Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the Western Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas, the Khasi and Garo Hills and the Lushai and Patkai ranges of India’s Northeast are all in the throes of a similar problem-an ever-burgeoning population and development at the cost of nature. Larger and larger projects, often taken up in the face of qualified advice and considered opinion by way of studies and assessments, are rapidly tilting the scales away from balanced progress towards development at all costs.
In peninsular India, the issue of man versus nature in the name of infrastructure and economic growth has been a long-standing one.
The ecologically fragile Western Ghats and the ranges that flow from them, the Annamalais and the Nilgiris in particular, echo issues from the northern highlands, and yet have a distinctive set of problems that demand their own solutions.
One of the richest and most bio-diverse areas of southern India are the Nilgiris, or the Blue Mountains. Opened to the world by the British, they are worth a closer look by themselves.
In 1819, when John Sullivan, the district collector of Coimbatore, trekked up the Nilgiri mountains to verify claims of a land in the clouds that had the cool bracing climate of his native England among the searing heat of the tropics, little would he have known the change that would descend on the Blue Mountains. The hills reminded the British of the fragrance of their islands far away across the seas and they began settling as retirees or to open commercial ventures like tea and coffee plantations.
Ooty, the district headquarters of the Nilgiris, was the summer capital of the erstwhile Madras government and the entire administrative machinery moved there from April to June to escape the scorching heat of the coastal capital city. These hills contain some of the highest peaks south of the Himalayas, two national parks teeming with wildlife, Mudumalai and Mukurthi, and two major tributaries of the Cauvery, the largest river in southern India, the Bhavani and the Moyar. The Nilgiris is the catchment area for six districts of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
Man has harvested nature’s bounty in the Blue Mountains for the past 200 years. How much longer can it be expected to last?
The face of the Nilgiris started changing in the late 18th century with tea cultivation followed by swathes of eucalyptus, pine and acacia plantations for paper and cheap firewood. The upper reaches of the Nilgiris comprise vast tracts of low montane grasslands interspersed with jungles called sholas. The British wrongly thought that these grasslands could be used more productively and they therefore became a prime target for these exotic species of vegetation.
In fact, these grasslands, along with the swamps and marshes dotting the hills, act like giant sponges — absorbing all the rain during the monsoons and slowly releasing the water in the dry season. Conversion of these lands resulted in run-off of monsoon water to the plains and the water flow of the Moyar and Bhavani rivers turned erratic. Further, the grasslands have also become home to invasive species like gorse and scotch broom, brought to the Nilgiris as ornamental plants.
Why dams are a bad idea?
Since Independence, a series of dams built across the Nilgiris as part of a hydroelectric project also changed their face. They altered the course of rivers and streams and affected the vegetation across the area. The Moyar had a perennial fall, which roared incessantly throughout the year in the 1960s, which is now a trickle for much of the year. Most of the lands submerged by the Upper Bhavani, Avalanche, Emerald and Pykara dams were grasslands and swamps.
The meteorological trend in the Nilgiris now is prolonged dry spells followed by short bursts of intense rainfall, creating flash floods and run-off.
The hydroelectric projects admittedly contribute 585 megawatts of electricity, a sizeable chunk of the state’s production. In the pipeline is another hydroelectric venture, the Sillahalla Pumped Hydro-electric Project that will house four power plants with a combined capacity of 1,000 MW and cost `50 billion. If implemented, the project will reportedly submerge another 750 hectares, of which approximately 450 hectares are classified as reserve forests, and displace 10,000 people. Environmental activists and locals are already up in arms, pointing out the lapses in the environmental clearances as it falls in an area declared landslide-prone and is proximate to the ecologically fragile Mukurthi National Park.
However, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (Tangedco) officials have said the impact on flora and fauna following submergence of forest area will be assessed and it will take management measures as a part of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study. They also point out that the technology used will be pumped storage, which is comparatively more environment-friendly. The project, as of date, has not received approval.
A bigger hit on the Nilgiris, which no one predicted, was the fallout of the Bandaranaike-Shastri and the Bandaranaike-Gandhi pacts.
Fifty-seven years ago, in 1964, Prime Ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri signed an agreement enjoining on India to repatriate almost four lakh Tamils, descendants of indentured labour who had been taken by the British to work on the tea plantations of Sri Lanka, and were living as stateless citizens, back to India. It was a one-sided agreement signed without the consent of the main stakeholders-the affected people. The then government converted the redundant cinchona plantations in the Nilgiris and the Valparai area into tea plantations in order to give them employment and the first impact was the loss of the corridors for migrating elephants, leading to a severe man-elephant conflict. The rest, given employment in the plains, were uncomfortable in alien conditions and also made a beeline to the familiar surrounds of the hills.
Since Independence, a series of dams built across the Nilgiris as a part of a hydroelectric project also changed their face.
Most of the repartees were Dalits and found it difficult to integrate into local society. The settlers illegally staked claim to vacant government lands and unplanned shanties sprang up overnight. The government in Madras turned a blind eye to what was happening in the southern highlands. These settlements, constructed in an unplanned manner, burgeoned into townships and the nearby jungle disappeared under demand for firewood and farmland. Streams were polluted and river margins disappeared. Now a majority vote bank in the Nilgiris, residents of these shanties have been allotted door numbers and pattas.
The Bandaranaike-Gandhi agreement of June 28, 1974, a follow-up to the pact between the Sri Lanka premier and Shastri, thereafter added another 150,000 to the number, bringing the total to almost six lakh repatriations.
Following a downturn in the tea industry and uncertainties in vegetable farming, the principal businesses in the Nilgiris other than tourism, the small farmer has looked at other avenues for revenue. Selling or leasing of land for more profitable commercial ventures, like residential plots, is becoming more common. Over the years, developers have converted these parcels of land into villas and holiday homes.
What was left ignored was the fact that large buildings in the hills can only be built by significant site cutting, which leads to severe soil disturbances and landslides in the long run.
Homestays are mushrooming at an alarming rate. Most of them operate out of residential buildings and are unlicensed. The regulations regarding their operation are vague in Tamil Nadu and require clarity. Many residential homes are being used as homestays in this fashion, adding pressure to civic infrastructure and logistics, much of which are in the form of imports from the plains.
Western Ghats versus Himalayas
The difference between the Himalayan mountains and those along the Western Ghats are significant. The hills of North India are young and still growing. They are fed by melting glaciers and are, by their very nature, unstable. Prone to landslides, these hills are extremely fragile.
The hills of the Western Ghats are much older. There is an underlying structure of granite, which, if disturbed, shatters and causes a myriad of problems. The soil is shallow and with the destruction of forests, it has rapidly become bare, leaving naked rock on the surface. Borewells that also shatter the granite under-layer have now been banned in the Nilgiris in a bid to reduce landslips and overall erosion.
Restore river margins, now
Residents of the Nilgiris can feel a gradual shift in weather and rainfall patterns. The meteorological trend now is prolonged dry spells followed by short bursts of intense rainfall, creating flash floods and run-off. In August 2018 the Avalanche (Avalanchi) region of the Nilgiris received 2,305 mm of rainfall in three days, which is normally a month’s rainfall, causing widespread landslides. In 2009, Ketti and its surrounding areas received 802 mm of rain in a single day, causing severe landslides and resulting in many of the roads being blocked for a few months, including the main ghat road from Mettupalayam, the nearest plains town.
As a first step to trying to restore some fort of balance, restoration of river margins along water bodies needs to be taken up by removing all encroachment. Rivers and streams never flow in a straight line. Even in an apparently straight river channel, water will twist and turn around stones and other obstacles. This will cause areas of faster and slower current and the river will gradually flow into a more winding course. Over time, these meanders will become more pronounced. This is nature’s way of controlling the speed of the water during floods and giving space on the banks for the water to spill over during heavy rain. Fifteen feet on either side of the banks of any water body is the river margin. These river margins are government land and have to be kept free of any construction.
The face of the Nilgiris started changing in the late 18th century with tea cultivation followed by swathes of eucalyptus, pine and acacia plantations for paper and cheap firewood.
Unfortunately, in the greed for land, streams have been straightened manually to grab a few extra yards, resulting in the streams and rivers being forced to flow in a straight line. A heavy downpour results in water rushing down in an uncontrolled flow and, lacking the space to spill over, overflowing into homes, causing destruction. The floods some years ago that devastated Srinagar, and the repeated flooding in cities like Chennai, Hyderabad and other metropolises are another example of this problem.
Reclamation and preservation of grasslands and marshes is another priority area. The Tamil Nadu Forest department has done good work in reclaiming the grasslands from exotic species planted by the British and other settlers. It is but a fraction of the work that needs to be done. Swamps and wetlands need to be strictly conserved. Buildings and dumping of waste in swamps should be prohibited by law. In August 2018, a burst of the southwest monsoon inundated the District Education Office.
The reason? The building was built in a swamp. Clean Coonoor, an initiative started by like-minded residents of Coonoor town, has done exemplary work in the restoration of a swamp in Yedapali, through cleaning and planting with native grasses. They have also cleaned one out of the three tributaries of the Coonoor river and in the process recovered a staggering twelve tonnes of soil and other solid waste.
Man-animal conflict in the Nilgiris
To accommodate the Sri Lankan repatriates as a result of the Bandaranaike-Shastri pact of 1964, the Tamil Nadu government converted 5,790 hectares of land to tea plantations in the Valparai area, cutting off important elephant migration routes connecting the forests of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and bringing them into direct conflict with humans.
During the dry season, the numerous swamps in the area were used as food and water sources by the elephant herds. In most cases, the swamps were drained to build labour quarters, as the land itself was unsuitable for tea and coffee. Further, food preferred by elephants, like vegetables and bananas, were planted by the incoming settlers, drawing elephants.
Many illegal resorts also started functioning on the fringes of the Mudumalai National Park, using existing residential houses. This led to further pressure on the land once available to wildlife.
In October 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the Tamil Nadu government’s authority to notify an ‘elephant corridor’ and protect the migratory path of the animals through the Nilgiri biosphere reserve. The judgment was based on appeals filed by resorts/private landowners, against a Madras High Court decision of July 2011. There are two sides of the story, some genuine, where tribal and genuine land holders have also been marked as encroachers while others were actual encroachers.
Another man-animal conflict in the making in the Nilgiris revolves around the Indian gaur (bison). The upper plateau of the Nilgiri hills was one of the roaming grounds of the gaur at the beginning of the 20th century. The great herds were decimated by attacks of rinderpest and foot and mouth disease contracted from the local cattle. It was common to see carcasses of gaur in the 1950s and ’60s.
Now, with the rinderpest virus eradicated and better control of foot and mouth disease, the giant bovine is making a comeback to reclaim its lost grazing grounds only to find them in the clutches of civilisation. It’s estimated that there has been an eight-fold increase in the gaur population in the last 20 years. On an average, the Nilgiris area reports three to five deaths due to gaur attacks annually.
Bear attacks are becoming more frequent in the dryer eastern slopes of the Nilgiris in the Coonoor, Kotagiri and Kundah regions.
Disposal of solid waste is another problem facing the district. Clean Coonoor has taken the initiative with an MoU with the Coonoor Municipality to manage the waste disposal problem facing the town. They spruced up an old waste yard at Ottupatarai and it now handles up to three tonnes of dry, non-degradable waste daily. The group has found ways to deal with the different kinds of waste. It is a model worth emulating in the balance of three municipalities and two townships in the Nilgiris. The present local government has taken a commendable step by banning single-use plastic in the Blue Mountains, an initiative launched some years ago that has met with great success.
On a broader scale, the recommendations of the Gadgil Report submitted by a panel led by eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil in 2011 should be implemented at the earliest. He called the Western Ghats the “Protector of Indian Peninsula” and rightly so. Continued violation of the natural balance can have devastating long-term effects, as the occasional local disasters have shown already.