Tension is simmering over a proposed elephant corridor in the Ooty foothills. While conservationists say this is essential to restore the man-nature balance, farmers and property owners are questioning the State government’s decision to acquire 7,000 acres of fertile land for it.
The whole area from the Bandipur reserve forest in Karnataka, adjoining the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary of Tamil Nadu and the foothills of Ooty, was once untouched “tusker territory”, say wildlife activists.
Humans have now intruded into the wilderness and encroached upon the Unesco-recognised Nilgiri biosphere reserve comprising more than 5,000 sq km in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, they say.
Of the around 2,000 elephants in the southern peninsula, half are in the three contiguous, ecologically sensitive sanctuaries.
An Australian outfit called Rain Forest is spearheading a movement to persuade official agencies to review decisions to locate developmental projects in the threatened elephant habitat.
While officials deny that land acquisition for the elephant corridor has already been initiated, residents say under the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest Act, 1947, proceedings have begun in Masinagudi, Mavanallah, Bokkapuram, Vazhaithottam, Anaikatty and Sigur.
This village, which is to be part of the corridor, is around 28 km from the hill resort of Ooty.
Agriculturists say the land in question is being used for cultivation by more than 18,000 farmers. D. Prasad Reddy of the Nilgiris Farmers Association said this was gross injustice to farmers.
Farmers, traders, residents and resort owners under the banner of the Farmers and Landowners Association have been demonstrating regularly. A shutdown was observed by the transporters and merchants of the area, while property owners displayed black badges in protest in early February to oppose the new elephant corridor.
A farmer said their main occupation had been agriculture for more than 500 years and now “more than 2,000 families would be displaced”.
Another farmer in the area said, “The more than 10,000 Sri Lankan refugees have not been touched by the Tamil Nadu government’s move to provide the elephant corridor.”
Narsimhan, president of the Masinagudi Circle Farmers’ Association, apprehended that locals would be forcibly evicted from their land and in return would receive peanuts as compensation.
Locals also allege that the Madras High Court order of November 6, asking the forest department to provide detailed maps demarcating elephant corridors in the Nilgiris for conservation, was being used by the authorities to secure village land to attract foreign funds for conservation projects.
Villagers say the movement and the actual number of elephants in the area should have been properly studied and satellite imagery scientifically analysed before starting the acquisition proceedings.
Villagers of Vazhaithottam, translated as “banana fields,” say the area was never part of the corridor.
A property owner in a village in the Masinagudi panchayat said on condition of anonymity: “We are wondering if the authorities are planning to create a new elephant sanctuary in place of a corridor, which is normally defined as a narrow passage.
“The land belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, even if it falls on the corridor route, will not be touched. Also, one fails to comprehend the logic of official agencies in blaming ‘outsiders’ for purchasing land here. Under the constitution of India, any citizen can own property anywhere without the tag of an outsider.”
State government officials after a recent public hearing at Masinagudi said public opinion was being ascertained and views of the various interest groups were being collected as per the orders of the high court.
Anand Rao Patil, the Nilgiri district collector, has said the opinions of affected parties would be conveyed to the government. More than 150 petitions have been submitted.