Veerappa Moily is a minister in a hurry. In less than two months after he took over as environment and forests minister, the MP from Karnataka’s Chickballapur has been on a file-signing spree: he has already cleared 100 projects, the latest target being the Pulicat Bird Sanctuary.
To enable the construction of a port, his ministry has reduced the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) for the bird sanctuary, which is one of the finest in India, by 80%. An ESA is a type of designation for an area which needs special protection because of its landscape, wildlife or historical value.
The sanctuary, which spans northern Tamil Nadu and southern Andhra Pradesh, is the second largest brackish water ecosystem over 720 square km. Having an eco-sensitive zone around the water body, the Pulicat Lake, would have meant that developing a major port, which would have occupied 5,000 acres, would not have been possible. This is because environment laws prohibit the setting up of pollution emitting activities within an ESA, which provides protection to the bio-diverse rich area.
If the green lobby is up in arms over this de-notification, it is not without reason. Andhra Pradesh’s forest department had recommended a 5-10 km green corridor around the sanctuary to foster marine life in the wetland area and to ensure that it continues to attract a huge number of birds. A news report in a national daily in January reported that this year 50,000 birds had arrived there.
Yet, the Union ministry has gone ahead with its plans. Second, anthropogenic pressure is choking the lake as it is. The agricultural land just opposite Kudri, a fresh water tank, is being converted into housing plots. The Kudri tank itself is an important ecosystem which attracts several bird species. Third, and most important, the Bombay Natural History Society and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History are making efforts to declare it a Ramsar Site, which is equivalent to World Heritage site status for monuments.
In the face of such evidence, one wonders how Mr Moily decided to give clearance to a port and more pertinently, what was the rush to do so. Did someone say model code of conduct?