Wetlands in India support diverse and unique habitats, providing various ecological goods and services. In recent times, however, there is a clear narrative of the government subverting laws and regulations that protect coastal areas and wetlands for the purposes of land acquisition, urbanisation, and industrialisation. One such example is of Ennore creek, where 1500 acres of wetlands are being converted to industrial real estate. The creek is host to a variety of biodiversity, and acts as a buffer against natural disasters and climate change. The recent IPCC report indicates that coastal cities like Chennai are prone to submergence, flooding, and other natural disasters. To help build accountability for poor management of wetland resources in the urban context, I attended a seminar on wetlands jointly organised by the Coastal Resource Center and Madras Institute of Development Studies on the 10 October, 2018. The seminar brought together senior researchers, fisherfolk, government officials, and experts to elaborate on wetland abuse.

The seminar was opened by Shashi Shekhar, IAS. He elaborated on the systemic erosion of wetlands for development since 1989. This was linked to India’s development model that promoted employment and growth without preventing negative long-term environmental impacts. This is because projects are built on environmentally hazardous, or low lying lands in violation of environmental laws. In Chennai, the IT corridor and resettlement colonies have been built on the Pallikaranai marsh. Similarly, encroachments on the Dal lake affected the discharge level of Jhelum, leading to floods in Kashmir. Possible solutions for better land and water use for rivers and wetlands could be centered around groundwater instead of dams to improve irrigation capabilities. Shekhar implied the need for civil society to play an important role in this process through environmental education and information dissemination in the hopes of bringing about accountability.

Advisor to the Coastal Resource Centre, Nityanand Jayaraman highlighted that Chennai had only 10-30 years to build its resilience to climate change. Chennai’s resilience is impeded by the degradation of its waterways and wetlands like the Ennore creek. This includes the Sagarmala project, electric and thermal power plants that discharge effluents into the creek, etc. To highlight the need for quick action to build resilience, Jayaraman called upon Selvaraj from Kattukuppam, a fishing village off Ennore creek.

The real heroes

Selvaraj elaborated on urban resilience in Chennai with respect to the 2015 Chennai floods. Chennai’s current manner of development makes flood mitigation a challenge due to encroachment and expansion into low lying areas. The government treated the fisherfolk as heroes during the floods but is currently ignoring their fight for their rights to the coastal commons. Around 10,000 acres of poramboke or fishing commons around the Ennore creek has been reduced to a mere 500 acres. Fisherfolk and activists have been fighting against encroachment and pollution in the creek. It is important to raise awareness and support these fisherfolk in their fight for commons to positively impact Chennai’s future.

The fishermen from Kerala detailed their emotional ordeal while conducting rescue missions during the recent Kerala floods. Their personal accounts highlighted the magnitude of the floods and its damage. Kerala’s fisherfolk belong to marginalised communities and this rescue mission helped in breaking down caste barriers. However, they felt that they did not receive adequate compensation for their losses and rescue efforts during the floods. The heroics of fisherfolk in the Kerala and Chennai floods reinforce the role traditional knowledge plays in mitigating natural disasters and climate change. Climate change has led to the deterioration of their livelihoods, evident in the reduction in fish catch. This maldevelopment is the result of bad governance and violation of environmental laws, which could have prevented the Kerala floods. Thirty-six dams were opened during the flood which contributed to the problem, and poor construction of bridges prevented boats from accessing remote areas.

 

The way forward

Jayaraman invited Shripad Dharmadhikary and Jagdish Krishnaswamy to conclude and elaborate on the way forward. Krishnaswamy elborated on India’s transformation of systems. For example, the change from artisanal fishery to mechanised fishery is leading to massive freshwater ecosystem destruction and reduction in catch.The risk of climate change complicates the negative environmental impacts of technocratic developments like the Smart Cities Mission and industrial projects.

This was affirmed by Dharmadhikary, who linked development to the creation of man-made disasters, such as the Uttarakhand and Bihar floods. He called for the need to resort to radical thinking or measures such as the Gadgil Committee report (2011) to protect wetlands and ecologically sensitive areas. This need for alternative measures was also elaborated by Jayaraman in the context of the Ennore creek - there were two battles being fought - one to recognise the creek on paper and a people’s movement on the ground.

Therefore, in light of the above-mentioned discussion, it is important to look at alternative comprehensive strategies for wetland conservation. One such strategy is the role of expert reports and action-policy raised in the Seminar. The Kerala government sought expert solutions to the problems but rejected the same be it the Gadgil and Kasturi Rangan reports. These reports pushed for sustainable and curtailed development in ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats. The Gadgil Committee report proposed the creation of ecologically sensitive zones in 64% of the Western Ghats. The Kasturi Rangan report was more lenient by demarcating 37% of the Ghats as ecologically sensitive.

Equally - if not more important - is the role of traditional knowledge in building urban resilience. By ignoring fisherfolk, the government is sending a message of ignoring the people who know the needs of the environment best. A better policy involves a renewed strategy using traditional knowledge of fisherfolk. In such a scenario, it is important to relook at these reports with special importance placed on the role that local communities and traditional knowledge play in streamlining development and conserving biodiversity.