Call for ‘Operation Kolleru 2.0’ gains strength as encroachments threaten survival of India’s largest freshwater lake

43,000 acres of illegal aqua ponds in Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary were destroyed under Operation Kolleru in 2006 following a Supreme Court direction; experts say current situation demands a repeat of the operation

Updated - October 09, 2023 08:00 am IST

Published - October 09, 2023 07:59 am IST

A road illegally laid by locals through the Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh to allow vehicles to transport fish.

A road illegally laid by locals through the Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh to allow vehicles to transport fish. | Photo Credit: T. APPALA NAIDU

The survival of India’s largest freshwater lake ecosystem, Kolleru Lake, is under severe threat as aqua ponds continue to encroach and thrive in the heart of the wetland.

The rate at which the lake is witnessing encroachments demands ‘Operation Kolleru-2.0’ for the survival of the unique wetland ecosystem that serves as a breeding and feeding ground for 220 avian species including nearly 100 species migrating from the Palearctic region, suggest experts.

In 2006, the Andhra Pradesh government executed ‘Operation Kolleru’ as per the directives of the Supreme Court and demolished 1,776 aqua ponds spread over 43,000 acres within the Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary (KWS). Of them, 1,140 were in the erstwhile West Godavari district and 636 in the erstwhile Krishna district. Operation Kolleru was aimed at protecting the KWS.

In 1999, the State government declared more than 308 sq.km area as the sanctuary within the 90,100 hectares of the lake, surviving between the basins of the Godavari and the Krishna rivers.

Growing threat

“In its reply to an RTI query, the AP Forest Department has claimed that nearly 15,000 acres of wetland has been converted into illegal aqua ponds within the Kolleru Wildlife Sanctuary by 2021. Currently, the aqua ponds have extended to not less than 50-60% of the sanctuary,” K. Mrutyunjaya Rao, a wetland expert and activist, told The Hindu. The eighty-year-old man has been fighting for the conservation of the Kolleru and Pulicat lakes in Andhra Pradesh.

“Another Operation Kolleru is the only immediate solution that is in sight to save the lake that has a storage capacity of 54 TMC of freshwater up to +10 contour. An aerial survey of the sanctuary provides a clear picture of the encroachments that no authority could ignore for the conservation of the wetland,” he said.

Eco-Sensitive Zone

The AP Wildlife Division has decided to identify and propose an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) surrounding the KWS. It has sought support from the Eluru district authorities to conduct Grama Sabhas and prepare an inventory of the ‘land use patterns’ surrounding the sanctuary. A committee has also been constituted by Eluru Collector V. Prasanna Venkatesh and Eluru Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife) S. Ravisankar.

“The entire sanctuary will be surveyed for land demarcation. We will be able to accurately figure out the area under encroachments based on the results of the survey,” Mr. Ravisankar told The Hindu. LIDAR survey, a remote sensing technology, will be employed for the purpose.

The last aerial survey of the lake was done prior to 2015, under the aegis of then Union Minister of Environment and Forest Prakash Javadekar.

Meanwhile, the Revenue Department has been entrusted with the task of conducting the Grama Sabhas to elicit the opinion of the local communities on the proposal to identify the ESZ.

Twenty-four years after the declaration of the sanctuary, it still struggles to get an Eco-Sensitive Zone tag despite facing repeated threats, including illegal encroachments, that put the survival of the ecosystem in peril.

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