Our city may take pride in the fact that it has Guindy National Park (GNP), one of the oldest reserve forests right in its midst, but if the Government is allowed to have its way, all this will soon be gone. It is learnt that the State Government has written to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) that the mandatory eco-sensitive buffer zone around the park be removed. This is ostensibly to facilitate the construction of buildings by Government-supported organisations and institutions in the vicinity.

The GNP has been a reserve forest since 1910. Originally spanning over five square kilometres, it was steadily whittled down to make way for several memorials and buildings and, by 1971, was around half its original size. The GNP, in 1978, was declared a national park. Chennai thus became the second metro in the country to have such a reserve forest, Mumbai’s Borivali National Park being four years older. It has since been a vital lung for the city, keeping summer temperatures down in the surrounding area, conserving the water table and being home to fauna of various kinds.

All this may have been a matter of pride a couple of decades ago. But now with the demand for space skyrocketing, areas such as the GNP are considered nuisances by those who think ‘development’ is the only way to progress. At the heart of the problem at GNP is the proposed extension of the Indian Institute of Technology’s (IIT) facilities. The IIT came up on land carved out of the GNP in the 1950s. Though it was walled off in the 1980s, it has always been understood that the Raj Bhavan campus, the IIT campus and the GNP are one integrated natural preserve with any deforestation in one having a detrimental effect on the whole.

IIT Madras has for the past few years had expansion projects put on hold due to its location within the GNP area. The MOEF’s 2011 regulations stipulate that buffer zones be set up around reserve forests to act as shock absorbers between areas of high protection and those where normal development can take place. The IIT falls within a buffer zone and has, therefore, not been able to go ahead, with the MOEF stalling its proposals.

Last year, in a bid to obviously help the IIT, the State Government wrote to the MOEF suggesting that the buffer zone around GNP be eliminated completely. The reason given was that there was no area around the GNP for creating such a buffer. The IIT is all for it, with its Director going on record to state that any development on the campus would have no impact on the GNP because “we are completely walled off” – an amusing explanation from the head of an institution meant to promote science and technology.

The MOEF has in turn asked for the views of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) for his views on the subject. In the meanwhile, the Special Secretary (Forests) of the State Government has written to the PCCF stating that in the light of the stance taken by the Government in 2013 that the buffer zone be done away with, a nod may be given to IIT to go ahead with its plans.

These developments have had wildlife activists up in arms. They point out that the entire area is one ecosystem and such a move will be detrimental in the long run. The presence of the highly endangered blackbuck in the area is also to be considered, they add.

The battle is one that promises to be long drawn. It is also typical of what is happening all over the country, with those in favour of development in the modern sense coming into conflict with the environment. What is surprising is that an institution like the IIT is not able to come up with a creative solution that will solve its problems and at the same time not harm nature. Can it not think out of the box, thereby evolving a paradigm that other institutions located the world over in similar natural preserves can follow?