A Lake of Miseries

Arnabjit Sur

Chennai : A lake that once acted as a source of freshwater in the city has now become a nightmare for residents to live beside. Indiscriminate dumping of garbage, household wastes and chemical effluents from a leather company has made the Pallavaram Lake, also known as Periyar Eri, a sight of apathy.

A radial road linking Pallavaram to the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) separates the lake into two halves, officially demarcated as northern and southern entry points to the water body.

Encroachments in the form of a group of shanties bordering the edges of the lake has not made the situation any better. For the residents living nearby, despite the stink and unhygienic living conditions, life seems to go on.

“The lake has been in a terrible condition for several years now without any government intervention,” rued 42-year-old Govind Berua, a resident of one of the pucca houses.

“We filed complaints to the municipality some years back but nobody acknowledges the state of this polluted lake,”Berua added while saying that the residents generally bear with the deteriorating state of what used to be an iconic water body several decades back.

While they claimed that residue after washing clothes does seep into the lake, bathrooms inside the houses had a separated canal connected to each household which prevents their dissemination elsewhere.

On being asked whether waste from their houses contribute to the pollution,” 49-year-old Surya Prakash, another resident, said: “Nobody cares about this lake as the last cleanup took place 6 months back during the monsoon when samples of the water was collected but did not have an impact on the filth”.

Adding to the woes, the prevalence of mosquitoes throughout the year is a common menace here as clogged water at numerous places makes for breeding grounds. “No fumigation drives take place to prevent diseases like dengue as if we are not a part of the city,” said 60-year-old Antoni Amma.

Next to the lake, swathes of forest land cover most of the area, earlier part of the Pallavaram Lake. A number of apartment complexes crowd the path of the lake with numerous establishments functioning in full swing over what was once a major source of water.

“The area around the forest was used for growing rice by using water from this lake but as the quality of the water degraded, so did the farming,” Amma added.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate dumping of garbage on the southern side of the lake across the radial road, piled over several layers, makes going tough for the residents living around the perimeter.

Waste dumped in the Pallavaram Lake

“Earlier we used to take bath in the lake but as water became polluted and turned yellow, it became unbearable to even look at,” said 21-year-old Surya Prakash, a student.

Talking about the increasing levels of garbage dumped into the lake, 30-year-old P. Selva Mani said that the pile of garbage was small when she first came here but gradually increased without any supervision from the municipalities. “The authorities say that they are building a bus depot by recycling all the filth but the plan has been hanging fire for several years despite complaints from us,” she said.

The scene comprised of a drove of pigs swarming the area, feeding on the garbage that overflowed into the locality, while a few people were seen throwing a bag of flower garlands and household waste into the lake full of water hyacinths – a common sight – the residents said.

Most of the people attributed the increasing levels of degradation to a leather making company situated near the lake which, according to them, discharges harmful chemical effluents into the water body. “We protested against another manufacturing plant that came up in 2017 near the lake following which it got shut down,” said 67-year-old Prakash Selvum, while washing clothes.

The plight of the water body doesn’t end here. A 3 km walk from the Pallavaram Lake till the VELS University leads one to discover another water body in dire straits.

Adjacent to the university, in the Putheri Lake, a thick pale green layer of algae enveloped the dry water surface with a few abandoned cars dumped around its embankment, further congesting the area.

Abandoned cars on the banks of the Putheri Lake

Officials at the Pallavaram Municipality, however, said that work on recovering the lost image of the Pallavaram Lake is ongoing. “We are trying to clear the garbage meant for recycling and encroachments from the lake with help from the PWD in order to restore it to its original form,” said an official, requesting anonymity.

However, the Public Works Department (PWD), which received a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Pallavaram Municipality to maintain the water body, has not completed any development project as per its mandate, the residents said.

David Manohar, a local activist with local environmental NGO Arappor Iyakkam, dismissed the concerns expressed by the residents, saying that all of them have encroached upon its bank with the collusion of municipalities.

“The inhabitants of these localities are the main culprits who let out sewage into the river body while the municipalities remain ignorant to the unabated construction along the lake’s bed,” said Manohar.

According to him, an order by NGT in 2015 directing authorities to clear encroachments of the canals and garbage dumped into the lake hasn’t materialized as work was started in 2018 and should have been completed by now. “The bio-mining of garbage hasn’t shown results and is leading to a pointless exercise of further polluting the lake,” the activist said.

“What was a gigantic 120 acre water body has been reduced to half its size at 50 acres due to numerous construction projects along its boundaries” Manohar rued.

“All the rivers in Chennai require some or the other restoration projects as people, hand in gloves with authorities, continue the exploit natural resources as per their whims,” he concluded.