If a country had a magnificent lake that dates back to the Holocene period, rich in bio­diversity and history, what would it do? Protect it? Promote it? Neither, if the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India, is to be believed. In a startling move, the MOEF has proposed that the buffer zone around Pulicat Lake be reduced from ten to two kilometres! This unexpected blow has environmentalists up in arms.

The move comes following a decision by the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, to develop Durgarayapatnam (Armagon of Francis Day fame) as a port and shipbuilding centre spread over 5000 acres. The proposed development, notified in September 2013, is expected to take over at least 5 km of protected area in the vicinity of Pulicat. It centres on Tuppili­palem (in Andhra) which happens to be just around 4 km from Pulicat Lake itself.

There are several questions about the sustainability of this port, but the Ministry has decided to go ahead nevertheless. It is to allow for this that the MOEF has, on January 3, 2014, proposed a restricted Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around Pulicat. This overrides the Andhra Pradesh Government Forest Department proposal for a ten-km ESZ around the Lake. That was mooted in 2007, following a Supreme Court order in 2004, asking for ‘shock absorbers’ around ecologically sensitive areas. That it has not yet been notified and remains on paper is yet another matter.

The Lake is of vital importance not only to the Tamil Nadu-Andhra region around it but also to international birdlife.

Firstly, around fifty villages, most of whose occupants rely on traditional methods of fishing, depend on it for their livelihood. The building of a port, however world-class it may promise to be, will immediately mean the end of a way of life. It must be pointed out that most of the fisherfolk here practise what is known as the padu system of fishing. Known for its ecologically sensitive way of harvesting fish, it is already facing a decline thanks to the setting up of the Ennore Thermal Power Station, which discharges effluents at elevated temperatures into the Lake.

Secondly, the Lake is a bird sanctuary that has international significance, located as it is on the Eastern Flyway of the Central Asian Flyway, a crucial migratory route. Birds while migrating across the globe, therefore, visit it and some of them are highly endangered species. Tampering with their habitats can spell disaster to some birdlife across the world. It is feared that the proposed port will impact not only the flight pattern of the birds but also the aquatic life in the Lake, which forms an important link in the food chain needed for the birds to survive.

Thirdly, the Lake itself depends on three openings to the sea, the northernmost of which is at Durgarayapatnam. It is the view of conservationists that the port will result in the sealing off of that outlet following construction activities. This particular mouth is of immense importance, for it is from here that the seawater enters the lake, the openings in Tamil Nadu serving as exits. If this is to be shut off, the lake will be starved of fresh water supply. The impounded water will evaporate in summer, resulting in hypersalinity, which will kill the aquatic life.

Lastly, India is a signatory to the Ramsar Agreement that aims to protect water bodies. This is “an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the wise use, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories,” to quote from its website. To what purpose such agreements if they are not to be implemented at ground level?