Environment ministry had suggested reducing Eco Sensitive Zone around lake from 10 km to 2 km

Activists, ecologists and fisherfolk have raised objections to a proposal of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to reduce the mandatory Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around the fragile Pulicat lake from 10 km to two km.

The ESZ is a buffer zone around any sensitive eco-system in need of protection where certain activities including setting up of heavy industries are prohibited — depending upon the category — to protect the ecology from irreversible damage.

In the case of Pulicat lake, activists charge that the reduction of the buffer zone around the lake from 10 km to two km was for the development of upcoming port at Dugarajapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Perturbed, various organisations working for protecting fishermen’s livelihoods and conservation have sent petitions to the MoEF demanding the proposal be immediately dropped.

P. J. Sanjeeva Raj, an ecologist, who has worked in the vicinity of the lake for the past 60 years, said that oil pollution from the ships, chemical pollution from companies and sewage will have a lasting impact on the lake. “Water pollution cannot be stopped, the salinity levels will change,” he cautioned.

“Once the pollution begins, you cannot reverse the process and the lake cannot be restored to its pristine state. Ports and industries should not be allowed to come up near the ecologically-sensitive and ancient lagoon, he said.

Pulicat lake is a fragile wetland ecosystem supporting lakhs of birds, including flamingos — the flagship species — during migratory seasons during the winter months. The lagoon also directly or indirectly supports about 70,000 families of fisherfolk in 50 villages.

“Pulicat needs at least 10 km of ESZ because heavy industries would draw a lot of water and pollute the surrounding area too. This will affect the food chain and put fishermen, who depend on the lake for their livelihood, to hardship,” said Shekar Dattatri, a well-known conservationist.

“In another case, the Supreme Court has said that in conservation, the precautionary principle must be applied as it is very hard to undo damage,” he cautioned.

Bird lover and Aarde Trust founder Xavier Benedict said the habitat of the birds must be protected in order to protect the food chain. “The flamingos eat the algae in the water and the crabs and prawns consume the birds’ droppings. Of the 73 species of birds in the lagoon, 13 species are endangered,” Mr. Benedict said.

Activists like Mr. Raj have been campaigning for the Pulicat lake to be declared as a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance.

When the Environment ministry was headed by Jayanthi Natarajan, there was an effort to this end, but the new proposal has posed grave danger to Pulicat eco-system, activists said.

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