An irresistible love for sylvan surroundings, and a calm and serene backdrop of sky scraping trees has nurtured an overwhelming ambition among all to own a piece of Kodaikanal, writes K. Raju

Land prices in the princess of hills has increased manifold in the last five years, thanks to an irresistible love for sylvan surroundings among affluent people, including politicians, bureaucrats and tinsel world personalities, a conducive climate, and a calm and serene backdrop of sky scraping trees. There is an overwhelming ambition to own a piece of Kodaikanal.

Heavy inflow of investments from very affluent sections of people across the country and abroad has not only scaled up prices of land but has also made it beyond the reach of local people and middle class families, mostly sons of the soil, living here for a very long time.

Prices of the land rose by 200 per cent in a three-km radius from the lake in the last five years. Cost of land within a five-km radius from the lake ranges between Rs.4 lakh and Rs.5 lakh per cent and in some areas it is even Rs.10 lakh per cent. Within 10-km radius, it is Rs.1.5 lakh to Rs.2.5 lakh. Cost of land at Shenbaganur is hovering between Rs.3 lakh and Rs 4 lakh per cent of land, according to T. P. Ravindran, a construction company owner in Kodaikanal.

In the last five years, mere announcement of development plans too has shot up the land prices even in farm-based villages of Upper Kodaikanal hill. Plans of bringing an IT park and a mini airport have catapulted land prices in Mannavanur. Price of land at the village is now hovering between Rs.8 lakh and Rs.10 lakh per acre which was between Rs.80, 000 to Rs.1 lakh per acre before the announcement, local people said.

Moreover, escalating construction costs too have hit construction business sharply. Middle class people postpone their dreams of owning a house. Construction costs are almost double in the hill station in recent times, when compared to the costs in plains. Cost of construction starts at Rs.2,000 or Rs.2,500 per square feet. (Starting price is Rs.1,100 or Rs.1.150 in Dindigul). If anyone wants more facilities and exquisite wood work, one has to shell out up to Rs.4,000 per square feet.

Large difference in construction cost is mainly due to freight charges. All construction materials, from sand to cement and paint to iron rods, have to be transported in trucks to the hills from plains. This makes the construction materials costlier. Cost of brick and sand is cent per cent more than the price prevailing in the plains. Cost of one brick is Rs.7 or Rs.8 on the basis of quality and one cubic foot of sand is Rs.35. Similarly, cost of iron rods and cement is costlier by 20 to 25 per cent. Above all, labour cost on the hill is 50 per cent higher than the cost prevailing in plains. These things almost double the construction cost.

The present situation in Kodaikanal town, most attractive tourist spot to people in and outside the country, is not only stunning. To everyone's surprise, the town has no private land for sale, say local realtors. With no land for sale, realtors move to nearby villages, as a result of which there is substantial shooting up of prices in the villages. Preference of outside people to have calm and serene atmosphere, which is now available at villages on Upper Kodaikanal, too revs up prices of land even in remote villages.

Haphazard expansion of town is a reason for the rise in land prices. On one side, Kodaikanal town limit has expanded to 10 kilometres up to Prakasapuram. But, on the other, it is restricted at a 2 km distance. Villpatti and Attuvampatti are massively developed areas that house Mother Teresa Women's University and several resorts and villas under village panchayat administration.

Expansion of the town to at least six to eight km radius is essential to provide better facilities to tourists and maintain its pristine beauty. But it is becoming a concrete jungle, thanks to unauthorised constructions, lament locals.

Even as the government sternly restricted construction of building up to first floor, one can see three or four storey buildings within town limits. Confusion over size of land and real owner for many areas are also still prevailing.

With no teeth for monitoring mechanism and less staff for monitoring, violations go unchecked and unabated, worry municipal officials. Local people insist that the monitoring mechanism should be geared up and more staff provided to check unauthorised constructions.

The master plan for Kodaikanal was approved in 1990s and no revision was made till date and this resulted in massive unauthorised constructions. It should have been revised once in five years. Wrong assessment of land and assuming equal rate for land on the road and on slopes puzzle buyers. This creates problems in fixing guideline value. Price of land on the road is Rs.10 lakh per cent and land on slopes of hills at the same spot is not worth Rs.3 lakh. But the buyer has to pay higher charges for buying cheap land. Such anomalies should be weeded out to stabilise prices of land, locals feel.

Another dangerous and disturbing factor is purchase of large tracts of agriculture lands by people living outside Kodaikanal. They buy large tracts of agriculture lands from farmers by paying the amount unexpected and unimaginable to them and leave it unutilised. If local people buy these lands, they use it for agriculture or lease them to farmers only. For example, a large tract of highly fertile and cultivable land bought by outsiders near the Government Higher Secondary School at Mannavanur is lying idle even today. But agricultural activities are in full swing in the lands adjacent to it. Such purchases hit agriculture development sharply. Many bulk purchase of land affects agriculture, say local people.

Despites these handicaps, socially conscious people work for protecting the beauty of Kodaikanal. The Planning Committee members of Kodaikanal Municipality suggest expansion of town to scale down congestion and prevent deterioration of pristine beauty of the town further.

Committee member Asha Ravindran insists that the municipality should make tree planting in approved plots mandatory. Growing 20 tree saplings and protecting them for six months in the residential plots by developers should be made mandatory for getting municipal approval.

Besides all odds and rampant violations, Kodaikanal hill is developing. Stagnation of reality business is temporary and will revive in future, hope realtors.