A new proposal by the Tamil Nadu forest department to reduce the mandatory 10-km eco-sensitive zone or ESZ around the Pulicat Lake Wildlife Sanctuary near Chennai has sparked fresh protests from members of the fishing community, scientists and wildlife experts.

If it is allowed, the proposal will smooth the way for the expansion of the Kattupalli port 2.1 km south of Lake Pulicat Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvallur district by the Adani group, activists and fisherfolk say. This will threaten the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

In December, Marine Infrastructure Developer Private Limited owned by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd detailed its plans to expand the 136.28-hectare Kattupalli port facility in a Draft Comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment Report for the Revised Master Plan submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Based on the proposal, there was to be a public hearing in January. But it was cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic.

According to the executive summary of the plan, the expansion of the Kattupalli port will be carried out on a total area of 2,472.85 ha. In addition to the existing area of the port, it will include 927.11 ha of government land and 613.31 ha of private land. It also proposes to reclaim 796.15 hectares from the sea. Six villages will be affected.

The proposed area of expansion will acquire land that falls within the sanctuary’s 10-km buffer zone, said Yuvan Aves, of the Chennai Climate Action Group.

Priority wetlands

Lake Pulicat is India’s second-largest brackish water body after Chilika lake in Odisha.

The proposal to reduce the ESZ around the Pulicat Lake Wildlife Sanctuary from 10 km to 500 metres is still in process, said Tamil Nadu chief wildlife warden, Syed Muzammil Abbas. He declined to give details unless this reporter met him in person and has not responded to an email with questions about the plan. A news report in the New Indian Express said the proposal was sent to the expert appraisal committee for ESZ in the environment ministry.

The Coastal Resource Centre, a community organisation, in February filed an application seeking details of the proposal under the Right to Information Act, but it has not yet received a response.

Pulicat Lake Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a bird sanctuary and marine protected area in 1980. It has been identified as one of the five major mangrove areas in Tamil Nadu by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. In addition, the Union government has listed it as one of 14 “priority wetlands” in Tamil Nadu and as an “important coastal and marine biodiversity area”.

The Pulicat Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. Credit: Yuvan Aves

The idea of reducing the ESZ around the Pulicat sanctuary was first proposed by the state forest department in March 2019. It sent a proposal to the Union environment ministry to cut the ESZ from 10 km to zero. The proposal was rejected by the ministry’s expert appraisal committee for ESZ.

In the executive summary of its port expansion plan, Marine Infrastructure Developer said that the Tamil Nadu government had decided not to propose any eco sensitive zone for Pulicat Birds Sanctuary “as per the minutes of 34th ESZ Expert Committee Meeting for the declaration of Eco Sensitive Zone around Wildlife Sanctuaries/National Park held on 06th March 2019, in the MoEF&CC [Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change]”.

It added that the government of Tamil Nadu said that there was “no ecological requirement of any other buffer area for the conservation management of the sanctuary which is only seasonal in nature at the time of arrival of birds”. It did not mention that the proposal for a zero-km ESZ had been rejected by the environment ministry in 2019.

Adani’s response

Asked about the Tamil Nadu forest department’s proposal to reduce the mandatory 10-km ESZ, a spokesperson for Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd said in an email message that the Tamil Nadu government had notified the boundaries of the sanctuary in 1980, implying that there was no need for an ESZ.

“The Pulicat Wildlife Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu side boundaries were notified vide G.O. Ms. No.1247, Forests and Fisheries dated September 22, 1980,” the spokesperson said. “The areas (village boundaries) covered and, also the areas included by the boundaries described above shall be the ‘Pulicat Lake Birds’ Sanctuary.”

The spokesperson reiterated the claims in the executive summary. “The same has accordingly been disclosed in the Draft EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment} and Executive Summary reports submitted to TNPCB [Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board] during December 2020,” the spokesperson said.

Greater flamingos at the Pulicat Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. Credit: Yuvan Aves

Lake Pulicat is located in an area where sea erosion is taking place, said Meerasa, a social worker from Jamilabad village in the Pulicat lake area. The fisherfolk fear that construction of the port will increase the erosion and that the narrow strip of sand separating the sea from the lake will disappear. If this barrier shrinks, the risk of salinity ingress will be increased and even the groundwater could turn salty, they fear.

The expansion of the port will hurt the livelihoods of the area’s fishermen, Meerasa said. Here, people have small boats not trawlers, he said. How will they go to the deeper sea? About one lakh people are dependent on the lake for their livelihoods, from Ennore in Tamil Nadu to Sulupet in Andhra Pradesh, he said.

Residents of about 15 villages in the area fish in the sea, while people in 60 to 70 villages fish in the lake, he said. In the 250-hectare mangrove forests by the sea, women wade upto three feet into the water to pick fish, prawns and mud crabs. Seafood from the lake sells for higher prices and is exported. These are the areas that will be reclaimed for the port, Meerasa added.

Lost livelihoods

For the last two decades, Meerasa has been engaged in restoring the mangroves. In fact, the lake gets its name for the Tamil word for mangroves: ”Pazhavercadu”.

“We recorded 1,200 families fishing in this area and women have been handpicking fish for the last 30 years,” he said. More than 2,000 women from Ennore to Arambakam in Thiruvallur district do this kind of work. They earn Rs 500 to Rs 700 daily. “There is also a huge harvest of tiger prawns from here,” he said.

Once the port comes up, what is the future for these women, agricultural labourers and fisherfolk, Meerasa wondered.

Rajalakshmi from Goonankuppam, a village of 2,000 people, said that fishing was the backbone of their economy and they did not have any other skills. “What will we do if we cannot fish?” she asked. “That is the only thing we know. We are protesting against the port and it should not come here as it will affect all of us.”

Women fish workers at Pulicat. Credit: Yuvan Aves

Communities have been protesting against the proposed port expansion since September 2019 when over 1,500 people held a rally in the area’s fishing villages. Since then, there have been a number of protest actions and memorandums submitted to the authorities. Students in more than 50 schools and colleges wrote a letter to the Tamil Nadu chief minister demanding that the project be scrapped.

In addition, 108 scientists and experts in a letter to the chief minister explained the seeming irregularities in locating the port so close to Lake Pulicat and the severe impacts of building a port in an area where the shoreline is changing and the ecosystem is already fragile.

The Environment Impact Assessment for the project notes that the shoreline is receding at the rate of 8.6 metres a year. The project will double this rate, the experts said. The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification prohibits building ports in high-erosion zones – defined as shorelines experiencing erosion at rates greater than 1 metre a year.

Company disputes claim

However, the Adani spokesperson said that ports and harbour projects are permissible as per the Coastal Regulation Zone notifications of 2011 and 2019 and the Environment Impact Assessment notification of 2006.

“The Terms of Reference for the project has been granted by MoEF&CC [Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change] after evaluating the project proposal and site visit and recommendation by an expert sub-committee of MoEF&CC,” the spokesperson said. “The activities proposed are permissible and in line to applicable regulations. The areas selected for reclamation are falling under medium accretion, low accretion and low erosion. Therefore, areas with high erodibility have been avoided and all steps shall be taken to ensure a stable coast.”

A fisherman in Lake Pulicat. Credit: K Saravanan

In a statement released on March 16, fisherfolk from Pulicat and 38 wildlife activists and scientists have criticised the forest department’s plan to reduce the buffer zone. A committee of residents from 15 fishing villages and concerned citizens have written to the Union government’s expert committee on eco sensitive zones condemning the move that they say “is designed solely to benefit polluting industries proposed to be set up in the Ennore Pulicat wetlands”.

News of the proposed dilution of the ESZ was featured in The Times of India in February but the community has no more information on this. They feel the forest department failed to take the fishing community into confidence and said the move was suspicious as “as the only parties that are likely to benefit from such a move are companies that wish to take over lands and waterbodies in the region to set up polluting industries”.

The committee pointed out that polluting activities such as ports and harbours are prohibited within the ESZ. Adani’s port expansion proposal falls entirely within the current 10 km ESZ, they claimed.

The fisherfolk suggested that the forest department’s move may be linked to the fact that the government of Tamil Nadu has notified a proposal to build the Ponneri Industrial Township Area within the existing ESZ and covering the Ennore-Pulicat wetlands. “The location of this industrial township is contrary to siting guidelines prescribed in Central Pollution Control Board’s Industrial Siting Atlas and principles of wise use and land-use planning,” the letter said.

‘No fishing area’

Another factor that is angering the fishing community is the demand by Adani in August 2019 to declare their fishing grounds near Lake Pulicat a no-fishing area.

The Adani company justified this demand to the National Hydrographic Office in Dehradun in 2019, within a year of buying a 97% stake in Marine Infrastructure Developer Private Limited. It said in a letter that “vessels arriving and departing the port need safe entry and safe egress route. However, there are times when the fishing boats lay fishing nets across the approach channel, anchorage area, port basin including nest to vessels at the berths. This poses a serious security concern and safety hazard to the ships calling at the port.”

According to a statement released in response to the proposal, the fishing community said, “The area sought to be declared as No Fishing Zone in the 2019 letter is about 7.7 sq km. That is an area 112 times the size of Chepauk stadium [in Chennai] just for the existing 330 acre Kattupalli port. If the existing 1.3 sq km (330 acre) port requires a 7.7 sq km No Fishing Zone, an 8 sq km port (2,000 acres) will require nearly 50 sq km or an area nearly 700 times the size of Chepauk Stadium. That is what the fisherfolk are being asked to give up so that Adani can benefit.”

Fishworkers at Lake Pulicat. Credit: K Saravanan

The Adani spokesperson said that the port had requested the notification of the zone only with the intent of keeping the fishermen out of harm’s way and bearing their safety in mind. “The fishing is carried out in the deep sea and not in the vicinity of the port infrastructure as alleged,” the spokesperson said. “The documents circulating the media also indicate the same. We sternly deny the baseless allegations that the port is attempting to deny fishing rights to fishermen.”

The spokesperson added that no impact is envisaged on the fishing grounds owing to the proposed expansion. “However, to further enhance the livelihoods of the fishermen, Multipurpose Artificial Fish Habitats for the enhancement of biodiversity, fish production, and sustained livelihood are being proposed in the vicinity of the surrounding villages,” the spokesperson said.

Kattupalli village has already lost its land to the port and the desalination plant for water supply to Chennai. In addition, its residents say that the jobs promised to them in Kattupalli port have not materialised. Since March 15, the panchayat of Kattupalli Kuppam has been protesting to demand some 140 promised jobs.

According to the Revised Master Plan development for the Kattupalli port, no resettlement and rehabilitation is envisaged for the expansion of the port. The development of the Revised Master Plan will neither affect the fishing activities nor restrict the movement of local fishermen and boats, the executive summary said.

The Adani spokesperson added: “No R&R implies that no land owned by individuals is being proposed for acquisition for the expansion project and therefore no resettlement measures are being proposed for the project. However, as a socially and environmentally conscious corporate entity, Katupalli Port has been working closely with the local community through the Adani Foundation since 2018.”

The spokesperson said, “Various interventions such as providing insulated ice boxes to fishermen, installation of high mast lights in Fishermen villages and providing tarpaulins for roofing of thatched huts have been implemented in consultation with the local populace bearing their requirements in mind.”
In addition, the port expansion is expected to generate 15,000 direct and indirect jobs during the construction and operations phases.

Meena Menon is an independent journalist and author.