The broken mirror

  • 30/12/1993

The broken mirror KOLLERU lake is no ordinary wetland. Located in Andhra Pradesh, it is one of the country's largest freshwater lakes and a bird sanctuary, hosting 193 species of birds and a variety of flora and fauna, including medicinal plants. However, Kolleru today is threatened by economic and industrial development, expanding fisheries and pollution. Pressure on the lake has led to a proliferation of weeds, fewer visiting birds, declining fish catches, reduction in its catchment area, flooding and loss of drinking water.

Despite all this, large-scale trapping and poaching of birds continues. The local people strongly reflect it in their sentiments when they talk of Kolleru and its virgin past. The fisherfolk lament the degradation in their colloquial symbolism: "Kolleru was a mirror, now broken by man's greed" -- a telling comment on the state of their former benefactor. Ironically, the same "benefactor" has been the reason for the fisherfolk's present state of relative prosperity.

Saidu Anjaneyaly of Bhujabalapatnam village in Kaikalur manual of Krishna district is a typical fisherman who has seen the best and worst of Kolleru lake. The beedi-smoking Anjaneyaly points to a group of thatched huts and reminisces, "As a child, I have seen that place full of freshwater. The water would be crystal clear and we would swim, bathe and catch fishes. But today, you don't see water at all. The lake bed has shrunk because of the vagaries of nature and as humans saw this place as a resourceful one, they flocked to it like sardines."

The shape and area of the lake are difficult to assess because large areas are submerged during floods. The water spread varies from 135 sq km at +3 MSL (mean sea level) level to 901 sq km at +10 MSL. The average depth of the lake varies from 0.5 metres to two metres and there are indications the lake is silting gradually, raising the bed level.

Supplying the lake with water are four streams, 15 major channels and 15 drains. It has only one outlet, the Upputeru channel, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. The lake was declared a protected area for pelicans -- about 8,000 pelicans came in 1961 -- but since 1972, no pelicans have visited the lake.

Kolleru lake can be traced back to the 4th century AD. Historical records suggest there was no natural drainage from the lake to the sea and that an artificial breach was created by invaders trying to access one of the lake's islands.

From time immemorial, the bed of Kolleru lake has been the site of cultivation of yerra vari, a native paddy variety. Cultivation around the lake was aided in the dry season by an irrigation system by which water from the lake was mechanically lifted and transported to the crop areas. This practice continued right up to the rule of the colonial powers.

Since 1940, the area under cultivation increased, with the British government granting pattas (title deeds) on payment of market value for the land. From 1954, the government initiated cooperative farming on the lake bed -- about 93 farming societies were organised on a total area of 2.1 million acres of the lake bed. The native paddy was replaced with shorter, high-yielding varieties that required more fertilisers and pesticides.

Kolleru lake is an extremely valuable freshwater resource with a natural fish productivity caused by the highly fertile alluvial deposits and nutrient run-off from agricultural land in the catchment area. But until recently, the lake's fishery potential was neglected by both the government and the people living around Kolleru: agriculture was considered more profitable. Another cause for this was the shallowness of the lake, which dried up in summer.

Besides fishery, the area is highly suited for rearing water buffalo and ducks, both of which have also been neglected. Though the aquatic vegetation is rich and can be used for organic manure, weed-gas, basket-weaving and thatching, it, too, is virtually unutilised.

Says K Shankaraiah of Osmania University, "Two decades ago, the lake was one of the richest and untapped natural ecosystems, free from pollution, and it had diverse flora and fauna. The waters were clean and sparkling and many migratory birds visited the lake. The present situation, however, is highly deplorable and is the consequence of the degradation and deterioration of the fragile ecosystem."
Few studies Though the lake is inhabited by a large variety of birds, there are few studies of Kolleru's birds. Between 1985 and 1987, a study identified more than 185 bird species in the area and new species continue to be found. The study found the lake harboured four rare bird species and 12 endangered ones.

The lake area is inhabited by about 216,000 people, living in 50 lake bed habitations and 98 belt habitations. The primary occupation in the bed villages is fishery and agriculture is a secondary occupation whereas in the belt villages, agriculture is the main occupation and fisheries the secondary.

After 1947, major changes took place in the topography and ecosystem of the lake, mainly due to conflicting developmental activities undertaken by various government departments and the private sector.

By 1969, almost the entire lake was brought under cultivation with huge bunds constructed to keep water out. But the cultivated areas were threatened every year by floods. By the time flood control measures were completed in 1980, most of the people had become disillusioned with agriculture and had abandoned it.

The roads and bridges that came up with agricultural development in the area, along with the increased demand for fish -- especially from Calcutta -- created a new and vast market for fish by 1978. Pisciculture suddenly became profitable and by 1984, 5,000 acres of government lake-bed land had been converted to fish tanks under the management of cooperative societies.

Explaining the development of fish tanks in the region, K Kanakaraju, inspector in the fisheries department at Kaikalur, says, "The intention of the government was well-meaning. Financial help was provided by pledging the patta lands to cooperative banks in order to construct fish tanks. Technical help and training were provided by our department. Unfortunately, due to poor maintenance and low productivity of these tanks, the fisherfolk could not repay the loans. So, the government auctioned the tanks to private investors."

Said Anjaneyaly, "The co-operative movement that the government initiated was well-intended. For some time, until the floods and cyclones played havoc, we did really well. I feel sorry to say that it is not the case anymore. The land has shifted from small time fisherfolk to big landlords. How it happened is a long story, but to cut it short, I feel the banks that funded the cooperative movement were a victim of the political pressure put on them, when we could not repay the loans taken.

"It all started when nature started playing truant, the two cyclones and the unprecedented floods in 1986 had made our lives miserable. Therefore, we were not in a position to pay back the loan amount. At this juncture, the benami land holders with bags full of money got into the game of money spinning. When they entered, it sounded the death knell for this place. Today, the whole place is dug up with fish tanks."

The fisherfolk began to lease the land given to them for fish tanks to private parties. Today, land is leased out at prices ranging from Rs 10,000 per acre per annum to even Rs 17,500 per acre per annum. With this kind of value added to land, many villagers began claiming government land as theirs and started leasing it out.

Says M M K R K Acharyalu, the manual revenue officer of Kaikalur, "The whole pattern (of encroachment) is of the government's own making. When it decided to set up fishing cooperatives in 1974, the intention was good. But where the government went wrong was in its tardy implementation."

Unfolding a tattered tracing-paper map of areas demarcated for fish tanks, Acharyalu explains, "Land was arbitrarily and haphazardly notified for pisciculture -- in total disregard to natural drainage patterns. Later, people claimed any patch of government land as theirs and leased it out to private parties."

Today, the Vaddi community, which dominates the Kolleru villages, is prospering just by leasing out land to third parties, as evidenced by the mopeds and motorcycles used by people on islands on the lake .

Ecological degradation The roads and bridges zigzagging Kolleru have disrupted the organic continuity of the lake. The fish farms around the lake block water channels from the catchment area, which itself has been reduced by economic development.

Sewage inflow from the towns of Eluru, Gudivada and even Vijayawada, industrial effluents and pesticides from nearby villages also contaminate the lake. The use of pesticides and fertilisers in the Krishna and Godavari delta region is heavy. Eleven major industries release about 7.2 million litres of effluents into the lake every day. An Andhra Pradesh pollution control board report states that more than 17,000 tonnes of fertiliser wash enters the lake annually.

Studies have shown the presence of organic pollutants in the lake sediment and in the fast-growing weeds. The sewage and discharge from factories have also affected the growth of water-borne organisms that the fish consume.

The reduced catchment area has led to eutrophication, loss of drinking water and declining fish catches. Fishes are going blind and yielding less and bird egg shells are becoming more fragile. Obstructions on the lake's periphery result in flooding of agricultural land even during normal rainfall.

Today, the stinking waters of Kolleru lake have turned blue-green with overflowing weeds, amid which boats wade through a thin water path for fisherfolk to do their fishing. There is a symbiotic relationship between the fishes and the birds. The larger the number of birds, the more the feed-dropping available for the fishes.

But the stinking, eutrophic waters of the lake have virtually become a turn-off for migratory birds, which have already stopped visiting the lake in large numbers. There is also large-scale trapping and poaching of birds. If such a trend continues, the day is not far off when Kolleru will go without a bird visiting it.

Though Kolleru is a major bird sanctuary, it is virtually unknown and very little has been done to boost the bird population. It is ironic that the government of India, as a signatory to the Convention of Wetlands, has taken little care of Kolleru, especially when it is considering declaring Kolleru an international wetland.

An ecological survey conducted in 1978 by V Seshavatharam and B S M Dutt, with financial assistance from CSIR -- the first of its kind on the lake -- found there was no evidence of algal blooms and no significant contrast between the concentration of dissolved oxygen at the surface of the lake and at the bottom.

However, in 1980, a report by E Ramakrishnan of the Administrative Staff College of India stated the weed problem in the lake was caused by high levels of pollution. In 1982, state pollution board member Rajya Lakshmi warned that a dead zone would be created if pollutants were not checked. Another board member, Ramaiah Naidu, felt the diminishing fish catch from the lake was due to depleting water levels.
Remedial measures In 1982, the Andhra Pradesh government set up the Kolleru Lake Development Committee (KLDC) and ordered it to stop encroachments on the lake, ensure the preservation of its ecosystem and enrich its flora and fauna. The KLDC prepared a Rs 300-crore master plan for Kolleru lake development and submitted it to the government in August 1987.

The master plan suggests, among other things, that the lake level be maintained at +5 MSL; creation of a Kolleru lake development authority to check encroachments, regulate and monitor pollution, coordinate and implement development programmes and restore the ecology; construction of a regulator on the Upputeru; internal waterways to relieve the flood problem; clearing the lake of weeds and using them as compost and to produce bio-gas; developing livestock along with pisciculture and fishery; creating a bird sanctuary and promoting tourism.

Further, a report on a Rs 98-crore project for irrigation and drainage construction of regulators across the Upputeru channel from the lake to the sea was submitted to the government. However, orders from the government allotting the funds are still awaited.

Says Vittal Rao, honorary chairperson of KLDC, "Unless funds are released, we can't take any development work in that area." Rao also said the conflicting interests of various governmental departments is grievously affecting the ecosystem of the lake. Departments like roads and buildings, irrigation, drainage, fisheries, forest and agriculture are acting independently and in isolation, which is counterproductive.

"Unless all the departments in the Kolleru lake area are brought under an umbrella, it is not possible to achieve any fruitful results," says Rao. When told KLDC had become a non-functional authority, Rao shot back, saying there were no funds allotted by the government for the last five years for any development activity in Kolleru. "What am I to do?" was his response.

The KLDC's scientific laboratory is a classic case of falling victim to government tardiness. It has equipment worth Rs 3 lakh gathering dust for want of staff. The administrative officer, A Satyanarayana Rao, admits that the equipment purchased is of no use. He complains, "I cannot review anything in the field as I have inadequate technical and executive staff. Even all the committee members have not been appointed. We have written to the government to wind up the office if matters don't improve". Today, the KLDC staff has just one thing to do -- remove weeds from the lake.

However, the KLDC has also been accused of encroaching upon the lake with impunity, in connivance with local politicians. In a December 1992 report prepared by the AP shore development authority, it was alleged the KLDC usurped 200 acres of government land in the lake area and converted them into fish tanks. Some people even allege the KLDC chairperson himself is guilty of encroachment.

While the talk of Kolleru conservation is an ongoing debate, there is no movement worth its name by the locals, who are all in a game of exploitation of the lake's resources.

"Look at the way the land owners have turned every bit of land into fish tanks. They have dug up the whole place, which has resulted in the water level coming down and the water channels being blocked," said Anjaneyaly. "I remember as a child my people were content with the daily catch sold locally. Today, though we earn a great deal, as a kilogram of fish fetches us between Rs 8 and Rs 15, we are still unhappy."

I Sarveswar Rao, a member of the World Wide Fund for Nature conservation corps -- probably the only agency working on environmental awareness programmes in the region -- says, "Even though I get encouraging responses from the children and the youth, at times one feels that it (the lake) is breathing its last."

Ironically, while the politicians and landowners pass the buck, they share their concerns in private. The lake stoically suffers the ignominy being meted out by society. Worse is the fact that such exploitation is being carried out in the guise of development.
Depleting water level With water channels being blocked by indiscriminate digging up of fish ponds bordering the lake, the water level is depleting by the day. The need of the hour is to implement the master plan forthwith, otherwise the lake might turn into a marsh.

To check the rampant encroachment and evict illegal encroachers, an committee headed by the principal secretary to the Andhra Pradesh government was set up. But the fishing and other Kolleru communities are obviously in no mood to let go of a valuable economic resource -- a veritable goose that lays golden eggs.

Exhorts Acharyalu, "Can you, in any democratic set-up, take away forcibly from the people something that you (the government) had given in the first place?" With the government up against a fiercely united community, the task is that much more difficult.

So, are the officials on a futile course? Acharyalu thinks so. He suggests that instead of a general drive, what is required is a swift surgical operation in which only certain tanks and bunds are broken down to allow water to drain without obstruction.

The state government has also proposed to amend the existing Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act to bring the area around Kolleru lake under its jurisdiction.

With the government of Andhra Pradesh looking the other way and the ministry of environment and forests sleeping over the master plan, there seems to be no hope for Kolleru. The situation appears grim, with no effort whatsoever to save the dying lake.
-- with inputs by Rustam Vania.

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