urban areas lack infrastructure and the framework needed to get rid of waste properly which leads to the dumping of waste in waterbodies or openly incineration of the waste. Adding to this pressing problem is the issue of the types of waste generated. the waste generated by the new middle-class residents and the natives of the previously rural area are often incompatible and require more dynamic approaches. Waste generated by the native residents is usually the waste products from agricultural endeavors such as crop residue and animal manure. Alternatively migrating urban residents generate the most non-biodegradable waste in the form of plastics.

Arguably the most heavily affected part of peri-urban areas is its water bodies and especially its lakes. Because of the lack of infrastructure and sanitation facilities, a lot of sewage ends up getting dumped in lakes creating toxic environments for the natural biodiversity and for humans by unleashing pathogens into the surroundings. Mixed with agricultural runoffs consisting of fertilizers and pesticides, the lakes and rivers eventually accumulate a lot of chemicals and eventually become a burden on the surrounding ecosystems themselves. Some runoffs can cause highly toxic and hazardous algal blooms that threaten the rich biodiversity present in the lakes. Sometimes just by sheer negligence water bodies can start to deteriorate.

In Chennai, one very obvious peri-urban area comes to mind; the OMR IT corridor. Taking two examples of water bodies at the heart of the peri-urban area of Semmencherri and Navalur, we can see the reality of environmental degradation in peri-urban areas. Analyzing the difference between an EFI restoration project of the Rettai kuttai lake and an unnamed lake adjacent to the Rettai kuttai lake, we see the stark difference between a well-maintained lake that has rich biodiversity and a borderline dumping ground. The Rettai Kuttai Lake was also a former toxic dumping ground suffering from negligence due to the rapid development of the Navalur area. EFI was able to restore the lake with support from the government of Tamil Nadu, TATA Realty, and Ramanujam Intellion Park.  

 The above image is a picture of the Rettai Kuttai lake in the morning and it is evident from the pictures themselves that it has thick vegetation and rich biodiversity with a lot of flora and fauna. There are many dragonflies and cicadas and the presence of dragonflies has scientifically been proven to indicate healthy lake environments as dragonflies are predators which indicate abundance of other small insects. The presence of dragonflies also indicates dragonflies require clean water to reproduce. The trees growing around the lake are numerous and the vegetation is thick. The presence of water lilies also shows that the lake is nutrient-rich and can sustain a host of creatures.

Unfortunately, bang opposite the Rettaikuttai lake exits another smaller lake which is yet to be restored. This unnamed lake right behind Vivira Mall is entrenched by dumping grounds around it and is being neglected by all the authorities involved. Here are some pictures of the lake and its surrounding area.

Completely covered in algae this lake is extremely hard to get to in the first place. One has to jump over the vehicular scrapyard and the thick bushes to even get a glimpse of the lake. This much algae is definitely an indicator of the poor quality of the lake as algae are oxygen-hungry, depleting oxygen from other aquatic animals in the lake. I was surprised to see that more birds were flocking around the lake that was not restored in contrast to the few water birds at the Rettai Kuttai Lake but on further analysis, I realized that more birds were at the unrestored lake to scavenge for any food that they could find, through the various waste bags and waste materials dumped in the lake. Not only is this saddening but it constitutes a major health risk for the marsh ecosystems by unleashing pathogens on water birds like egrets, herons, and cormorants. The first step to making sure a lake is not neglected would be to surely clear the surrounding area which blocks physical access to the lake, much less start to restore it. Even though this unnamed lake next to Rettai Kuttai is in a sad state, EFI’s restoration of Rettai Kuttai itself stands as a testament that it is possible to not only salvage but also to transform a toxic lake into a harbor of rich biodiversity and home to many creatures.

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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