The Greeks believed that the Mediterranean Sea and the river just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, was the whole world. The ‘river’ was of course the Atlantic Ocean. Just like the frog in the well. Today we know there are five oceans – the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic. During the last ten days, since Diwali the festival of lights, Chennai and most of Tamil Nadu has been battered by rain. Streets and homes have been flooded. I always thought of water as a cleansing agent. But when books are rescued from water, when wood or cloth is submerged, it really stinks. Water is lovely only in its own place.
But human beings have made it difficult for water to remain in places meant for water – lakes, ponds, rivers and most importantly marshes and wet lands. Wet lands and marshes in Chennai have been destroyed by rapid urbanization. More than half the wetlands have been converted into living areas. The City had 150 water bodies. Now there are only 27. From 1997 onwards 99% of the green cover has been replaced by buildings, drastically reducing the city’s water holding capacity. The rivers have been reduced to sewers while originally they carried surplus water from 450 tanks. The Pallikaranai marshland has been reduced to 1/10 its size by ‘reclamation’ by real estate barons.
So what are these encroachments, into the space needed for the flood water to flow? Rotary was once involved with cleaning a Temple tank which was being surreptitiously filled with garbage and masonry by rapacious builders. Rotary could stop it. But such encroachments keep happening below the radar of the law. The Delhi High court while ordering the return of such encroached water bodies to the Public Works Department observed “Water bodies, lakes and water tanks are not only a community asset, but also help in preserving and improving environment.”
In a single report from Ghaziabad, we hear that 1036 ponds, one wetland in Hasanpur and one lake in Arthala have all been fully or partially usurped! There is also a case of a UP State industrial development corporation usurping 14 water bodies in the City, while private parties have encroached on 98! Altogether 24,037 hectares which belong to water bodies, have been usurped.
Water needs its own space. When greed results in land being wrested away from water, we have disaster. Forty Four people died in the recent flood in Chennai. Millions are homeless. Diseases are spreading and property has been destroyed. The greed of the few has harmed so many. Shouldn’t we ask questions when our birthright to a peaceful life is being pillaged?
Dr. Rekha Shetty