In two days of rain, the Nilgiris, the hill district of Tamil Nadu, experienced more than 100 landslips and 43 rain-related deaths — more than half the death toll taken in the State by the North-East monsoon. Houses and communication infrastructure came down, and roads and rail lines fell apart. The extent of damage caused to infrastructure is without precedent. True, the Nilgiris got more than its share of the rain: Ketti, for instance, received 82 cm in 24 hours, a record. However, this does not wholly explain the scale of the damage. While torrential rain was the trigger for the two-day havoc, the Nilgiris was laid low by the cumulative effect of years of deforestation and stone quarrying. Plantations and seasonal crops have replaced forests, resulting in loosening of the soil and increased risk of landslides. Urbanisation and mindless promotion of tourism have injured the fragile ecology of the hills. In Udhagamandalam, the headquarters of the district, conservation efforts have failed in the face of the push towards rapid development. A principal villain is the cartel created for illegal stone quarrying, which has enjoyed support from influential officials of the revenue, transport, and geology and mines departments. Just a few days ago, the CB CID (Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department) of the State Police informed the Madras High Court that there were “glaring lapses” on the part of government officials, but that the investigating agency did not have evidence to inculpate them in a criminal case. The CB CID called for departmental action against more than 30 such officials in the district. All quarrying licences expired by 2003, but quarrying was done in some areas by those who earlier held a licence and, in other areas, by those who had never had a licence. The hills are being chipped or blasted away, with nothing to stop the depredations.
It is well established that hill areas are more susceptible to rain ravage than the plains and require extra protection. Although planning rules take into consideration the special nature of the hills, implementation is weak. Population pressures have resulted in houses being built on steep slopes, and large-scale agriculture being taken up in forest areas. The Nilgiris hill district is therefore highly vulnerable during the monsoon. Some of the damage to the eco-system is irreversible, and no matter what action is taken, landslides will be impossible to prevent. But alternative accommodation for people living in inhospitable slopes can at least ensure there is no loss of life during the next monsoon. Strict implementation of existing rules and an end to all quarrying must be the first steps in making the hills a safe place.