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A lake sustains local residents during lockdowns


Agaramthen lake illustrates how a waterbody can be a blessing to the local community; and the time to protect it from possible future ills is now

D Gopal and M Hari are with a network company: flinging and stringing wires in the heights is in a day’s work for them. Residents of Agaramthen, their after-work routine has a parallel to it — they work with wires of another kind which they fling the other way, down to the depths. The crepuscular hour is not too distant, and these youngsters are trying their luck for the last time for the day at the Agaramthen lake, with fishing nets. From the enthusiasm with which they discuss the nuances of fishing in the freshwater lake, they seem to be looking forward to these outings.

Against a dimming sky, the silhouettes of these two young residents — accompanied by a junior from the village, B Akash, pursuing higher secondary education — are a defining image of the pandemic, particularly its crushing lockdowns. Darwin Annadurai of Eco Society India, an environment-related voluntary organisation carrying out eco-restoration work at the lake notes: “During the lockdown, when jobs dried up for the residents, they got by on the catch from the lake.”

A cowherd grazing his cattle on the eastern bund of the Agaramthen lake, on January 5, 2022. Photo: Prince Frederick

A cowherd grazing his cattle on the eastern bund of the Agaramthen lake, on January 5, 2022. Photo: Prince Frederick
 

Gopal and Gopi discuss the fish in the lake. They look for rohu (one of the carp varieties) and veeral meen (snakehead murrel), particularly the latter for the good price they fetch them from fish retailers. Of course, there is the resilient jelebi (tilapia) which also turn up often in the nets.

Gopal observes that the fish are caught essentially for the market, and sometimes, they do take some home for their table. From Darwin’s interactions with the residents, during the lockdowns though, this pattern was reversed on most days.

While the picture is largely sunny, an alien species does cast a shadow over it. The young part-time fishers are aware of the problem: The invasive African catfish (Clarias gariepinus), an introduced species that is have started owning the lake, as it has many other waterbodies in other parts of the country, to the detriment of the native species.

“They eat the young of the rohu, so that we mostly do not get to have grown fish,” remarks Gopi. The youngster volunteers additional insight, one that illustrates how informed the millennials are: “with videos about this fish on YouTube, people know how harmful they are to the other fish. Only older people buy it.”

A lake sustains local residents during lockdowns

The presence of the catfish goes largely unknown except when the water levels dip, which would be in February — however, they would be doing the damage hidden from view.

“Getting rid of them is a tricky issue. Assuming we do, catfish will find its way back during the rains — the natural flow of water is from the west to the east, and the fish may get reintroduced from other waterbodies to the west,” says Darwin. And the fact that the catfish has an external respiratory organ does not help matters.

Besides its fish life that sustains the local residents, the lake offers a plethora of medicinal herbs.

“While carrying out tree plantation and lake-bund strengthening work — with official permission — we simultaneously documented 125 plant species, which include rare endemic species.”

A research study on the plant diversity around Agaramthen lake by Abdul Kader S, Darwin A, Devarajan PT, Santhanapandi P and Wasim Akram SA lists these uncommon species, among others: Madras hemp (Crotalaria albida); golden eye grass (Curculigo Orchioides); black ebony (Diospyros ferra); spurge (Euphorbia corrigioloides) ; indigofera (Indigofera aspalathoides); pambura (Pamburus missionis); Sauropus bacciformis and sida schimperiana.

“Residents regularly harvest the medicinal plants to deal with common ailments,” Darwin points out. “South of the lake, there is a sacred grove tropical dry evergreen forest. As part of an ancient tradition, sacred groves command reverence and therefore the plants and trees in the area are left alone.”

The picture seems free of wrinkles — at least, to all appearances. There are the low-slung hills further south and south-west — much like a toddler struggling to his feet and never quite making it. Not just the southern side, but the western side is also enchantingly stark, seemingly unsullied by human activity. On the eastern side, the bund is long, and marked by pastoral scenes. There is some habitation towards the north, and .

To the south, their is a presence — not ‘alive’ now, but still serving as yet another grim reminder of how the buffer zones around lakes are taken for granted. It mars what seems largely an idyllic picture: the vestiges of a dumping ground which was closed following protests by the villages.

Darwin says: “There was a dumping ground on the southern end of the lake — it was called the Vengadamangalam solid waste dumping ground. It was operated by the government until one and half years ago, and the Tambaram and Sembakkam and Pallavaram municipalities would bring the solid waste to this dump yard. It is closed now because the villagers opposed it, when the incinerators were not being operated well. The incinerator performs well only when source segregation happens properly. When wet and dry waste are mixed together, the moisture content of the solid waste increases and the incinerator collapses when the waste burns at higher temperatures. Many people were affected by the burning of the garbage. Many complaints went up and we also complained to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.”

He continues: “Fish grow well when there is a good amount of benthic invertebrate population, which include worms, larvae of insects and many other invertebrates. When the fish feed on benthic organisms, they flourish. When the sediments contain toxic components or when they are polluted, benthic organisms perish. Earlier, during the rainy season, rainwater would trickle down the landfill, creating leachate which would move downwards, contaminating the lake. We complained about this to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the collector and the revenue department officials. And it is closed now. Due to the garbage, the sediment was polluted three years ago. This year we did not see much pollution. The lake is now recovering; but it has to be protected.”

It is among the rarer lakes one might encounter: Not too removed from suburbia, but still serves as a showpiece of how a waterbody can be a blessing to the local community. Visible and hidden stressors should be removed so that it can continue in this role forever.



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