When tourists go berserk
The onslaught begins in early March and MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA details this year's damage.
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRRARY
One of the more pristine spots...
EVERY summer, the residents of hill stations hold their collective breath wondering what new horrors the tourist season will bring. In the Nilgiris, the onslaught begins in early March as hordes of invaders arrive horns blaring, transistors belting out pop music, feeding or frightening the animals in a world famous wildlife sanctuary, disregarding or ignorant of the rules of driving in the hills. Worst of all, buses and cars pull up by the side of the road to picnic, leaving behind mountains of garbage, desecrating the pristine forests and mountain sides.
Since the advent of a bright young lady Collector a few years ago, the Nilgiris embarked on a "No plastics" drive banning the use of the omnipresent plastic carry bags. No one took it very seriously at first, then a few big shops, indeed some of the biggest names in Ooty, were fined heavily. Word spread and left the town in shock. Overnight, plastic bags ceased to be on offer because both the customer, and the shop keeper, were fined. Many indignant customers led the vigilance officers straight to the errant trader who had got them in the soup. Initially, the drive had traders up in arms, but gradually the entire district came to see how much better the streets and countryside looked without mountains of plastic.
Simultaneously, the Collector launched an education campaign explaining to school children, youth, traders' organisations, Rotary and Lions clubs and as many other groups as possible, the rationale behind banning of plastics why plastics were bad for us and harmful for our environment.
The vigour for the anti plastic drive has been watered down with the departure of the collector who was almost obsessive about the campaign. Plastic bags have begun to creep out of their hiding places gradually. Yet most Nilgiris residents love their habitat and are proud of it. Most people are disgusted at the mess the tourists leave behind. They mutter angrily when the buses depart leaving plastic and shiny aluminium foil disposable plates or mounds of unsightly banana leaves and food wrappers, Coke, Pepsi, beer, whisky, brandy and Bisleri bottles. This scenario is repeated month after month, year after year, reaching crisis proportions during the "tourist season" from April to May.
Just as the authorities gear up to deal with the rush of tourist traffic every year, an army of volunteers should be formed to police the environment. To prevent the disgusting despoilment of our beautiful hillsides. Colleges and schools in Ooty can take the lead if the Collector initiates such a move. Most of the young people are on holiday and care enough to protect their district if they are given help and guidance from the district authorities. Ooty has many distinguished retired people who could give direction to the students and encourage and inspire them. There are environmental organisations which could spearhead the move. "Save the Nilgiris" Campaign, the Nilgiris Wildlife and Environment Association, the Tamil Nadu Green Movement and the Keystone Foundation are some of the leading groups that could help in the planning and guiding of such a volunteer force.
In addition to forming vigilance squads, we need large hoardings at all the entrances to the district, stating that littering is a punishable offence which will be fined. The fine should be stiff, possibly around Rs. 1,000. Small amounts do not deter the rich and the arrogant who are the worst offenders. These hoardings have to be placed at the Bangalore-Mudumalai checkpost, the Coimbatore-Coonoor gateway and the Kozhikode and Nilambur entry points to the Nilgiris. Additionally, huge boards should be placed at strategic points all over the district. The signs should be unambiguous and to the point. "Carry your garbage home or to the next bin. Or else pay Rs.1,000 fine". Subtlety does not impress our young hooligan brigade of tourists and politeness certainly doesn't pay with the riff-raff.
... and growing chaos in the heart of Ooty town.
The Froghill and Viewpoint spots were beautiful till the tourists took over. Recently a group of Rishi Valley school children cleaned up the place. They did it automatically without being asked to, because their school in Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh, instills in its students a love for nature. Seeing such a beautiful spot desecrated by garbage and plastic upset the children so much they just got on with the task of cleaning up. The same spirit should be inculcated in children all over the country, and particularly in hill stations.
All the major tourist viewpoints in Ooty and Coonoor need to be policed environmentally. Additionally, it would be a good source of revenue for the district, which could then be used for buying garbage bins. In the interim, leading Ooty companies could be persuaded to provide the towns with big and attractive bins. The previous collector managed to get many companies to provide cloth bags for free distribution. If the campaign is to begin, it must be done immediately. The season has started early this summer.
This year, forest fires raged in an unprecedented manner beginning as early as January. Every day a different hillside was set aflame. It seemed that the entire district was burning. Residents reported that in many cases they were started by callous, drunken tourists, swaggering young men in cars who carelessly tossed cigarette butts into the dry forest and scrub bushes. There is no estimate of the serious loss of property to locals, the anguish, fear and tension as people watched helplessly while the flames soared, threatening lives and causing irreparable damage. Terrified animals rushed blindly down the hills to escape. No one counts the loss of innumerable animals and their young trapped in the fire, of small wildlife, precious flora and fauna, endangered species which are often hidden from view.
In early March this year, I watched an uncontrollable fire which threatened to engulf our house. High in the sky, a pair of eagles soared above the flames sending out cries of distress. The female kept darting into the inferno, its despair obvious. We realised the eyrie was burning and probably the eaglets in danger. The frantic mother continued its frenzied shrieking, attempting to dive suicidally into the fire. Its efforts were of no avail. No one could save anything from the flames.
There was little anyone could do but watch. The Gudalur Fire Brigade arrived but they had no hoses long enough, no water or firefighting equipment, no means of doing anything to help. Unless we equip the Forest Department and the fire brigade every year, similar losses of irreplaceable animal and plant life will continue unabated. This week's newspapers reported that helicopters are being engaged to fight terrorists, to hunt down naxalites. But forests obviously are not deemed worthy of similarly expensive sorties. There are no budgets available for ensuring the earth's well-being.
Unless we, the people of the Nilgiris, of Tamil Nadu, protect our environment no one will. Praying to the gods for rain is fine. But the solutions are in our hands. The Nilgiris is the source of most of our southern rivers. Of the water which our farmers and people so desperately need. If we neglect and abuse our environment, not all the prayers in the world will help. Can the Nilgiris District administration organise its youth, its environmentalists and school children to protect their homeland? No one else will.
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