D Revathi (50), a widow from Muttukadu village in Villupuram district, drives into Kaliveli lake backwaters every day at 5.30 am and spends the next eight hours in neck-deep water handpicking and shucking oysters, clams and mussels. This has been her daily ritual for the last 30 years ever since she lost her husband. Left to raise three young children all alone, Revathi found solace in fishing for daily subsistence. Though the work is grueling and low paying, fetching her a paltry Rs 150-200 per day on average, Revathi has no complaints.
“My husband died when my youngest daughter was one year old. Since then, Kaliveli backwaters have been my only source of income. During summer months, when the water level is low, I handpick different varieties of shellfish and during monsoon months I bag prawns, crabs and small fish. I do not know any other work except this,” Revathi told The New Indian Express.
She is not alone. There are at least 1,000 fisherwomen, including a large number of widows, from over 20 villages in Chengalpattu and Villupuram districts who are engaged in traditional fishing in Kaliveli lagoon. At any given time, there will be at least 200-300 ‘super moms’ in the water busy collecting shellfish. They just wear a pair of socks and gloves for protection, use a sickle knife to craftily open the shells and carry a small bamboo basket as a backpack to collect the harvest.
But their livelihoods are at stake. The Tamil Nadu state government has proposed a modern greenfield fishing harbor with a capacity of 12,000 tons per annum inside the Kaliveli backwaters, South India’s second largest brackish-water lake located in Villupuram district. Biologists say this would disrupt the ecology in what is believed to be the last surviving clean backwaters on the east coast. The fishing harbor is expected to have several supportive amenities such as auction halls and a landing center.
The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance application submitted by the fisheries department before the State Coastal Zone Management Authority (TNSCZMA) and reviewed by The New Indian Express, reveals that a navigation channel has been proposed to create a permanent approach channel for the fishing vessels through the backwaters.
This would be achieved by clearing the sandbar between the Kaliveli waters and the sea. An area of five hectares of sandbar would be dredged to maintain a water depth of 2.5m lower than the current levels. As part of the proposed harbor construction, a navigation basin is proposed within the backwaters. To prevent sedimentation of the navigation channel, two training walls are planned on the northern and southern sides of the channel measuring 400m and 600m respectively.
All these infrastructure developments would disrupt the livelihood of small-scale and marginalized fishers in the area while benefiting large-scale fishing operations. M Ravi, former president of Kolathur village panchayat, said once the big fishing vessels are allowed to dock inside the backwaters, there will be oil spills and discharge of effluents into the pristine waterbody which would hamper the productivity of nutrient-rich waters. “The part of Kaliveli that is connected to the sea by the Yedayanthittu estuary from which there is considerable intake of seawater, is the source for a vast area of salt pans. The salt industry here is the third-largest in the state, providing employment to thousands of people. If Kaliveli waters are polluted, it will bring down the salt industry as well.”
Saralan, one of the few graduates from Muttukadu village, alleged that only a few big fishing villages like Azhangankuppam, Alamparaikuppam and Kadapakkam will be benefited by the harbor. “But it will adversely affect over 20 small coastal villages that are dependent on backwaters. The mechanized and motorized boat fishermen, who already enjoy subsidies from the government, threatened and silenced our voices during the public hearing convened by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) in January last year,” he said.
When contacted, an assistant director of the fisheries department told the Express that due to increased fish catch in Chengalpattu and Villupuram, there is an urgency to develop a fishing harbor. “The lack of fishery infrastructure in either district is leading to significant transport of fish from here to Chennai or Puducherry causing overcrowding and overloading of fish catch, which in turn results in low-quality fish production. An establishment of a well-structured fishing harbor with sufficient supporting facilities would ease the burden on other fishing harbors,” the official said.
It would also lead to good quality and hygienic fish availability in the markets. But to achieve this, a lot of construction work must be undertaken in the ecologically sensitive area.
Priya Davidar, a conservation biologist, said, “It is an Important Bird Area (IBA), identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the National Wetland Conservation and Management Programme. So, building a harbor inside this region is nothing but a call for disaster. The government can easily build the harbor on the seafront instead of disturbing backwaters, like how the Kasimedu harbor was built.”
The biodiversity-rich waters of Kaliveli lagoon, which is the second-largest brackish water body in southern India after Pulicat lake, has been the traditional fishing ground for folk who use non-motorized country boats. Around 65,000 people, mostly from marginalized communities like Adi Davidar, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, are dependent on this lagoon for their livelihoods.
The ecological significance of the area is evident as earlier this year, the Villupuram administration issued a first declaration under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 to declare Kaliveli wetlands a bird sanctuary.
M Yuvan, an active member of the Madras Naturalists Society, told Express that Kaliveli wetlands were one of the largest waterfowl congregation sites in Tamil Nadu, and a well-known raptor roosting site for species like the Eastern Imperial Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Red-necked Falcon and several harriers. “The area hosts over 30,000 ducks, 20,000 to 40,000 migratory shorebirds and 20,000 to 50,000 terns in the winter. The Grey-tailed Tattler, a rare migratory wader, has been recorded only here and in the Pulicat across the country,” he said.
Moreover, environmentalists noted that north of the proposed fishing harbor site is the 17th-century Alamparai Fort built during the Mughal era at Kadapakkam. Alamparai, a flourishing place of trade, fell into oblivion when the British Army led by Sir Thomas Eyre Coote captured the fort in 1760 and reduced it to ruins. Now, the State archaeology department has taken up the task of renovating the fort. Coastal engineers say the training walls of the proposed harbor may trigger erosion near the Alamparai fort.
State archaeology department deputy director K Sivanathan said that according to rules, the area 100 meters from the fort is a ‘no development zone’ and areas 100 to 300 meters from the fort are regulated, where only certain kinds of activities are permitted. “They may have to obtain a no-objection certificate from the archaeology department before commencing work. I will also check on the exact location of the proposed harbor,” he added.
CRZ clearance, EIA report flawed
The fisheries department has committed glaring errors in obtaining Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance and in the preparation of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the project. As per the EIA Notification, 2006, the preparation of Terms of Reference (ToR) is a mandatory prerequisite for the commencement of the preparation of the EIA report. The official documents, accessed by Express, reveal that the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority issued the ToR on October 17, 2020, while the EIA report was already completed on June 4 that year, which was in fact used to conduct a public hearing in 2021.
A closer analysis reveals that the Rapid EIA report prepared prior to issuance of the ToR was copy-pasted and produced as the final EIA report, which is a clear violation of EIA Notification.
Environmentalist and fisherfolk rights activist K Saravanan said that this activity was fraudulent. “The EIA report is riddled with significant errors and is inconsistent with the ToR. The preparation of EIA report before the ToR was issued is sufficient cause in itself to cancel the issuance of CRZ clearance by the State authority.”
When contacted, Environment Secretary Supriya Sahu said she was not aware of the project and would look into the matter.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by The New Indian Express along with a supporting story on 2 August 2021 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: A woman looking for shrimp in Kaliveli / Credit: Debadatta Mallick.