The residents of Kottapattu village in Tamil Nadu’s West Tiruchi district are relieved. The Periyakulam lake, which was at risk of being filled with earth to make way for a housing project, has been spared, at least for now. The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on September 2 ordered an end to all construction till the final hearing in the matter.

The Periyakulam – which means big tank in Tamil – has been a lifeline for the villagers. Once spread across 120 acres, its waters irrigated the fields of several generations of farmers. Today, rapid urbanisation and encroachment have reduced it to just 30 acres, according to the residents. But it still fulfils most of their water requirements.

“Over five generations of my family practised agriculture by the lake,” said K Balasubramaniam, who earns a living as a driver after the changed scenario made him give up farming. “It almost always has water in it. Even after so many buildings have come up around it, our borewells get filled only because of this lake.”

One evening around a month ago, while sipping his tea in a neighbourhood shop, Balasubramaniam heard that a large excavator had begun dumping sand into the lake every night. Along with environmental activist Vinothraj Seshan and some friends, he confronted the builders. They revealed that the government had ordered houses to be constructed on the lake for journalists of the Trichy Press Club.

Seshan, who is with the voluntary organisation Thaneer Iyakkam that tackles water-related issues, swiftly filed a petition in the high court, arguing that the Supreme Court had prohibited construction on water bodies through an order in 2005.

On September 2, the high court ordered an end to further construction till the final hearing and asked the Tiruchi collector and the corporation commissioner to produce a report on the condition of the lake in four weeks, reported The Hindu.

A road being constructed right across the Periyakulam. Credit: Thanneer Iyakkam

Encroachments lead to flood disasters

The Periyakulam’s decline as a result of urbanisation and encroachment finds an echo across the country, where similar problems have led to recurring flood disasters. The effects have been particularly severe in two South Indian cities – Bengaluru and Chennai.

In the Karnataka capital, the number of lakes has fallen from 261 in 1961 to 85 in 2016. After heavy rain in July caused several lakes to overflow and flood large parts of the city, the authorities were finally jolted into removing the illegal construction.

The mess in Bengaluru brought to mind the Chennai floods of December 2015. The heaviest rainfall to hit the city in 100 years poured into lakes and canals that had been choked by encroachments, resulting in a civic disaster that left over 500 people dead and the city reeling. A study in progress by the non-profit Care Earth Trust has found that wetland area has declined from 80% of Chennai’s area in 1980 to 15% in 2010, reported The Times of India. In August this year, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs tabled a report in the Rajya Sabha on the Chennai floods in which it ordered strict action against the illegal construction mafia.

But it is another matter if the state or Central authorities themselves allow construction on wetlands. While on the one hand the government, as a matter of policy, removes illegal encroachments, on the other, it is often accused of bending environmental norms to cater to the interests of certain communities. This is mostly done by changing the use of land.

The case in Tiruchi illustrates exactly that.

The Periyakulam in 2016. Credit: Google Earth

Changing land use

Changing land use has long been a controversial subject.

The revenue department classifies land according to its nature and use – as agricultural, industrial, wetland, wasteland and so on. Land is often changed from one use to another, usually for development purposes. And there is a procedure to reclassify land, said K Saravanan, an environmental activist.

One of the steps is to issue an A1 notice – a public circular that states the intent and purpose of reclassification, and invites objections to the proposed plan for a 15-day period. This is published in the panchayat office or block development office. If the public raises serious objections to the land conversion, the government should ideally find a way to redress their concerns, said Saravanan.

The residents of Kottapattu claimed they did not even know of a plan to convert the lake into a housing colony.

According to the revenue department, Periyakulam was reclassified in 2008 from a water body into a ‘natham’ – a term used for land reserved for housing sites in a village. This reclassification came into effect after a jargon-ridden government order was passed that year.

The order clearly identified the plot as a water body.

It also included the statement of the land revenue commissioner saying the government should examine its recommendation to construct houses on the plot in light of the Supreme Court’s judgement of 2005, in connection with another case, where it declared that water bodies must be protected by the State.

In response, the government secretary, who wrote the order, addressed the concerns of the land revenue commissioner with this logic: “As the Supreme Court…has ordered that since such areas are water bodies, encroachments should be removed and such lands should not be used for other purposes.”

The secretary added, “The land can be given to journalists only after the classification of such lands is changed to natham.”

But the high court said it didn’t appreciate this kind of mechanical reclassification of wetlands to achieve other objectives, reported The Hindu.

In the courts since 2008

This is not the first time the court has stepped in to stop construction on the same lake.

In 2008, L Shawnavazkhan, who was then a journalist with Headlines Today, went through a copy of the government order granting subsidised housing to 57 journalists of the Trichy Press Club in Kottapattu. It mentioned a market price of Rs 176 per square foot, which the government had brought down to Rs 25 per square foot.

Shawnavazkhan belonged to another community of journalists in the city – the Trichy District Press Club. None of them were listed as recipients of the subsidised plots.

Unhappy with what he viewed as an unfair selection of beneficiaries, Shawnavazkhan, along with the Tamil Nadu Union of Journalists, filed a petition in the high court’s Madurai bench, asking it to scrap the government order and examine the list of beneficiaries for genuineness. Three months later, the court ordered a stay on construction till the next hearing.

This was scheduled for June 2016. But the hearing coincided with an agitation by lawyers that disrupted the functioning of courts in Chennai and Madurai. Amidst this chaos, the petitioner’s lawyer did not show up in court, and the case was dismissed.

Deliberate subversion of law?

For the residents of Kottapattu and activists, the issue is not the Tamil Nadu government’s allegedly biased allotment of housing plots to a certain section of journalists, or the fact that it is giving these away at astonishingly cheap rates.

What bothers them is what they call a deliberate reclassification of a water body into land that can be used for development purposes.

Tiruchi District Collector KS Palanisamy begged to differ. “Actually, it [Periyakulam] is not a water body,” he said. “It was made into a natham and handed over to a group of journalists.”

The members of the Tiruchi Press Club also denied these charges. "Some of the social media activists instigated by a few disgruntled journalists of Tiruchi were trying to kick up a row making false allegations against the Tiruchi Press Club and its members," said the Executive Committee of the Tiruchi Press Club in its statement to the press. "The land allotted for journalists was converted as a natham poromboke in the 1998."

This directly contradicts the stance taken by the Tiruchi corporation in 2010. In response to Shawnavazkhan’s query under the Right to Information Act, the corporation said, “We cannot give permission to construct here because this is government land.”

The debate continues. But for now, the residents of Kottapattu can breathe easy. “At least for now, all of us are in a festive mood,” said Balasubramaniam. “If a colony came up on this lake, our entire neighbourhood would be flooded.”