The State Government had in 2010 announced that it was handing over 150 hectare of the Pallikaranai Marsh to the Forest Department to ensure that it is protected as a natural ecosystem. However, subsequent actions appear to show that the State is planning a lot of construction in the area, ostensibly in the name of improving facilities within the space, in order to attract visitors. This is being opposed by eco-activists who rightfully want the marsh to be left undisturbed.
No matter how impressive it may sound, 150 hectare is but a small fraction of what was once the Pallikaranai Marsh, which originally spanned 5000 hectare. Continued construction activity and the establishing of the Perungudi landfill ensured that the marsh shrank to around 450 hectare by 2008. Out of this, 150 ha, it is now proposed, is to be protected. Rather amazingly, despite such rampant shrinking of habitat, the area continues to remain home to as many as 1500 species of plants and animals! The Government has since also said that it would look at the possibility of adding a few more patches amounting to around 127 hectare.
With the State Government announcing in last year’s budget session its plans for restoring the marsh, the State Forest Department prepared a comprehensive five-year plan. Desilting and dredging work at a cost of Rs.1 crore per year was to be taken up. The plan also included forming a bio-shield costing Rs.10.87 lakh annually, removal of aquatic weeds at a cost of Rs.25 lakh for five years, mound planting for three years at a cost of Rs.27.50 lakh, linear planting along the boundary at a cost of Rs 16.50 lakh, and forming flood bund and trail paths at a cost of Rs.3.40 crore. Apart from these, the Department is also considering allocation of Rs.50 lakh for research projects on the marshland, about Rs.60 lakh towards a bird census, a broad walk path for three km in three years’ time at a cost of Rs.3 crore, a watch tower at two places in two years at a cost of Rs.20 lakh, and a wetland centre at Rs.40 lakh.
There is also a Rs.40 lakh proposal to create roadside parks, installing signage boards and for conducting awareness camps.
However, City Connect, an NGO, has proposed to the State Government some viable alternatives which keep human intervention to the minimum. It has also raised concerns about the way in which the Government plans to go about its work. It has said that before any work commences, it is absolutely necessary to conduct a study on the toxicity of the land. This is because the place has been subject to indiscriminate dumping of wastes over the years. Secondly, it has suggested that any dredging should be taken up only after ascertaining that such an action will result in restoring the hydrology of the marsh. In this connection, it has also said that all construction should be kept to a minimum and be eco-friendly.
It has proposed three bird viewing points on elevated wooden walkways that extend into the marsh, situated south of the Perungudi-Pallavaram Link Road. It has also said that the Link Road ought to be converted into an elevated one, so that water can flow continuously through the marsh. It has said that the present siting of the road has completely cut off the flow of water and that will, in the long term, drain one half of the marsh completely. The proposal has also suggested that the traditional channel in Okkiyam Madagu, where the marsh emptied excess water into the sea, must also be restored. Lastly, it has said that planting of saplings should be done keeping in mind the kind of vegetation that will benefit the marsh.
The State Forest Department would do well to focus on such simple solutions rather than going in for elaborate exercises that may not sit well with natural habitats.