Written by RWC, photographs from Wikimedia Commons and Imran Siddiqui.
The Pulicat Bird Sanctuary, notified on 20th September 1976 is the second largest brackish water lagoon after Chilika in Orissa. The lake provides livelihoods to about 44,000 fishermen and is a very important refuge for several species of threatened water birds, fishes and amphibians in Southern India. This fragile ecosystem and its surrounding wetlands are critically threatened by a proposed major port and shipbuilding centre (http://dugarajapatnam.com/), spread over 5028 acres. The proposed port rips through the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary for at least 5 km with the proposed epicentre at Tupilipalem situated at 4.5 km from the park boundary. In this regard, MoEF had issued a notification on 3rd January 2014 proposing a restricted Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of 2 km radius around Pulicat Bird Sanctuary over-riding the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department’s envisioned 10 km radius recommended in March 2007. This notification seems to have been issued to facilitate environment clearance for Durgarajapatnam Port, separately notified by Ministry of Shipping & Transport on 16th September 2013. There are significant concerns regarding this port and it is best that the location of the port be shifted away from the lake and its 10-km Eco Sensitive Zone, for the below reasons:
1. Protected Area – The port location according to the gazette notification published on 16th September 2013 runs through at least 5 km inside the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary. This was notified without the mandatory clearances obtained from National Board of Wildlife, State Board of Wildlife constituted under the Section 5(A) and Section 6 of Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and Forest (C) Act 1980 and is also in clear violation of relevant Supreme Court orders. We strongly recommend revoking the gazette notification for the port unless the mandatory clearances are obtained in an amicable manner.
2. High biodiversity – Pulicat Lake has been identified as an Important Bird Area (site code: IN-AP-10). 113 species of birds have been recorded from the lake and surrounding wetlands and heronries and the lake was visited by over 77,000 waterfowl annually. These include Schedule I species, such as the White-bellied Sea Eagle, as well as critically endangered species, such as the White-rumped Vulture and important species like the Greater Flamingo and the Grey Pelican. Many shorebirds migrate from temperate to tropical countries through the lake which is part of the Eastern Flyway of the Central Asian Flyway. Therefore, the protection of the lake and its shorebirds is a matter of international concern. The lake is also a vast nursery for about 12 prawn species, 29 crab species and 168 finfish species. The proposed port will have disastrous effects on this unique ecosystem and its significant biodiversity.
3. Ramsar Signatory: The Pulicat Lake has been recommended to be included as a Ramsar site by Wetland International. India being one among the first signatories of the Ramsar convention, “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” (www.ramsar.org) is bound by certain duties – “The Ramsar contracting parties are committed to implement their objectives of the Convention mainly to designate suitable wetlands for the list of international importance (Ramsar List) and ensure their effective management; work towards the use of all wetlands through national land-use planning, appropriate policies, management actions and public education”.
4. Fragile ecosystem – The Pulicat Bird Sanctuary has a sea mouth (opening to the sea) at three sites, the northernmost of which is located at Durgarajapatnam. The sea mouth impacts the hydrology, biodiversity and fisheries in the lake since sea water enters through the northern side of the lake and flows back through the southern end. Durgarajapatnam is located close to the proposed site Tupilipalem (4.5 km), within the proposed ESZ of the Sanctuary. Due to the construction of the Port, if the sand bar closes up, the lake water will get impounded, get subjected to evaporation and reach hyper saline levels which can have disastrous effects on the biodiversity in the lake.
5. Eco Sensitive Zone – According to the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Pulicat sanctuary’s ESZ was delineated as 10 km by the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department in the year 2007. However, this zone was abruptly reduced to 2 km according to a notification by the MoEF dated 3rd January 2014. We strongly object to this move and recommend that the ESZ be retained at 10 km and alternative locations for the Port that are much farther from the lake and in less ecologically sensitive areas be explored. The proposed new location for the Port, Tupilipalem is located within 2 km from the sanctuary and will seriously endanger the Pulicat ecosystem. Regarding this, there have been some false reports in media; an article from Times of India from 13th February 2014 (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/Decks-cleared-for-Dugarajapatnam-port/articleshow/30299638.cms) quotes ‘Although Tupilipalem is close to Durgarajapatnam on paper, it is about 20 km away from Durgarajapatnam and more than 120 km away from sensitive locations like Pulicat Lake and the satellite launching centre at Sriharikota.‘ Tupilipalem is only 4.5 km from Durgarajapatnam, within 2 km from the Pulicat Sanctuary and 35 km from Sriharikota.
6. Environmental impacts of Port development – The adverse effects of Port development have been categorised into three types; location of the port, during construction of the port and during port routine operations. The guidelines from ‘Assessment of the Environmental Impact of Port Development’ (United Nations 1992) states: ‘Location of port connotes the existence of structures or landfills, and the position of the development site. Construction implies construction activities in the sea and on land, dredging, disposal of dredged materials, and transport of construction materials. Port operation includes ship-related factors such as vessel traffic, ship discharges and emissions, spills and leakage from ships; and cargo-related factors such as cargo handling and storage, handling equipment, hazardous materials, waterfront industry discharges, and land transport to and from the port.’ Maritime pollutants generated by routine shipping operations can severely damage a fragile ecosystem like Pulicat. The ecological damage may not be as apparent as shipping disasters such as oil spills, but over time, even routine operations can cause large scale damages to coastal ecosystems. Given the fact that the Port is spread over an area of 5028 acres, we feel that the activities during construction and routine shipping operations will severely harm the lake ecosystem and its biodiversity and strongly recommend that port locations that are less ecologically sensitive and far from Pulicat sanctuary should be explored.
7. Livelihoods – There are 52 fishing villages around the lake, with about 44,000 fisher folk that are directly or indirectly dependent on the lake for their livelihood. The income levels of the fisherman have drastically reduced due to high pollution levels in the lake caused by fly-ash from the Ennore Thermal power plant which is located about 45 km south of the lake. The outlet of coolant water from plant at elevated temperatures has adversely affected aquatic life. This is an example of how ill-planned development can significantly harm not just biodiversity but also livelihoods of poor fishing communities. Even though the port development authorities may argue that the port will bring in more livelihoods, this will benefit people differentially; fisher folks who are dependent on coastal and marine sources will be deprived and outsiders who are skilled labourers or technically sound will benefit. Therefore, the port will also severely affect the livelihoods of the fisher folk in the Pulicat region.
8. Historical and cultural heritage – Several fishing communities who depend on fishing in the lake practice the historical and cultural system called “Padu”. This system is known to provide resilience to the fishing communities, and is thought to manage fish populations effectively for sustainable fisheries in the long term. However, the Padu system is highly susceptible to declines in fisheries and fishermen fear that it could collapse with increasing pressure from environmental change linked to economic development.
Given these significant concerns, the gazette notification for the port issued by Ministry of Shipping & Transport on 16th September 2013 should be revoked, a 10-km ESZ around the Pulicat Sanctuary should be notified immediately and the location of the Durgarajapatnam Port should be shifted to a less ecologically sensitive area. This will set a precedence for future development projects to ensure that habitats critical for coastal biodiversity and livelihoods of marginal fisher folk are of significant national importance.