Pulicat Lake

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Nellore, Tamil Nadu Wetland Ecosystem Conservation 45000 Protected Forest

Case Study (2009)


Pulicat Lake is a well-known lagoon close to Chennai and also a legally notified bird sanctuary. However, what is not so well known about this lake is the link of the livelihoods and traditions of the local people with the lagoon ecosystem, and people’s struggles consequent efforts to save their livelihoods, and thus the lagoon, from over-exploitation, pollution and developmental pressures. This case study is a small effort to bring out the aspirations and struggles of the local fisherfolk, which, if taken into account, could lead to long-term protection and conservation of the lake.

Pulicat is an extensive brackish-to-saline lagoon with marshes and a brackish swamp on the north. This is the second largest saltwater lagoon in India and a Ramsar site (internationally recognized wetland under the Ramsar Convention). Only 16 per cent of the lagoon is in Tamil Nadu ; the rest is in Andhra Pradesh. It is fed by the Araani River at the southern tip and the Kalangi River from the north west. Buckingham canal, a navigation channel, passes through the lagoon. On the eastern boundary of this lagoon is Shriharikota island, which separates the lagoon from Bay of Bengal. The lagoon is shallow with large areas of mudflats and sandflats. In general, the seawater enters the lagoon through the northern end near Shriharikota Island and flows back into the Bay of Bengal through the southern end. The salinity is greatly affected by rains. There is a sand-bar formation at the north end where the lagoon is separated from the sea, and this has to be removed manually if the rains do not wash it away. The closure the of sand bar (either due to lack of rain or massive sand deposition) leads to depletion of fish stock, as the lagoon acts as nursery for the hatchlings. The lagoon is a delicate system and requires constant inflow of seawater and gets adversely affected by sand deposition.

The Pulicat Lake is situated between 13°25’ and 13°55’ North, and 80°3’ and 80°19’ East. The lake is about 45 km north of Chennai and can be reached by bus from Chennai. Pulicat Lake has been a traditional fishing centre. This was a trading port for the Portugese and Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries. The process of soil erosion and siltation is believed to have started with the Dutch over-exploiting the mangroves for commerce and trade.

Legally, part of the lake was notified as Pulicat Bird Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu) on 22 September 1980, and was finally declared a Sanctuary on 30 May 1990. This sanctuary is controlled by the FD and managed by the DFO Nellore. There are patches within the lake where the ownership is not clear. Pulicat Lake is also a CRZ-I area under the Coastal Regulation Zone rules of the Environment Protection Act, 1980.

Pulicat Lake is located on the boundary of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This case study focuses on the efforts of local people in the 6000 ha on the Tamil Nadu side of the boundary.

The lagoon is known to support 160 species of fish, 25 species of polycheates, 12 species of penaeid prawns, 29 species of crabs and 19 species of molluscs.1 It is also known to support rich growth of algae (especially filamentous algae) and high populations of invertebrate fauna, including annelids, coelenterates, molluscs, crustaceans and echinoderms.2 Pulicat is an important habitat for a wide variety of resident and migratory waterfowl, notably pelicans, herons, storks, flamingoes, ducks, shorebirds, gulls, terns and many species of raptors. Pulicat is known to be the third most important wetland for migratory shorebirds along the eastern shore.

The total human population in Pulicat Lake is around 35,000, spread over 52 kuppams (settlements). Two-thirds of the settlements are on the Tamil Nadu side. The majority of fishermen belong to the traditional marine fishing caste called the pattanavars or pattanathirs (literally meaning ‘belonging to a city’). The others include dalits (scheduled castes) and tribals (irulas and yennadis) who have moved to fishing from agriculture. It is estimated that a total of about 12,370 fishermen live on full-time fishery in the lake (6000 in AP and 6370 in Tamil Nadu)

Paadu is a traditional system of fishing, where a part of the lagoon is controlled and earmarked for the exclusive fishing use of designated villages. This system is common to many coastal areas of Tamil Nadu.

The highly productive southern sector of Pulicat Lagoon, close to Ennore and about 5 km from the estuary (where the sea water and lagoon water meet), is controlled by fishermen from three villages: Kottai Kuppam, Christian Kuppam and Andikuppam. The fishing grounds fall within a radius of five kilometers from the mouth of the lake, with a salinity which is well maintained even during low tides. According to the traditional fishermen, this is a caste-specific system.

Among the traditional fisherfolk there are different classes and they are more or less designated as castes. The pattanavar (one who owns the village or who founded the village) is respected as the traditional leader and his family becomes the ruling caste. The fisherfolk of the pattanavar caste generally live at the southern end of the lake which does not usually dry up. Married men of the pattanavar caste (above 15 years of age) are eligible to be members of the talekattu, which is the village level organization of fishermen. The fisherman seeking membership should be skilled and acceptable to the village community. As a member of the talekattu, he has to participate in common tasks such as contributing towards litigation, temple repairs and festival expenses. This designated caste is supposed to protect the mouth of the lake since it is the best fishing ground .

There are three paadu systems in the lagoon:

• Vadakku Paadu: This is a canal-like area of about 1.25 sq km on the northern side. This is the most productive area and therefore the most intense fishing is done here.

• Moonthuri Paadu is about 2.5 sq km in area and is not as productive as Vadakku Paadu.

• Odai Paadu is the smallest and least productive paadu and has almost been abandoned.

Fisherfolk are strict about the kind of fishing equipment used. The boats usually used are ordinary country rafts called nattupadagu (literally, country boats) The length of this plank-built boat ranges from 6-8 metres, with a capacity of about two tonnes. A lot of fishing gears are used in Pulicat Lake. Researchers have listed nine types of fishing gear: cast nets, gill nets, drag nets, shoreseine, bag nets, stake nets, hook and line, vallikodi (lure fishing) and adappu (impoundment). The most effective of these nets are sutru valai and padi valai (both kind of fishing nets).

The operation is done at night during low tide when shrimps migrate to sea. The tadukku (an obstruction that functions as a barricade in the path of the mobile prawns and they consequently get caught in the sutru valai). The operations of sutru valai are done from shore to shore, virtually blocking the movement of prawn and thereby affecting the catch of downstream fishermen. The padi valai is essentially a drag net, almost in the shape of a shore-seine, mainly used for catching mullets and other species during neutral phases of the tide. The padi valai is a symbol of affluence and not owned by many and its operation requires about 30 people at a time. The padi valai is not used often as the fishing grounds have been altered by the 1984 cyclone.

Some of the rules and regulations followed include:

1. Each village carries out the fishing operations independently of the other.

2. The paadu system for the sutru valai operates on a lottery system for the eligible talekattu of the villages. Every paadu village knows the days designated for the village for fishing in the fishing ground. The talekattu meet on certain auspicious days to draw lots for allocation of fishing grounds. The most productive as well as the least productive villages are used and this gives equitable access to all fishermen.

3. Fishing is carried out three days before and three days after the full moon and new moon. This period has heightened tidal activity, which enables active movement of prawns.

4. This system excludes new fisherfolk, Yannadi and Irula tribals and Muslims from Jamilabad from fishing in these grounds.

5. Irulas and yannadis are allowed to use simple fishing gear to hunt crabs or manually hunt crabs but are strictly prohibited from using plank-boats or fishing nets.

It seems difficult to accurately assess the total production of fishes and shrimps available in Pulicat lake given the complexity of the system. One of the most serious threats to conservation of this lagoon, according to local experts such as Sanjeev Raj, seems to be overfishing. There has been a drastic dip in the income levels of the fishermen of Pulicat. This is attributed to high pollution levels in the lake. The outlet of coolant water from Ennore Thermal power plant at elevated temperatures has adversely affected aquatic life. The pollution caused by fly-ash from the Ennore plant has also had a big impact on the water quality and therefore on the biodiversity of Pulicat lake.

The pressures and conflicts within the lake have led to establishment of a fishermen’s union which is a union of 29 different fishermen’s societies from 20 different villages in Pulicat. This union has a major role to play in sorting out conflicts, reducing tension and mobilising people to act. Currently the paadu system is being extended to include the villages on the other side of the sand bar. The sand-bar formation at the mouth of the lake happens quite often and hampers the exchange of water between the sea and the lagoon. When the sand-bar formation is partial, then the rains either wash it away or it could be manually removed. The failure of monsoons in 2000 led to complete closure of the mouth of the lagoon and this led to rapid depletion of stock.

The exact details of the conflict resolution mechanisms were not available in the secondary literature. The relevance of the paadu system to the current situation of depleted fish stock also needs to be understood. There needs to be a better understanding of ‘overfishing’ in this context. There were conflicting opinions on this system, ranging from accusations of fishermen overfishing to pollution causing depletion of aquatic life and consequent loss of income. It is clear that the paadu system of ensuring equitable use of the lake is under threat from overpopulation, depleting stock and pollution caused by the thermal power plant. It is for this reason that we view the sustained struggle against pollution as an attempt to conserve biodiversity, though livelihood issues are also involved.

Conflicts due to displaced fishermen

Though the paadu system guarantees equitable access to the members of the pattanavar caste over the lagoon, access to outside fishermen is strictly restricted, which does lead to conflicts, which often turn violent. The settlements practicing paadu have experienced an influx of fishermen displaced because of the Shriharikota space station and the Kalpakkam atomic power plant. The Shriharikota Rocket Space Landing Station has been built on a small natural island in the midst of Pulicat, displacing three fishing villages. The project also involved building a road with a bridge right across the lagoon, which has had an impact on the ecosystem. The Kalpakkam atomic power plant (75 km south of Chennai) displaced two villages of marine fisherfolk, who have been then settled in Pulicat. In 1990, the Tamil Nadu government granted special fishing rights to the five newly settled villages, thereby leading to a conflict with the local fisherfolk.

Between 1985 and 2000, about twelve fisherfolk died in such conflicts. Since there was recurrent violence especially in fishing seasons (Oct-Dec), the paadu fisherfolk started calling for a ‘fisherfolk leaders’ council’ in Pulicat lagoon. The role of this council is to resolve conflicts and ease tensions. The council also ensures that the rule and regulations laid down by traditional leaders councils are followed while fishing.

According to Rajashekharan, leader of the Fishermen’s Union, because of the paadu system, conflicts are on the rise, and regulated fishing is under threat. The situation is further complicated by pollution, which is threatening the very survival of the lagoon and thus the fishing community.

The lagoon fisherfolk are divided over the paadu issue. About 70 percent of the fisherfolk benefit from this system and therefore support it, while those who do not are obviously against this system.

Struggle against pollution from thermal power project

North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) was set up by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). This plant is located within CRZ-I; however clearance for this was granted prior to 1991 when CRZ came into existence. This plant draws 44 lakh litres of freshwater from Ennore creek and releases hot coolant water into Buckingham canal and discharges about 3000 tonnes of toxic fly-ash in the form of slurry every day. The release out of hot coolant water at temperatures of about 40°C leads to oxygen depletion and death of aquatic life. The combination of coolant water and fly-ash has had a serious impact on the livelihood of people by depleting fish populations.

In order to tackle this problem, the people of Pulicat tried to have a dialogue with the state government, district collector, chief engineer NCTPS and others. As a result of these meetings, a fact-finding committee was set up to investigate the pollution caused by this plant. One of the basic questions that concerned the fisherfolk was whether they would be granted jobs if the pollution continued, resulting in loss of livelihood. Nothing concrete emerged from these meetings with the government and the pollution continued unabated. On 5 August 2000, fisherfolk from Pazhaverkadu met the Chief Engineer regarding the intake of coolant water from Pulicat lake and continued release of hot coolant water. The engineer claimed that the coolant water was being drawn from Ennore creek and not from the lagoon. In response the fishermen decided that they would block the inlet of coolant water to NCTPS. Besides there was a total strike from 6-11 August and no one did any fishing for the next 15 days. A breakthrough was achieved as a result of this agitation. The NCTPS devised a system of reusing the hot water that it releases, and it was no longer necessary to discharge hot water into the lagoon. It is not clear if this system is efficient for the NCTPS and whether this will continue.

Struggle against petrochemical park

Kattupalli island is a narrow longitudinal island separated from the mainland by the backwaters extending from the Pulicat lake. The island is bordered by the Bay of Bengal on the east, Buckingham canal on the west, Pulicat Lake on the north and Ennore creek on the south. The total area of this island is about 18 sq km, and it supports a human population of about 2250 families. The island has a rich biodiversity of vegetation, especially mangroves, freshwater and brackishwater flora and fauna, and medicinal plants. The Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO) had planned to establish a Rs 6000 crore petrochemical complex on this island with the idea that the Ennore port would be used for transporting the products. TIDCO went ahead with the acquisition of land of 2,900 ha even before the public hearing under Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) rules was held. The state government had directed the district collector to invoke Section 17(1) of the Land Acquisition Act, which is an emergency provision. They sought to acquire farmlands, wetlands, salt-pan areas, and private and peramboke (wasteland) land. The people of Kattupalli and Pulicat were vehemently opposed to this—they knew the impact that this project would have and therefore decided to oppose it. The local community approached Coastal Action network (CAN) for help in this matter. CAN is a state-level federation of people’s organizations, environmental organizations, activists, consumer action groups, advocates, etc. CAN filed a writ petition (WP 7613 of 2000) asking to quash the GOMS 85 dated 21/3/1997 issued by the Industries Department and for a direction not to set up the petrochemical park. On 3 May 2000 a public hearing was held at the Tiruvallur Collectorate. A large number of fishermen from Pulicat and Kattupalli participated and clearly expressed their opposition to this TIDCO project.


  This case study has been contributed by Shantha Bhushan of Kalpavriksh in 2002. It is based on a day-long field trip to Pulicat lake, Ennore Thermal Power Plant and Kattupalli island; detailed conversations with the union leader of the Fishermen’s Union and a secondary literature review.  

Shantha Bhushan
Apt. No. 5, Shri Dutta Krupa,
908, Deccan Gymkhana
Pune 411016, Maharashtra
Ph: 020-25654239
E-mail: [email protected]

Joint Secretary Pulicat Coastal Fishermen’s Association
Kottaikuppam, Pulicat Post, Ponneri Taluk
Nellore District, Tamil Nadu - 601205

1 D. Panini, ‘Addressing livelihood issues in conservation-oriented projects: Case study of Pulicat Lake’ in R. Jeffrey and B.Vira, (eds), Conflict and Cooperation in Participatory Natural Resource Management (London and New York, Palgrave, 2001).

2 World Wide Fund for Nature, Directory of Wetlands of India (Delhi, WWF, 1996).

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

Recent Updates

Threat to Pulicat lake’s existence

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