Chennai, with its wooded forests, shrublands and water bodies, is a bird-friendly city. I should feel lucky that I live here. There is a wide variety of birds to spot. Our residential bird count is impressive. A large number of migratory visitors show up every winter. Their songs fill the air during early mornings and late evenings.
Falcons and pelicans soar – like winged ballerinas – across the graying blue skies. While the sparrows may have been chased away, crows, parakeets, owls, treepies, woodpeckers, and orioles remain our next-door neighbors. For over 100 years, naturalists have been recording bird behavior and writing in local newspapers about it.
Unfortunately, my city hasn’t been friendly to birds in a long time.
Pallikaranai, a residential locality, is privy to one of the three surviving wetland ecosystems in the State of Tamil Nadu. Only a few remain in southern India. It is a hot-spot for many species of birds – familiar, rare and endangered. Thousands visit these wetlands from all over the world. During winter, it has been known to have a higher bird count than the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary (which recorded the lowest bird count ever in 2015).
Shockingly, Chennai Corporation has been dumping and incinerating garbage here for years. It comprised nearly 12.000-acres of marshes and forests in the 1960s. Today, it stands – shrunk to approximately 1,400 acres, around 150 acres of which is filled with toxic filth. It has turned into a hostile territory for any living creature. Even the people working in garbage disposal units.
Some birds look to nest in and around the area. But I don’t think they feel welcome at all.
The authorities are still figuring out a waste management system that doesn’t harm the ecosystem. Meanwhile, we have figured out how to order food without talking to anyone or leaving the couch. And how to turn bloggers into writers through digital publishing platforms.
Over 3 years, I have been going to the Pallikarnai wetlands to photograph birds. I feel like a gutless bystander privy to a heinous crime; infuriated at myself and everyone else.
I remember, growing up in Chennai during the 80s, how I was in awe of development. It seemed like an attempt to improve the quality of living and ensure better security measures. Lately, the onus seems to be on saving time and effort for doing the simplest of things. Talking to each other. Traveling. Taking care of the bare necessities. Creating art.
We just don’t want to leave our houses. And when inside, we spend all the time we have to find out how we can save a little more time. A cyclical framework of sloth, greed, and gluttony.
Clearly, our focus is on the availability of white-collar jobs. High-speed Internet. Luxury retail outlets. Closeted communities. Even if it means that we the heart of the city – its natural ecosystem – starts to burn and fade away.
Last year, during the Chennai flood crisis, we were rudely awakened. We realized that we have been spoilt brats for ages. But I doubt if anyone had learned any valuable lesson from it. So complacent we are about our priorities as caretakers of this city and this dirty blue planet. Heartily, we encourage and allow cruelty under the guise of development.
I wonder if we will ever find the civility and sovereignty to hold ourselves accountable on a daily basis. It may help us contribute in little yet meaningful ways. Or at least, support those who raise their voices with persistence and passion.
It’s not as though we are merely turning a blind eye to issues that desperately need our support. We can live with that. Because who are we kidding? We are a flawed species. But we are actively contributing to many of the problems that have been affecting our feathered friends. Just like how ignorantia juris non excusat, the ignorance of our own actions is no excuse either.
Under the influence
of her iridescent plumage,
drunk on her songs
and tattooed over her fears,
two pairs of lips whispering,
“I sort of like you but
I like myself much more, my dear”.
(Photographs – Pallikarnai. Shollinganallur)