Kolleru lake

A looming tragedy

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Fish tank waste let out into the protected lake area near Paidichendupadu, a bed village. Photo: Kunal Shankar

West Tammileru is a branch of one of the main Godavari distributaries. It carries untreated sewage into Kolleru. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Large commercial fish tanks are a common sight in Kolleru. Here, a tank in Gudivakkalanka showing the fans that are used to infuse oxygen into the water. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Spot-billed pelicans nesting on the man-made perches that were built as part of a successful conservation project in 2006, after the Supreme Court order to destroy all aquaculture tanks within the protected lakebed area. Photo: Chollangi Subrahmanyam, Retd. Forest Range Officer, Eluru

The Indian golden oriole is found in large numbers at Kolleru. Photo: Chollangi Subrahmanyam, Retd. Forest Range Officer, Eluru

The painted stork, which is endemic to Kolleru. Photo: Chollangi Subrahmanyam, Retd. Forest Range Officer, Eluru

The palm canoe used in traditional fishing. Canoes are not as widely used now as they were before the proliferation of fish tanks. Photo: Kunal Shankar

The Andhra Pradesh government’s latest move to reduce the size of the protected area of the Kolleru lake may just be the death knell for this Ramsar site.

AT a near midnight meeting on August 13 that Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu chaired at his Camp Office in Vijayawada, a newly constituted State Wildlife Board met and approved the reduction of the protected area of the Kolleru lake, one of Asia’s largest freshwater marshes, to 133 square kilometres, less than half of its existing 308 sq km. The State body’s recommendation was forwarded overnight to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), which in turn formed a “subcommittee” on August 18 to look into the demand and come up with suggestions. The minutes of the meeting, which Frontline accessed, do not mention the submissions of any of the 10 participants. State Minister for Environment and Forests B. Gopala Krishna Reddy, the board’s member secretary and the State’s Chief Wildlife Warden A.V. Joseph and several top government officials attended the meeting. Conspicuous by their absence were conservationists and other experts. The Wildlife Protection Act and Rules mandate that the board must include up to 10 such representatives, who have in the past been from the Botanical Survey of India, the Zoological Survey of India, the Wildlife Institute of India and other bodies.

When the Special Chief Secretary to the Andhra Pradesh government on Environment and Forests, Ashwini Kumar Parida, was asked the reason for such haste, he said the formation of the board was a “continuous process” and that new members would be recruited in future. The dissolved Wildlife Board (for undivided Andhra Pradesh) had all the requisite members. But the Act gives the Wildlife Board sweeping powers on its constitution, proceedings and decisions. It stipulates that “no proceedings or decisions of the board would be invalid merely due to a vacancy or any defect in its constitution”.

“We have been pursuing the governments of both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to constitute [separate] State Wildlife Boards for the past one year. Yet, we learnt about it only through the media,” said Farida Tampal, State director of the World Wide Fund-India based in Hyderabad. The WWF-India was represented on the earlier board. The meeting took place less than 24 hours after the board was reconstituted, leading several people to question the motives behind its decision to reduce the size of the wildlife sanctuary.

P. Gracious, who retired as the Divisional Forest Officer in Eluru, the West Godavari district headquarters and the town closest to the lake, said: “Only 14,000 acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] is privately owned within the protected area. The rest are still marshlands very much under the control of the Forest Department. The reduction in its size will lead to a land grab so detrimental that it will kill the lake.” Chief Wildlife Warden Joseph was the only person who spoke out against the government’s proposal at the meeting. He has since been transferred to the post of Chairman of the State’s biodiversity board.

This is not the first attempt to reduce the size of the protected area. The Assembly unanimously passed two resolutions demanding a reduction: The first in 2008, when Congress Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was in power, and the second one as recently as December 2014. The ruling Telugu Desam Party (TDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance had even made it a campaign promise in the run-up to the 2014 State elections.

Kolleru lake

The Kolleru lake is formed by nearly 70 distributaries of the Krishna and the Godavarithat drain into a depression. This shallow marshland has only one meandering outlet to the Bay of Bengal, and this enables it to retain water at different levels throughout the year. Sprawled over 900 sq km at the confluence of the deltaic regions of these rivers, Kolleru is home to a third of the world’s spot-billed, or grey, pelican population, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature has categorised as near threatened. Kolleru has over 100 resident bird species and an equal number of migrant species from across Eurasia. Herons, storks, teals and flamingos are found here, particularly during winter.

As much as 308 sq km of this unique ecosystem was officially declared a wildlife sanctuary on September 25, 1995, but it took the Union government another four years to settle local land disputes and put in place the framework to protect it. The lake is also one of the 26 globally listed protected marshlands of India under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, 1971, or the Ramsar Convention. India is one of the 163 signatories to the convention, which places the onus on member countries to highlight their wetland ecosystems, conserve them and propagate their importance. The only two other wetlands in India larger than Kolleru are the Vembanad lake in Kerala followed by the Chilika lake in Odisha; both are brackish water marshes, giving Kolleru the distinction of being one of its kind in size, diversity and splendour.

There are many obstacles to conserving the lake. The region is thickly populated and fragmented by what are called “bed” and “belt” villages, the designations signifying their geographic locations on the basis of which are the most and the least susceptible to inundation during heavy water inflows. The entire spread of the lake is mapped in contour lines on the basis of elevation above the sea, or mean sea level (MSL). It goes from three feet (one foot is 0.3 metre) above MSL, or +3 contour, to 12 ft above MSL, or +12 contour. The area that is protected is up to the +5 contour, that is, all areas lower than 5 ft above MSL. This has been the trouble with declaring Kolleru a wildlife sanctuary because what is protected is not defined by its location but by its elevation from sea level. There are 60 island villages that are located on the lakebed within the protected 308 sq km, but as they are above the fifth contour, they fall beyond the protected area.

Flooding is a natural phenomenon in the region, making it largely unsuitable for agriculture. And yet villagers appear to have a rather optimistic, if not fatalistic, attitude towards such vagaries. From 1962, when one of the worst floods in the region devastated villages and almost submerged Eluru town, both the Central and State governments have made several attempts to manage the floods. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s government appointed a committee led by an engineer, A.C. Mitra, to suggest solutions. Mitra provided an engineering solution in 1966 to what was largely an ecological issue. He suggested a “straight cut into the sea be provided near the 29th mile of Upputeru”, the 64-kilometre-long meandering shallow river that was Kolleru’s sole outlet. Thus came the Circar (which means government in Hindi) canal in the late 1960s. The canal hastened the loss of water from Kolleru. Upputeru was also dredged to expand its carrying capacity. This shrank the permanent lakebed area and drastically reduced the wild habitat. The renowned ornithologist K.K. Neelakantan was the first to identify what he described as possibly the “world’s largest spot-billed pelicanry” on his visits to the area between 1949 and 1961 and wrote about it in Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. He noted the “drastic reduction” in the pelican population over the decade and suggested conservation. The 1962 floods made the government consider conservation sooner than it might have done, but it took 33 years for Kolleru to be declared a sanctuary. By then considerable damage had been done to the habitat.

Until 1976 the people of Kolleru lived a harmonious subsistence life, fishing in the lake using palm canoes. They were largely cut off from the mainland. Social and economic indicators were low. The literacy rate is still half that of the West Godavari district average, a trend since the 1970s. Nearly 90 per cent of the population is Vaddis, a community categorised as backward and believed to be originally from Odisha’s Chilika lake region. The rest are Mala Dalits and a handful of tribal families.

In 1976, the then Congress Chief Minister, the late Jalagam Vengala Rao, allotted each fishing family 50 cents of land and asked them to form cooperatives. Support was sought from the Fisheries Department for technical know-how on commercial aquaculture, and Central Land Mortgage Banks were requested to extend credit. What followed were fish tanks even at the breeding and nesting sites of birds. Overnight, pelicans and several other species were uprooted from Kolleru. Vengala Rao’s government was of the view that given Kolleru’s natural water-retaining capacity and its propensity for flooding, its residents should attempt commercial aquaculture. Ironically, village residents opposed this as they believed paddy cultivation to be more lucrative even if it was a single crop in a year. Several villagers recall how Vengala Rao’s government ran roughshod over their views.

Things began to change as Vaddis became businessmen leasing fish tanks and labourers farming agricultural lands at the same time, thereby earning two incomes. Thatched-roof mud houses gave way to concrete buildings. Families bought modern appliances, and some children began going to private schools. All this quickly began altering Kolleru’s hydraulic functions and its ecosystem. As the fish tanks grew from small cooperatives to large industrial-scale production units that spread across the length and breadth of the lake, its rich biodiversity suffered. There was a rather sudden disappearance of the grey pelicans. The lake began smelling foul because pesticides, de-oiled bran used as fish feed, about 24 million litres a day of sewage from Eluru, and industrial effluents from Vijayawada up north were released into the lake.

PIL petition

An eight-year-long legal battle to save Kolleru began with the environmental activist Patanjali Sastri filing a public interest litigation petition in 1998 in the Andhra Pradesh High Court seeking to arrest the human encroachment on the sanctuary. On July 30, 2001, the court delivered its judgment ordering the dismantling of all fish tanks and an end to the acquisition of private lands within the protected area but allowing traditional fishing. Residents of bed villages challenged the order in the Supreme Court. The State government, then under Chandrababu Naidu, supported the order, but after Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy became Chief Minister, his government supported those challenging it. In 2002, the Supreme Court ordered the constitution of a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to investigate the impact of the High Court’s order on the lives of fishing communities and the impact of aquaculture on Kolleru’s health. The CEC was asked to suggest steps to remedy the situation so that both villages and the natural habitat would benefit.

The Andhra Pradesh government’s own submissions before the CEC in 2005 through its Principal Secretary, Environment and Forests, said: “The commercial activities have been taken up by rich and powerful persons in the guise of livelihood needs of the poor. The rich who took the assigned lands [those the Vengala Rao government allotted] from the assignees by way of lease, (or) government lands by way of encroachments have converted the lands into fish tanks according to their convenience. The leaseholders of fish tanks who are getting Rs.50,000 to Rs.1 lakh per acre as net income are paying rentals to the local small farmers whose lands have been leased for Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 per acre. As such it is only the rich and powerful that are benefiting from this area.”

In their submissions to the CEC, village residents asked: “Is it not a fact that the government even exercised coercive measures on the Kolleru people to construct fish tanks by forming fishermen cooperative societies and arranging loans through the Scheduled Caste and Backward Classes Corporation? Is it not a fact that the government provided 53 per cent subsidy and 233 per cent margin money through Agriculture Refinance and Development Corporation in 1976? Is it not a fact that we have faced financial crises due to heavy rains and floods since 1977?” It is telling that none of the four MLAs and two MPs representing the Kolleru region is either a Vaddi or a Dalit. All of them are the landed and moneyed Rajus, who are Kshatriyas, and Kammas, the community the Chief Minister belongs to. It is they who exercise control on the goings-on in Kolleru, without having to bear the disastrous consequences of their actions. Three Assembly seats are with the ruling TDP, and its ally the BJP has one MLA, K. Srinivas Rao, who is also the State’s Health and Medical Education Minister. The fish tank leases are largely held by these two dominant communities of the East and West Godavari districts as frequent floods have made maintenance and capital investment prohibitive for Vaddis. Among the TDP MLAs from this region is the party’s Chief Whip, Chintamaneni Prabhakar, representing the Denduluru constituency.

The Supreme Court pronounced its judgment in the case in April 2006. Its order, which Justice S.H. Kapadia authored, concurred with the 2001 High Court judgment and noted: “The final [government] notification [declaring the protected area] seeks to regulate, in [the] public interest and in the interest of ecology, activities, such as aquaculture, prawn and shrimp culture, basically to preserve the identity of the lake which otherwise is likely to become extinct within 12 years.” The court observed: “Out of 901 square kilometres of Kolleru lake, an area of 308 square kilometres alone is notified as a sanctuary. This indicates that the government has balanced the needs of sustainable development with the livelihood of persons surviving on the resources of this lake. The preliminary notification was issued as far back as in 1995. Therefore, the objectors were put on notice about the future course of action. It is not open to the objectors now to say that they have made huge investments which would be lost if the report of the CEC is to be implemented.”

The order came a year after a disastrous flood that destroyed standing crops in upland areas as the tanks below the fifth contour prevented the free flow of water. It quickly turned into a belt-versus-bed village issue, and calls for the tanks to be dismantled started coming from not only conservationists but neighbouring villages as well.

The Supreme Court order led to what was termed “Operation Kolleru” in 2006, when nearly all encroachments, totalling well over 44,000 acres of fish tanks, were demolished. Officials of the Forest Department say aquaculture activities drastically reduced for a few years following the judgment but slowly resumed about five years ago. Indeed, as one travels across the lakebed, already fragmented by roads connecting villages, one can notice fish farms on an industrial scale, not all illegal but environmentally detrimental nevertheless. They continue to let out untreated effluent into the lake, where one can see egrets, herons, ibises and storks feeding right out of the contamination. The striking beauty and serenity of the marsh belies its constant conflict with humans. Fish tanks that abut the island villages have almost invisible threads strung above the water surface to prevent birds from dipping in for a catch. As the threads are sharp, they can wound or even kill the birds. And when someone canoes into the water for a catch, another person stands on the banks beating a drum to ensure birds do not fly down on spotting the fish.

Kolleru has been reduced to a large bird ghetto, where the government has installed perches replacing tall grass and short shrubs so that the birds can build their nests and breed. The good news is that the conservation efforts have yielded results. Of late, there has been a rise in their numbers. But the government’s renewed commitment to reduce the protected area has given local leaders fresh ballast to ratchet up public sentiment. Saidu Satyanarayana, TDP member and former Chairman of West Godavari Zilla Parishad Territorial Constituency, said: “Who is more important, the birds or humans?” It is this kind of rhetoric that conservationists find hard to fight.

Residents of Pathamapparu, a bed village of about 2,000 people within the fifth contour, said they wanted 300 acres of government land “returned” to them. These were areas on the lakebed where they had constructed tanks and bred several non-native species of fish for export to other States or to countries. This had been a lucrative business fetching a family anywhere between Rs.40,000 and Rs.50,000 annually from every acre of a fish tank. The money was entirely profit as there are little or no input costs. No rent or lease was paid as the lands are not privately owned. The soil naturally retains water. It is fertile and supports several other agricultural activities on the tank bunds. The tanks that were destroyed in 2006 were illegal, but for the villagers that is just semantics. Little wonder then that Pathamapparu residents do not want to relocate or find other ways to earn a livelihood. This is a common refrain in bed villages that almost entirely depend on aquaculture nowGhantasala Anjaneyalu, the sarpanch of Srugavarapadu, said: “We cultivated fish in tanks spreading up to 3,000 acres. After the 2006 Supreme Court order, most of us have gone back to being daily wagers. Some of us travel up to 60 km for work. Several families have migrated as well.”

Srugavarapadu is a bed village of about 5,000 people where Satyanarayana grew up. He informed village residents that a reporter was visiting the area. A meeting was arranged, and residents were asked to convey their demand for a half-acre plot for every family now that the government had announced that it was reducing the size of the protected area. The community hall was full. Anjaneyalu continued: “There is no natural fish in Kolleru any more. The water is polluted with pesticides and fertilizers, all coming from upstream farms, and effluent from a paper mill and a sugar factory in Eluru. We have installed reverse osmosis purifying plants for our drinking water needs.”

Officers at the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board conceded that effluents were indeed let out from some industries, but said that was almost a decade ago and that now all the industries had in-house treatment facilities. They said that effluents from Vijayawada had stopped draining into the Kolleru but admitted that untreated sewage from Eluru was still a concern. Residents of bed villages view it as not only unfair but also disingenuous on the part of conservationists to blame fish tanks alone for killing the lake.

Village residents want Kolleru’s myriad drains to be “channelled” and the Upputeru to be dredged further to prevent floods. But a 2011 status report on Kolleru—brought out by a commission the NBWL authorised after the State Assembly’s 2008 resolution—widely regarded as the most thorough, pointed out that Upputeru or any other canal could be dredged only to the extent of the seabed. P.A. Azeez, a renowned ornithologist, authored the report and advised against reducing the protected area or making any further alterations as it could lead to the marsh eventually drying up entirely. Azeez referred to relief and rehabilitation of village residents as mandated by the Wildlife Protection Act, which the Andhra Pradesh government now says will entail an impossible expense. Gracious, the wildlife officer, countered this, saying: “Even if you pay a good price of Rs.10 lakh per acre, what does that amount to for 14,000 acres? Compare this with what the government spent for the Pushkarams? [The Andhra Pradesh government spent Rs.1,500 crore on this religious festival, which is held on the banks of the Godavari once every 12 years.] This argument is a sham.”

The issue has been so politicised that the relationship between livelihoods and preserving the sanctity of the lake has been lost. According to the Wildlife Act, the NBWL’s approval is required to get protected lands redesignated. In Kolleru’s case, many people fear this could be a mere formality. The minutes of its Standing Committee’s August 18 meeting, which Frontline accessed, says the subcommittee will “visit and see the area, brainstorm on all aspects of the proposal and suggest viable options, including for rationalisation of boundaries of the sanctuary, for conservation of the wetland and the sanctuary while ensuring that no hardships are caused to the bona fide owners of the lands in the area”. The four-member subcommittee is headed by the conservationist Raman Sukumar, who is credited with the turnaround in the country’s elephant population.

The NBWL is chaired by the Prime Minister, and Minister for Environment and Forests Prakash Javadekar is its Vice-Chairman. Javadekar is empowered to summon board meetings and even decide the “quorum” to be maintained for decisions, which nullifies the law’s intended participatory mechanism of checks and balances. He has stated his support to reduce the wildlife sanctuary. On July 15, Javadekar along with his Cabinet colleague M. Venkaiah Naidu conducted an aerial tour of Kolleru. The next day, Javadekar tweeted: “At Kolleru- We should not create a situation that birds from #Siberia come to #Kolleru but people of Kolleru have to move to Siberia.”

With inputs from Swathi Vadlamudi

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