Last remaining patches face threat 

A landscape in the Nilgiris runs the risk of being overrun by encroachers

Published - May 26, 2022 09:33 pm IST

Ecologically sensitive: The upper slopes have been declared as forest areas within major tea estates. 

Ecologically sensitive: The upper slopes have been declared as forest areas within major tea estates.  | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Once a pristine rainforest and one of the most bio-diverse regions in the Nilgiris, the Gudalur-Pandalur landscape has become a proverbial minefield for wildlife, attempting to cling on to the last remaining patches of the degraded rainforest. It is now surrounded by vast landscapes occupied over the last century by settlers who have converted the rainforests and grasslands into tea estates and farms. Among these fragmented bio-diverse landscapes is the O’Valley region that, owing to the “undecided” nature of the land’s status, is at risk of becoming overrun by “encroachers and trespassers”.

O’Valley, once known as Ouchterlony Valley, after James Ouchterlony who established tea estates in the region 150 years ago, is home to old-growth native forests. The native forests, “if left for re-wilding, will allow for the once evergreen rainforest canopy to return,” says Godwin Vasanth Bosco, a restoration ecologist. The ecologically sensitive region connects the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve to the grasslands of the Mukurthi National Park and the New Amarambalam reserve forest in Kerala through patches of rainforests.

While the upper slopes of O’Valley have been declared as forest areas within major tea estates under Section 53 of the Janmam Estates Act, a majority of the land has been brought under Section 17 (lease) of the Act. The Director of Survey and Settlements is empowered to either extend or terminate the leases of people occupying the land under Section 17, and it is lack of action on this decision that has enabled encroachments to increase the region, argue activists.

Activists state that the highly confusing and disputed status of the land is encouraging trespassers from nearby areas, including former tea estate workers and from Kerala, to settle in these land. “After the recent local bodies elections, there is a surge in illegal constructions, an expansion of farming and more encroachments, with the Department of Revenue and the district administration doing very little to stop these encroachments from increasing,” alleged an activist.

“Most of the O’Valley area has already been settled in favour of the Department of Forest and notified as forest areas. Most of these areas are in one of the major tea estates. Some portions of the land are yet to settled in favour of any party, while the forest settlement officer is yet to declare land under the control of the Department of Forest as reserve forests,” says A. Meenakshi Sundaram, a retired tahsildar from the Nilgiris and a resident of Gudalur.

It is estimated there are 15,000-20,000 residents in O’Valley, primarily tea estate workers and farmers, and entry to the region is regulated by a checkpoint. A Supreme Court direction had allowed work on creation of basic amenities for tribal hamlets. However, it has been alleged that settlements that have come up recently also have basic amenities in violation of the court order.

Tarsh Thekaekara, founder, Shola Trust, says the issue was “quite complex” as O’Valley was one of the first areas in Gudalur that was settled and tea plantations were set up. “It is home to two large herds of elephants comprising more than 10 individuals, while recently, Nilgiri tahrs have also begun expanding into the area,” says Mr. Thekaekara. He adds that settling the claims of residents and ratifying the status of the land could help in protecting the area from further encroachments.

Sobha Madhan, an Adivasi rights activist from Gudalur, feels the area should be notified as a reserve forest and the rights of Adivasi-dwellers should be recognised. “Most of the Sri Lankan repatriates were brought in as labourers by the large estates, and continue to live a life of poverty. Meanwhile, more recent settlers, mostly from Kerala, as well as the large estates, protect themselves from eviction by claiming to represent the interests of these labourers, while exploiting them as a political tool,” alleges Ms. Madhan.

According to her, the poor and deserving families living in the region need to be identified and rehabilitated closer to major townships and their livelihoods assured away from the forests.

Another activist working in the region argues the ecology of the O’Valley region can only be protected when the legitimate concerns of Sri Lankan repatriates and the poor people are addressed. “The government needs to identify the really poor people who need housing and livelihood opportunities. The issue is not purely ecological, but also socio-economic. Not all people living on Section 17 land can be termed encroachers and denied basic facilities. Moreover, most workers were brought to work on these tea estates by the government, which has a duty to rehabilitate the workers, most of whom are Sri Lankan repatriates,” says the activist. He adds the janmam settlement officer must expedite the processing of the claims of those having a legitimate claim to the land, so that more recent encroachers can be evicted.

Nilgiris Collector S.P. Amrith acknowledges the spurt in construction activity in O’Valley. “There is a checkpoint leading to the area, which we have made into an integrated checkpoint where officials of the Revenue, Town Panchayat and Forest Departments and police personnel have been stationed. We are trying to stop construction materials going through the checkpoint, but often times, when this action is taken, law and order issues arise,” he says, pointing to retaliation by local residents.

According to him, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin and Forest Minister K. Ramachandran had a detailed discussion on Section 17 land. “It is expected the government will take it up and we will have a meeting chaired by either the Chief Secretary or the Forest Secretary to come up with solutions to the issue,” says Mr. Amrith.

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