03 September, 2010

Whose lake is it anyway?

Coimbatore, the third largest city of Tamil Nadu is situated on the banks of the river Noyyal and has a network of natural and man-made wetlands interconnected to each other and the river Noyyal dating back to 1200 AD. Some of these are under the authority of the Public Works Department, while 8 lakes that fall under the Coimbatore Corporation limits have recently been leased by the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation from the PWD. Traditionally, these lakes were sources of fresh water for domestic and agricultural use but in recent years due to rapid urbanisation they are being used only by marginalised people living in the vicinity for domestic use, as grazing grounds for subsistence herders, by farmers for irrigation seasonally and also for fishing. They still play a very important role in regulating the water levels in the Noyyal and preventing floods during excess rains in the city apart from underground aquifier recharge. Due to the unregulated and unsustainable extraction of groundwater in the city in recent years, their roles as water-table rechargers is one of the most important today. These wetlands and their drains are also serving as ad-hoc sewage drains (untreated domestic and industrial effluents) resulting in moderate to heavy pollution levels.

Anthropogenic uses apart, these lakes are also used by resident and migratory birds throughout the year. Large congregations (>300 individuals) of Threatened birds like the Spot-billed Pelican and Near Threatened birds like the Painted Stork regularly use these lakes for feeding, breeding, roosting and nesting. A study conducted jointly by researchers from SACON, Bharathiar University and PSG College of Arts and Science from June 2004 to September 2006 reports 116 species of birds using the Singanallur Tank alone.

In a public meeting held on 14th August 2010 at the Coimbatore Collectorate with attendance of the Mayor of Coimbatore Corporation, District Collector of Coimbatore and Commissioner - Coimbatore Corporation, a presentation was made by Scott Wilson India Pvt Ltd and Almondz Global Securities Ltd that proposed privatisation of the eight lakes that fall in the city limits (Narsampathy, Krishnampathy, Selvampathy, Kumaraswamy, Selvachinthamani, Coimbatore big tank, Valankulam and Singanallur) along with a rejuvenation proposal. Also proposed under this Build-Operate-Transfer scheme are construction projects like urban health resorts and spas, food courts, water theme parks, aquarium, planetarium, bird park, etc., in and around the wetlands.

It is questionable in the first place for the Corporation to even consider privatisation of a common public resource that is essential to the livelihood of many marginalised people. It also seems ill-advised to hand over the 'rejuvenation' and maintenance of these wetlands - crucial wildlife habitat and ecologically fragile and valuable areas - to a private corporation with no history of such successful projects without any public or governmental checks and balances. Some of the proposed 'rejuvenation' activities include draining, dredging and desilting of the wetlands to increase water storage capacities. This will destroy the aquatic fauna and flora, disturb the migratory birds and result in the transformation of the wetland from an ecosystem to a sterile water storage tank. Furthermore, the large construction projects proposed will have to rely on huge footfalls to be commercially viable, well beyond the carrying capacity of these wetlands, putting immense pressure on the ecosystem and the biodiversity it harbours and will contribute to irreversible damage, not just in terms of ecology, but even economy as the two are one and the same.

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