The unique red sand dunes on the Vizag coast were declared a geo-heritage site a few years back, but nothing has been done to preserve the site.

Are Vizags historic Erra Matti Dibbalu under threat of vanishing into oblivionImage Credit: Sohan Hatangadi
news Geology Friday, January 17, 2020 - 17:54

On the outskirts of Visakhapatnam lies a magnificent geological site unique to the entire coastline of India. Vizag’s Erra Matti Dibbalu, or Red Sand Dunes, have been declared a geo-heritage site by the Geological Survey of India (GSI). The site, which is of immense geological, historical and ecological significance, is under threat, in spite of the recognition, due to unsupervised tourism and inadequate attention from authorities. 

"The Erra Matti Dibbalu is not just a beautiful site, but also a living laboratory. But today it is in a state of neglect,” says Sohan Hatangadi, a Vizag-based historian and environmentalist.  

The origin and importance of Erra Matti Dibbalu 

The Erra Matti Dibbalu are deep-gullied red sand dunes - around 4 kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide - situated to the south of the Bheemunipatnam ridge, on the Bay of Bengal. The dunes, which are bound by the Chittigadda and Peddagadda streams, are believed to have their roots dating back as far as 1.8 million years. 

With the sea levels fluctuating between as high as 150 ft to current levels, the coast was repeatedly submerged and exposed over the years, leaving huge deposits of clay, silt and sand. The deposits were baked in the sun for years, and the flow of wind and water eventually gave rise to the gullied structure. The red colour is understood to be a result of ‘ferrugination’ - where iron coats the sand grains and gets oxidised over time. 

But Sohan says that there are many more questions about the dunes left to be explored by scholars of geology, history and ecology. “There are multiple explanations about the process of their formation. There is a lot to be explored and to be understood about the region through these formations,” he says. 

Previously, speaking about the dunes, Jagannadha Rao, who is part of the Department of Geology at Andhra University, has called the area a ‘living museum’ which needs to be preserved.  

Sohan says that with rapid urbanisation, and negligence from authorities, the scale of the dunes has reduced to a huge extent, and is under threat of being lost forever. 

Unsupervised tourism and administrative negligence 

According to Sohan, around 6 to 7 years ago, several NGOs and activists from the region came together and nominated the dunes to be recognised as a geo-heritage site. Earlier, the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department Corporation (APTDC) had set up a few temporary structures made of palm tree wood with thatched roofs, to make the site tourist-friendly.

Sohan says that the roads leading upto the site are filled with garbage on either side. “The structures put up by the tourism department are used by visitors to eat, drink, gamble and litter. The few amenities that have been set up for tourists are not properly maintained. There are no arrangements for tourists to inhabit the place in a responsible manner, in a way that can allow sustainable tourism,” he says. 

The APTDC, however, is no longer responsible for the upkeep of the site, according to District Tourism Officer Purnima Devi. “Once it was declared a geo-heritage site by the GSI, it comes under their purview. We have ceased all work at the site,” she says. 

Sohan agrees that the site certainly needs specialists to look after it, beyond the APTDC. “It must be developed as a geologically sensitive park, administered by a separate body. We had recommended the formation of a committee with scientists, geologists, and anthropologists to safeguard and study the area. It must either be taken off the tourist map entirely, or managed in a sustainable manner while being available for research,” Sohan says. 

Officials of the Geological Survey of India declined to comment on the organisation’s current or future plans for the site. 

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