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A win for the green at Chilika


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Its a win for the environmental cause. It is also a slap in face for all those who promote mindless fancy projects in name of tourist promotions. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has been forced cancel the water aerodrome project at the Chilika lagoon following objections from various quarter. However in a face saver it has offered to develop the project in Odisha if the state government provides it with an alternative site. Chilika, the second largest brackish water lake in the world, covers Khurda, Puri and Ganjam districts of Odisha. Situated at the mouth of the Daya River, Chilika is rich in biodiversity and a major tourist attraction in the state.

A colony of flamingos at Chilika

AAI chairman Guruprasad Mohapatra said: “Following a request from the state government to cancel the project as it would affect Chilika’s ecology, we have cancelled the project.” Making it clear that the AAI wants development of the state, Mohapatra said: “If the state government gives any proposal to develop a water aerodrome in the state, we will provide them all help. However, they have to submit the proposal within three weeks.” In June, the AAI had announced to set up aerodrome projects in Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. Chilika in Odisha was the preferred site. The civil aviation ministry had given its nod to the Chilika proposal. The ministry also cleared Gujarat’s Sardar Sarovar Dam and Sabarmati River Front for similar projects in the first phase. But it is said that ministry didn’t consult all concerned stakeholders before giving the nod. If sources are to go by, the Ministry only took into consideration data and information related to tourism at Chilika but did not take on board the key stakeholder, Forest and Environment Department of the State. Although there has been claims by the the Civil Aviation Ministry about a joint team conducting a study, Chilika Development Authority (CDA) was apparently not consulted.

Fishermen in Chilika Lake in Odisha, India

In a letter to chief secretary A.P. Padhi, the AAI chairman had said: “The Airports Authority of India plans to set up water aerodromes. For starting amphibious aircraft operation in Odisha, Bhubaneswar airport and Chilika lake have been shortlisted for a pre-feasibility study. The government will identify the site in Chilika.” Odisha initially had not objected to the proposal. A team of experts from the Centre had visited the area and conducted a study. Subsequently, environmentalists and the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) raised objections. BJD leader from Chilika area and Brahmagiri MLA Sanjay Das Burma and Khurda MLA Rajendra Sahu had objected to the proposal. BJP had slammed BJD for opposing the Centre’s efforts to boost employment in the area. However, the saffron party’s own MLA Dilip Ray had supported the BJD.

Also read: Winter Play for migratory birds at Chilika

Everywhere around, you can find a colony of migratory birds at Chilika

In a letter to the state government, chief executive, CDA, Sushanta Nanda had said: “Operation of seaplane and water aerodrome at Chilika, the world’s second largest brackish water lake, is likely to cause irrevocable damage to the ecosystem and livelihood of people dependent on it. The cost involved in the operation of seaplane seems to outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from it. Besides, legally the project is not feasible.” The operation of the aerodrome at any given location in the lake will have far reaching adverse consequences on its fragile ecosystem, the CDA maintained. He had also said: “The legal provisions under Wetland Conservation and Management Rule, 2017, are applicable to the internationally acclaimed Chilika wetland site. The rules strictly prohibit its conversion for non-wetland use. Construction of aerodrome is therefore not legally permissible as Chilika is a wetland site.” Such an aerodrome would require water runway for landing and take-off while associated facilities would have to be developed for docking sea aeroplanes, taxiway, apron, tourists’ entry check-in, re-fuelling, beacon lighting, offices, staff buildings among many things.

An amphibious aircraft

“Chilika is ecologically too fragile and precious for such experiments. Besides direct risks that are associated with plying aircraft in an area known for its mass congregation of birds, fuel and lubricant spills, emissions, noise pollution etc, ancillary development that will precede and follow the setting up of an aerodrome will only negatively impact the lake’s ecology,” says conservationist Aditya Chandra Panda.

Nalabana bird sanctuary

The CDA maintained: “With one million birds congregating in the lake, the operation of seaplanes will be hazardous to winged species as they will either be sucked in the engines or be hit by the planes during its landing. The possibility of bird hit will also pose a threat to air travellers.” For six months between October and March, Chilika turns into a temporary habitat for lakhs of migratory and residential birds. The lake is home to 230 bird species, of which 97 are intercontinental migrants from Arctic and Eurasian regions. It saw congregation of close to 9 lakh birds during the last winter. For a majority of resident bird species, the 1100 sq km lagoon is a prime breeding site. It also holds a notified protected area, Nalabana Bird Sanctuary, which is spread over 15 sq km. The lake supports over 225 birds, 260 fish apart from 37 reptile and amphibian and 18 mammal species besides a large varieties of flora.

Rajahamsa island in Chilika lake

According to CDA, the birds are not only a major tourist attraction, but also help to recycle nutrients back into the ecosystem through “guano deposits”. Guano, the accumulated excrement of seabirds, is rich in nitrogen, phosphates and potassium- nutrients that spur the growth of vegetation. When birds forage the water, the vegetation in it thins and enables free movement of fish. If the bird population shrinks, livelihood of about two lakh fishermen dependent on Chilika is at risk, the report warns. Moreover, seaplanes have limited passenger carrying capacity which means that such a project may not add significantly to tourism. Besides, Chilika is extremely well-connected by road communication.

A sea gull playing around a Irrawaddy Dolphin in Chilika lake

The CDA had cited that noise from the flights would distract the Irrawady dolphins, an endangered species found in the lake, which have highly sensitive hearing. Noise pollution generated by close to 10,000 boats has already taken a toll on the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the lake. The amphibious aircraft operation would have add to the woes. As many as 155 endangered Irrawaddy dolphins were spotted in Chilika, which is the single largest habitat of this species in the world and is also one of two lagoons in the world that shelter them. After clearing the lake of illegal man-made enclosures, dolphins have now started moving freely in all sectors. Meanwhile, the Odisha government has decided to regulate boat operation in the lake following the death of six passengers in a recent boat tragedy. It has made life jackets mandatory for tourists and GPS on the boats.

A fisherman adjusting his net in Chilika lake

Have you ever been to Chilika lake? Do you think it needs a water aerodrome? Share your views in the comments section below.

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Winter play for migratory birds at Chilika

Chilika is one of the milestone places in India. It is the largest brackish water lagoon. Now what is brackish water? It is the water which is saline or salty but not as salty as the sea water. It happens when the fresh water mixes with sea water. There are 52 rivers and rivulets that fall in the lake. Secondly, Chilika is also a lagoon, and it is not just largest coastal lagoon in India, it is also second largest lagoon in the world. As if it was not enough, it is the largest wintering ground for migratory water-birds anywhere in the Indian sub-continent.

A early morning boating on a local boat in Chilika lake.
A early morning boating on a local boat in Chilika lake.

Chilika is spread in three districts of Odisha- Puri, Ganjam and Khurda. Puri side is mainly popular for Dolphin tours from Satpada. Satpada is around 50 kilometres from Puri. It is on northeast of Chilika lake. Tourists can book dolphin tours from Puri itself. Once you do that you can be transported from Puri to Satpada by bus or you can go to Satpada by any public or private transport and than take boats for a ride in Chilika. OTDC organises connected tours as well. Once you reach Satpada, you can go to jetty to take up boat.

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Tourists on Satpada jetty

Chilika lake also has biggest population of Irrawaddy Dolphins in world. Every year in February a census is done to determine the number of Dolphins in the area. In 1997 the process of counting started. Firstly it was a broad estimation than it was done systematically every year. The number has been increasing constantly and it is around 160 at this time. Environmentalists say that increase in number of dolphins is an indicator of improvement in the ecosystem and quality of water.

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A sea gull and a Irrawaddy dolphin

Boats from Satpada will normally take tourists to a island called Rajahamsa (राजहंस). Its while going to this island and coming back that we have chance to see the dolphins. This island is 18 kms from Satpada and it is actually located at the mouth of the Chilika lagoon. Rajahamsa is actually a narrow strip of land with one side towards lagoon and another towards Bay of Bengal.

Rajahamsa island
Rajahamsa island

Island has developed into a small business hub for various tourism related activities. Locals will even try to sell ‘original’ pearls extracting them from shells live.

A cruel way to get 'pearls'
A cruel way to get ‘pearls’

But this Satpada side of Chilika is known only for dolphins. Migratory birds often don’t come here.  Migratory birds are mostly located o other side of Chilika. Their base is at Nalaban island which is located in 15.5 sq km area. Nalaban is a sanctuary area. It is estimated that among the 9 lakh waterfowls coming to Chilika every year, almost half put base in this sanctuary area.  Birds also reach to areas like Mangalajodi and Bhusandpur.

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Tourists at Nalaban island and the watch tower on the back

Most of the migratory birds coming to Chilika make their winter homes at various islands in the lake. Besides Nalaban there are Krushnaprasad, Kalijai, Somolo, Honeymoon, Breakfast and Birds island. One can see  Dolphins in this area as well.

A pair of dolphins with fishermen boats in the background
A pair of dolphins with fishermen boats in the background

Most interesting part is that one has to go deep inside the lagoon through a boat to watch the migratory birds. There are country boats but they won’t take you much far so you need a mechanised boat. You need time to enjoy the birding at Chilika. Since islands are scattered in the lake, therefore it is not possible to see all of them in one go. One can watch birds on the way. But you need few days in hand to enjoy the birds and the beautiful ecosystem of Chilika.

Chilika lake was the first Indian wetland to be included in the Ramsar Convention in 1981. Later, due to poor conservation it was included in Montreux Record which is a list of threatened Ramsar sites, but in 2002 it was removed from the Montreux list after lake was rejuvenated and restored. Chilika is also known for its fish farming due to rich fish, shrimp resources.  Locals are lot dependent on fish produce from the  lake. It is estimated that around 1.5 lakh fisherfolk live around the lagoon.

A fisherman adjusting his net
A fisherman adjusting his net

How to reach: For watching Irrawaddy Dolphins, one has to go to Satpada, 50 kms from Puri and than take a boat ride from the jetty. For watching birds, there are three places to go inside the lagoon- Barkul, Balugaon and Rambha. All these three places are located between Bhubaneswar and Berhampur.  Hence these can be accessed by road and rail connectivity between Bhubaneswar and Berhampur. Balugaon and Rambha have railway stations on South East railway. Nearest airport is Bhubaneswar. Balugaon is 96 kms, Barkul is 105 kms and Rambha is 130 kms from Bhubaneswar.

Local people going places in Chilika
Local people going places in Chilika

Best time to visit is obviously November to February as for most of the birding sites in India. Barkul, Balugaon and Rambha have Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) guest houses for stay. Few other hotels have also come up in the area in recent years. At all these three places you can hire boats run by OTDC as well private operators. Private operators will always bargain.