Everyone knows about Pallikaranai, a residential area in south Chennai, Tamil Nadu. But when you ask people in the neighborhood about the Pallikaranai wetland, you’re met with a lot of blank faces. “I can take you to Pallikaranai reserve forest area, I am not aware of any wetlands,” says the auto rickshaw driver. Pallikaranai is the last remaining natural wetland of Chennai and it is easy to miss amid the urban spread of roads and buildings.
Pallikaranai is located in the close proximity of the IT industry in old Mahabalipuram road. It is considered as Chennai’s automobile hub and central business districts in the GST road.
It is surrounded by various natural lands, ponds, lakes and it is a home to different varieties of birds. But as you travel across the stretch of the wetland, all you see is billboards of different species of birds with their names and descriptions written on it. “I have been driving auto in and around this road for many years but I haven’t been able to spot any birds up close. You’ve to come early in the morning if you want to see them,” says the auto rickshaw driver.
“You can see flock of white cranes from a distance but the sound and sight of heavy traffic keeps them away. If you are lucky you will be able to catch few flying white cranes,” says a bystander.
The serene of view of Pallikaranai is now more of a wasteland than a wetland. A few feet down the Velachery -Tambaram road a rude shock awaits you in the form of mounds of garbage rotting and burning all over the marsh.
Originally the marsh was spread across 7,000 hectares but now it has been reduced to mere 695 hectares. Pallikaranai is Chennai’s largest official dump site. Chennai Corporation dumps tonnes of waste into the Pallikaranai daily.
But garbage dumping is not the only problem that the wetland faces. The wetland has been the victim of developmental process. A myriad constructions and infrastructure projects have encroached upon the area.
“The degradation of the wetland has led to the extinction of half of the native plants. The wetlands play a vital role against natural disasters like floods and tsunami. It purifies the soil and recharges groundwater table. Without it a major part of the ecosystem will collapse, says Nityanand Jayaraman, one of the voluntary activist of Save Pallikaranai Wetlands.
It acts as a breeding ground for thousands of migratory birds and the marsh houses several rare or endangered and threatened species. Indiscriminate dumping of solid waste and discharge from sewage and construction of buildings and roads and railway station have shrunk the wetland.
The State government is committed to protect the unique fresh water swamp located within the Chennai Metropolitan area. Under the National Adaption Fund for Climate Change, restoration activities at the Pallikaranai marshland will continue till 2023 at a cost of Rs. 165.68 crore.
“We actively take part in awareness program and projects on restoration of wetlands. And to a certain extent even the government has done a lot towards the restoration of the wetland. But still a lot needs to be done or else we will lose the only remaining wetland that we have,” says Nityanand Jayaram.