Special Correspondent

Conservator justifies higher rates in Karimala shops

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Why are prices higher in shops and eateries run by forest-dependent people along the Azhutha traditional trekking route than in those auctioned out along other routes to the Sabarimala temple?

There have been complaints about the difference in rates. For instance, lunch in an eatery atop the Karimala hills along the traditional route costs around Rs.5 more than that in a restaurant at Pampa or the Sannidhanam.

T.M. Manoharan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, said here on Sunday that using strong words such as ‘fleecing’ to describe this rate difference could do damage to an excellent arrangement the government had made along the traditional route to serve the pilgrims.

Keeping mainland traders away from this route and reserving it for forest-dependent local people were part of a conservation strategy that was bringing good results in the region.

Explaining why the rates were higher along the traditional route, he said that everything from rice and vegetables to poles and thatching material for setting up the shops had to be carried on head there. On the other routes, tractors and pack-donkeys were used.

The 250-odd shops along the traditional route are run by eco-development committees (EDCs), whose members are mostly local tribal people. Non-tribal people in the EDCs are poor people living on the fringes of the forests. The District Collector, Pathanamthitta, has approved the rates at these shops. The government has a mechanism to check that these shops do not charge more than the approved rates.

Mr. Manoharan said the regeneration of forests along the 22-km traditional route had been encouraging since the EDCs were given exclusive rights to run the shops there in 2001. They did not cut poles or collect firewood from the forests. They also removed garbage from the area daily. They did the watchman’s job against destructive activities in the forests.

The EDC-concept was to provide new means of livelihood to those who had been depending on forests to reduce the pressure on the forests. Even trackers who used to help poachers earlier had now become key players in conservation efforts through this highly successful and nationally recognised experiment in the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

No poaching has been reported from the West Division of the reserve (where the traditional route lies) since 2003.

There has been a substantial reduction in all criminal activities, including illicit brewing, in the forests of this region, Mr. Manoharan said.