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CONSERVATION

Nilgiris: An action plan to save the hills

DHARMALINGAM VENUGOPAL

Development plans in mountainous areas should take into consideration local needs and ecology.



Chaotic urban growth: An aerial view of Ooty town. Photo: R.A. Das

WHY and how should hill stations/areas like the Nilgiris be developed and for whom? These seemingly rhetorical, but vital and relevant, questions came up for lively deliberations at a recent seminar on "Planning for Development with Conservation in Hill Stations/Areas: A Case Study of Nilgiris" sponsored by the Union Planning Commission and organised by Save Nilgiris Campaign (SNC) at Udhagamandalam. The seminar conveyed a simple message — Mountain areas are different from the plains and, therefore, deserve to be treated differently; otherwise disaster, which will affect the plains also, is bound to follow.

Tara Murali, architect and activist, set the ball rolling. "Planning for whom and for what?" she asked. Unfortunately, she lamented, the economically weak, the illiterate and the socially marginalised groups are rarely heard amid the louder and more powerful lobbies. Add insensitive planning and ignorant planners and their case is lost even before the plans are drawn.

Inclusive planning

Agreeing partly with this, Dr. Jakka Parthasarathy, Director, Tribal Research Centre, Udhagamandalam, said that while tribals in the Nilgiris had access to modern housing, education and loans from banks, they still faced problems like land alienation, indebtedness, deprivation of rights over forest produce, and lack of basic amenities like drinking water, electricity and health facilities.

Suggesting "sustainable livelihood" for inclusive planning, M.K. Prasad, Co-ordinator of Environment Centre, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), said this concept is an advance from "sustainable development". Dr. D. Jayalakshmi, Professor of Sociology, Madras University, called for a community-based tribal development plans with due regard for their cultural and social needs. "Any plan for development should also encompass gender concerns," she added.

Pratim Roy, of the NGO Keystone Foundation, narrated how they started with gathering honey and moved on to a wide range of activities — micro enterprise, village resource centres, resource monitoring and a product line with village-level value addition. "Having these systems in place at the village level not only adds to income and facilities and builds self reliance in the community over time but also creates a team of tribal youth whose capacity and skills get built over time to prioritise, design and deliver projects related to conservation, enterprise and livelihoods'.

In the last few decades, both governments and people have seen hill stations as resources to be exploited. Unless their value as reservoirs of irreplaceable bio-diversity is understood and steps are taken to protect this natural heritage, development is only likely to cause degradation in the long run, averred Tara Murali.

Link with plains

Besides being a watershed, a hill area impacts a much larger area in the plains below. "Hill areas, catchment areas, water storage and retention areas and the watershed areas of plains associated with hill stations all need to be viewed as one contiguous feature for holistic planning," she argued. It is, therefore, necessary to identify the extent of the area impacted by the hills, and plans for hill stations must be drawn up keeping in mind this interconnectedness.

Sociologist Siddhartha Krishnan, however, called for a speedy solution to the long-pending Janmam land/forests disputes in the Gudalur area keeping in mind the aspirations of the encroachers/farmers involved and the concerns of conservation. S. Kondas, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, stated that a special technique has been developed since early 1980s to resuscitate degraded sholas and called for massive efforts by governmental and non-governmental agencies to regenerate these unique forests.

"The real problem in the Nilgiris lies in 40 per cent of the area, of which 90 per cent is occupied by the tea industry, now in deep crisis," said Krishnan. Nilgiris is home to some 65,000 small tea growers. Moreover, almost all belong to the Badaga community, which is the single largest indigenous group in the district. While M. Bojarajan, President, Nilgiri District Small Tea Growers Association, pleaded for promotion of their tea in the domestic market as a way out of the crisis, R.D. Nazeem, Executive Director of Tea Board underscored the need to first upgrade the quality of tea processed in the Nilgiris. Organic tea and herbal tea hold vast scope for value addition in the district, said D. Hegde, a corporate planter.

Looming crisis

Dr. Madhu of Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute (CSWCRTI) warned that another crisis was looming in the tea industry. According to him, while tea is a far better soil binder on the hills compared to vegetables like potato, tea gardens in the district are prone to frequent landslides because of the lack of proper drainage. On the overall issue of increasing incidence of landslides in the district, C. Thanavelu of the Geological Survey of India suggested that Natural Hazard Evaluation should be made a continuous process.

Urban uses take up only about 10 per cent of the area in the Nilgiris but their chaotic growth in recent decades has given the whole district an impression of a moribund hill station.

"The existing pattern of development shows there is a lack of spatial planning and good governance in the district," said Dr. Abdul Razak, Professor, Department of Planning, School of Architecture and Planning, Anna University.

Inadequate infrastructure, proliferation of slums, inappropriate tourist infrastructure, lack of liquid and solid waste management systems, lack of coordination and conflicting interest of government agencies plague the district even after 140 years of administration. A zero-tolerance approach to untreated waste and non-biodegradable materials will ensure the protection of fragile ecosystems like the Nilgiris, added Tara Murali. Most speakers cited the recent successful ban on harmful plastic bags in the district.

Tourism

Stating that a district so dependent on tourism does not have any idea about how to promote it, Dr. Razak called for a Tourism Development Plan so that the tourism potential of the district can be tapped profitably in consonance with the needs of the environment.

Said Tara Murali, "The day tourist is often a person seeking amusement and who contributes little to the local economy... . he is also a major polluter because of the number of buses and other motorised vehicles that come up the hills. Tourism facilities available in hill areas must be restricted to those conforming to eco-tourism and for the discerning eco-tourist."

Dr. Sathyanarayanan of the Anthropological Survey of India, however, cautioned that eco-tourism could not succeed without local participation. Citing the exploitation of the Todas in the name of cultural tourism, he said, "Great interference and cultural injury have been caused to their privacy." Giving examples from the Periyar Tiger Reserve (Kerala) and the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary (Kerala/Tamil Nadu), he suggested that prevailing practices of eco-tourism can be restructured with local inputs so that participation of the respective communities with due benefits can be ensured.

The author is the Co-ordinator of Save Nilgiris Campaign.

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