Roy Mathew

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The land-use pattern of the ecologically fragile Ponmudi hills will be changing drastically in the coming years with the implementation of various projects there.

The Forest Department has decided to de-notify the planted areas of Mechiston estate, which it had taken over under the Kerala Forest (Vesting and Management of Ecologically Fragile Lands) Ordinance, 2001, paving the way for the establishment of the Indian Institute of Space Technology in the area.

The campus of the institute of Indian Institute of Technology standard, which is proposed to come up on 100 acres of the tea estate, will be a major project with residential facilities and a captive power plant. The Indian Space Research Organisation had entered into an understanding with the owners of the estate for transferring part of the estate area for the campus.

Though the Forest Department has concluded that the estate is not an adequately fragile area to justify its continued vesting in the Government, the project may still have to go through the environmental impact assessment process. A number of ecotourism and hotel projects proposed to be started on the hills, on the other hand, will not have to go through the environmental clearance process, as the altitude of the Ponmudi hills is less than 1,000 metres (provided that the investment is kept low). The Government is planning a major ecotourism project at the top station where the shola grasslands are receding on account human interference. A large fire had destroyed considerable extent of forests near the hill station last year.

The tea estates adjoining the forests are on the decline with reduced yields, lower prices and other problems. Cropping pattern in some of the adjoining tea estates have already changed with planting of areca and other crops in some areas.

The importance of the forests here is the altitudinal variation and consequent difference in the types of plants that grow there. The Kallar valley at the lowest region is below 300 metres from the mean sea level. The upper areas are contiguous with the forests of Agasthyakoodam. The Agasthyakoodam and its environs have been identified as a biodiversity hotspot. However, proposal for declaration of the Ponmudi forests as a protected area has been in cold storage since the 1980s.

Chief Conservator of Forests (Vigilance) V. Gopinath, who is in charge ecologically fragile lands vested with the Government, said that his department had erred in taking over planted areas of the Mechiston estate. This was being corrected by de-notifying the estate areas. The department retained about 24 hectares of forested areas adjoining the plantations at three locations. They were also contiguous with the reserve forests. The notification had covered nearly 269 hectares (including the planted areas).

He said that it was for the Land Board to look into changes in land-use pattern of the estates.