Tamil Nadu government- largest encroacher of water bodies in the state?

A police station, waste segregation plant, residential colonies and an industrial estate have all been built on lake beds in Chennai and its suburbs.
Tamil Nadu government- largest encroacher of water bodies in the state?
Tamil Nadu government- largest encroacher of water bodies in the state?

In the beginning of 2018, the 26.4 acre Thamarai Keni lake in Shollinaganallur looked nothing like its name signified. It was a picture of complete neglect with sewage and waste dumped into it and the lake bed used as a space for open defecation. It took enormous effort on the part of a non-governmental organisation, Environment Foundation of India (EFI), to begin restoring the lake last July.

Now, a year later, though the team has made great progress in reviving the lake, threats to the water body have only grown larger. With the lake shrinking from a mighty 150 acres to one-sixth of its size, its bed has been targeted by a slew of encroachers.

And alarmingly, a state government building belongs to this list of defaulters.

Police station on a lake?

According to an RTI reply to Arappor Iyakkam's queries on an ongoing construction on the lake bed, it was found that the Chennai police had sought a space of 0.6 acre or 25,833 sq ft in the waterbody to construct a police station. The Semmanchery inspector of police had applied for reclassification of land use through Greater Chennai Corporation in 2017 and it was granted this year. This entire process is, however, illegal according to a Madras High Court order dated November 11, 2015.

The order reads, "The vesting of these lands and water bodies with the Government is to benefit the public and any attempt made by the Government to act in a manner derogatory to the object for which the land was vested, has to be held illegal...it is beyond the power of the State to alienate or reclassify the water bodies for some other purposes without compensating the effect of such water bodies."

The under-construction government structure on the lake bed now stands as an example of blatant violation. And to make matters worse, activists who questioned and visited the site have been booked by the government for allegedly spreading false information and creating division in society.

And while the police and state government may deny their roles in illegal construction on this site, across Chennai and its suburbs, TNM has found that multiple government buildings have violated the Madras High Court's order and encroached upon land originally belonging to water bodies.

The shrinking Pallavaram Periya Eri

Stop any of the oldest residents from Pallavaram and ask them about the Periya eri (big lake) and they’ll tell you what a picturesque sight it was just a few decades ago. Local activist David Mahonar recalls, “The water from the lake used to hit the train tracks and when the train drove past it, it made a wonderful sound.”

But in July 2019, when TNM visited the site, the lake’s boundary is at least half a kilometre away from the railway tracks.

The water body that was once close to 125 acres in size, one of the biggest in the southern suburbs of Chennai around the 80s, covers only 50-60 acres today- a dry, shrunken bed riddled with encroachments. The most prominent of which is a non-functional bio-methanation plant set up in 2015 by the municipality. This plant allegedly sits upon the water channel that connects Pallavaram lake to Putheri, a smaller water body in the area.

Around a three kilometre radius of the plant, two more alleged violations are quickly spotted by David - a waste segregation plant that sits right on a  pond called ‘Mangani Kuttai’ and a Taluk office that has rerouted a water channel to accommodate its building.

While many might have forgotten the existence of the Mangani Kuttai, Kavya*, who was born in Kannabiran Street in the area and then moved to the street right behind the Waste Segregation unit on Ganapathipuram, recalls the small waterbody. “I remember people used to take bath in the kuttai. Then almost ten years ago, a waste segregation unit came up there,” she says.

David meanwhile points out that the alleged encroachment by government buildings has empowered private citizens to build homes, and close off water inlets to the lake.

"Now, even if it does rain, there is not enough water coming to the lake," he says. "The local municipality has now taken up restoration of the Pallavaram lake, but it is not planned carefully. The newly-built sluice gates on the lake’s northern side are close to an arterial road. This sluice opens directly to the road," he points out.

Ideally, to restore the lake, the municipality will have to clear encroachments, define its bounds, plug any sewer inlets and make sure the drains are in the right points. But when TNM contacted officials, they denied any illegality in the constructions.

A senior official from Pallavaram Municipality when asked about the encroachments claims he is unaware of the Mangani Kuttai's existence and claimed that bio methanation plant was built on a private land. He further denied rerouting encroaching upon a water channel to build the Taluk office.

Remember the floods in Villivakkam?

In the 2015 floods in Chennai, SIDCO Nagar in Villivakkam was a sight of complete devastation. Located to the east of the Villivakkam Konnur lake, this residential area saw close to 5000 families being evacuated on boats as water rose above waist level. Even water pumping stations failed in the deluge and 500 Corporation workers went in to rescue starving residents as sewage lines began to break and contaminate stagnant water.

And this, according to the revenue map of 1906 and the Toposheet of Survey of India of 1972, is because this colony, along with the SIDCO Industrial estate, is located right on top of Villivakkam Konnur lake bed. SIDCO is an undertaking of the Government of Tamil Nadu aimed at promoting industries in the state. This encroachment went largely unnoticed by residents because the lake that once used to be 214 acres has shrunk to merely 39 acres.

In a petition to the Madras High Court over this encroachment, Arappor Iyakkam says that the Public Works Department, which is the authority responsible for the maintenance of tanks and lakes in Tamil Nadu, handed over the Villivakkam Konnur Lake to the Tamil Nadu Housing Board. Later the remaining water body was given to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) for its usage in 1991. 

"The government has legalised these areas to construct industries and houses, putting the lives of people in danger," says Nakheeran, a member of Arappor Iyakkam. "Now, if it rains as heavily as 2015, they will all be at risk again. It is near impossible to move such a large population from that area," he adds.

And while these encroachments have already affected water supplies across Chennai and its suburbs, reports suggest that the state government is yet to learn its lesson.

Plan to encroach lake in Ambattur?

According to the CMDA website, in June, an application has been listed for the reclassification of yet another water body in the city. The application comes from Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance board and it looks to convert 10.2 hectare acres of a water body in Ambattur into a residential use zone for 'carrying improvements to the existing tenements constructed under Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project.

"The Tamil Nadu government is the largest encroacher in this state," says retired bureaucrat MG Devasahayam. "They pave the way for encroachments and facilitate private citizens to do the same," he adds.

Devasahayam says that while the above examples still have portions of water bodies that remind residents of what they have to fight for, some parts of Chennai city are now beyond repair due to Government encroachments.

"Look at Lake area in Nungambakkam for instance. They laid roads there, constructed Valluvar Kottam, a tennis stadium and now even a famous school is housed there," he says. "Now, it is not viable to remove these encroachments. What they should be focusing on is to remove encroachments in areas where they can restore lakes but instead the government is only looking to make the situation worse."

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