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A million mangroves in Pulicat

Project Alaiyathi - A Million Mangroves Initiative is an attempt to improve the fragile ecosystem of Pulicat by planting mangrove saplings.

Advitya Thapa still remembers the mudskippers, an amphibious fish, he encountered when he visited Pulicat as a child. “They would be all over the place,” says Advitya, who has worked in the development sector for close to 15 years. However, when he visited more recently, he could not spot a single one, he says. “Their population seems to have diminished.”

But it is not just the loss of animals like the mudskippers that are a cause for concern in water bodies like Pulicat Lake, Buckingham Canal and the Kosasthalaiyar River in Tamil Nadu. His recent documentary, Solastalgia, which captures the fragility and beauty of these fast-disappearing estuarine ecosystems, stresses that it is not just the natural world but the livelihoods of the people who live and work here that are now in danger.

In the film, aerial shots of the lagoon are interspersed with close-ups of fauna, boats, tawny beaches, and ash-peppered plants, and punctuated with interviews from local inhabitants, telling the story of a diverse, complex ecosystem being eroded. “I have been visiting Pulicat since 1993 and have really seen that place change,” says Advitya, whose father had a friend who ran a crab and prawn farm there. His visits to the area, back then, had shaped him considerably. “That is where I had my first interaction with the Irula people,” he says, recalling days spent outdoors birdwatching and camping. “It was our getaway from Chennai,” says Advitya , adding that he wanted to give back to this place.

So, he spent 22 days paddle-boarding on these water bodies, travelling all the way from Venadu Island to Ennore, to document how the wetland had changed due to the unhindered industrial development in the area. “I drew the narrative for the film while paddle boarding,” says Advitya, who noticed that while the landscape was stunning in many parts, it got increasingly worse the closer he got to his end destination. “By the time I got there, my nostrils were burning.”

Advitya went on to make and direct the film, raising funds by crowdfunding from friends and family. Once it came out, in July 2022, he decided he wanted to do something more for the place. “The only thing I knew how to do was some sort of development project.”

That was the genesis ofProject Alaiyathi - A Million Mangroves Initiative, spearheaded by Advitya, Vijay Senthil Kumar and Meerasa Silar Sahib. “I picked on the idea of mangroves, and that was when I came across Meerasa and his work,” says Advitya, who then reached out to Meerasa. He also discovered that the local Panchayat was doing some work around mangroves, he recalls. “All of it aligned, and we came together.”

Meerasa, who was born and grew up around Pulicat, has been involved in protecting the mangroves of this region for over two decades now. According to him, the Pulicat Lake, the second-largest brackish water lake in India, was once synonymous with mangroves. “The ancient name of Pulicat was Pazhaverkadu, meaning forest of the fruit with roots,” he says. Once, the entire area was covered by mangroves, but over time Pulicat lost many of its coastal forests. “Many of these mangrove fields have been destroyed by human activity,” he says, pointing out that these forests were crucial for local fisherfolk since they provided a breeding ground for mud crabs and tiger prawns. “They need this to generate an income.”

By August 2022, Advitya had raised some initial funds — he prefers not to disclose the amount — enough to kick-start the project. “We chose a certain portion of land and removed the Prosopis juliflora (an invasive weed) there,” recalls Thapa. They began planting mangroves there, building a fence to stave off grazing cattle, and placing an Irula family to look after the place. “We planted around 15,000 mangroves covering an area of around 20 acres,” he says, adding that they also planted around 10,000 more saplings along the Buckingham Canal and on the opposite bank of the Buckingham Canal, altogether covering an area of around 230 acres. “We would like to plant at least a million mangroves,” says Advitya. “And once that is done, keep going.”

Published in The Hindu, August 03, 2023

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