In the heart of the misty Meghamalai wildlife sanctuary, nestling in the Western Ghats in Theni district, a crisis is brewing. It’s the classic man versus wild conflict, but it is subtle and requires some effort to comprehend. In the eyes of the State, which once invited them in, they are ‘encroachers’, but some of the villagers claim they were born in the forest, and it is their natural habitat.
Take, for instance, Arasaradi, about 10 km from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department’s checkpoint on the way to Vellimalai range in the sanctuary. This village is among several that have been marked as ‘encroachments’ by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. Arasaradi does not have electricity but has access to water from the Vaigai river, fertile soil, solar power and semi-pucca houses.
Ensconced in the forest
Villagers who took to cultivating a variety of cash crops inside the forest for their livelihood say that they have divided poromboke land among themselves, each getting close to five acres. The villagers have access to a ration shop where provisions arrive twice a month. Young children study at the government school which teaches students till class 5. For everything else, including medical emergencies and higher education, everyone must travel at least 20 km to see the first signs of urbanisation.
T. Chappanimuthu, a resident of Arasaradi for 57 years, says that the constant supply of water helps him cultivate silk cotton, cashew, cardamom and beans through the year. “I can cultivate four times a year and usually receive ₹2 lakh in advance annually in order to provide silk cotton to manufacturers outside the reserve forest in Theni. Each household earns ₹4 lakh to ₹5 lakh each year and this is convenient for our simple life,” he says. Mr. Chappanimuthu attributes this ability to grow crops only to the availability of perennial water, courtesy the Vaigai river. The water is naturally sweet and always chill, he says with pride.
However, downstream and metres away from the reserve forest area, the river bed is completely dry and paints a sorry picture.
According to the Forest Department, the total area of the Meghamalai forests in Theni district is 62,677 hectares, of which 26,910 hectares were notified and declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 2009. “Of the area declared as a sanctuary, roughly 4,000 hectares are encroached upon,” says Meghamalai Wildlife Warden S. Kalanithi.
The extent of encroachment could be much more, he says, and estimates that there could be 200-odd villages such as Arasaradi inside the forests.
Activists say there has been tree felling, hunting of wild animals and even a road, laid recently, for a few kilometres in the sanctuary’s core. Forest officials say most farmers encroaching upon forest land use sprinklers to grow crops and this consumes more water than systems like drip irrigation.
“Animal movement is restricted inside the forest due to the presence of villages and there is a rise in the number of cattle. Forest fires are also man-made,” says a conservationist. The encroachers also cut indigenous trees and plant cash crops, which end up destroying the landscape and draw more water than others, he notes.
Plight of a river
Conservationists like T.S. Raja say that over-exploitation and encroachment has led to the slow death of the Vaigai. With the source of the river completely encroached upon in Varusanadu by villagers and over-usage by estate owners, the river has lost most of its glory and barely flows for three or four months.
Another activist adds that the presence of estates inside the reserve forest causes a shrinking of the shola grasslands, instrumental in the creation of the river. “The grasslands act as a sponge and collect rainwater. This rainwater is then released in the form of streams in the sholas. The natural streams come together in the form of a waterfall, and eventually trickle down to create a river.”
“The best way to rejuvenate the river is to ensure that the encroachments are removed. The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, calls for the protection of the landscape at all costs,” says Mr. Raja. Removal of encroachments will, however, be a far more complicated process, he adds.
On October 29, 2018, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court dismissed a slew of writ petitions filed in 2010, challenging the notification of Meghamalai as a reserve forest, thus paving the way for the Forest Department to evict encroachers who have resided in the forest for decades. Only 19 tribal families have the right of way in the forest, the court declared.
The first settlers (apart from the indigenous tribal people) of Meghamalai were in fact invited by the Forest Department for the cultivation of Ailanthus excelsa, a large deciduous tree which is used for production of matchsticks, and silk cotton trees through Meghamalai and its adjoining ranges in the late 1960s.
The Forest Department introduced these two varieties to supply matchbox and cotton industries as there was no regulation regarding tree felling then. With the introduction of the Forest Conservation Act in 1980, the department stopped such cultivation and barred future production.
“My family came here and I was born inside the forest. Bommarasapuram and Arasaradi were the first settlements inside the forest and we would go around cultivating the trees that the department asked our forefathers to. In 1973, the Central government stopped providing funds to the Forest Department for cultivation and we had no other income. We hence began farming,” says P. Prabakaran, a resident of Bommarasapuram, another village inside the reserve forest.
Through this period, the residents of the villages began shaping their lives inside the reserve forests. While many worked at nearby estates, others took up cultivation. Representatives of the district administration have visited the spots to understand the woes of the public there – no electricity, gas connections or health care. However, there are ration shops, solar lights and small schools inside the forest.
Mr. Prabakaran says that his people cannot be faulted for thinking that they will never have to leave. “The administration promised us many things but we are suddenly a hindrance,” he says.
“The population of the first settlers grew and the encroachers began occupying peripheral territory as the years passed. With strict restrictions, most villagers still do not have access to roads, toilets and drainage systems,” says Mr. Kalanithi. The students must travel to place like Andipatti and Theni to continue their education beyond Class V, explaining the few graduates in these villages, he adds.
Mr. Prabakaran and his neighbours C. Chelladurai, P. Poorni and his wife P. Uma sit on a thinnai to discuss their future. They insist that they understand the environmental impact and say that they are open to the idea of moving out of the reserve forest if they are compensated adequately. The villagers of Arasaradi and Bommarasapuram agree that they will require two acres of land, a house, ₹50 lakh and proper access to educational institutions.
Many are unsure of their future and have expressed doubts regarding adequate compensation by the State government. To make their case public and garner attention, the villagers from Meghamalai went in the thousands to the District Collectorate on January 7 to submit a petition seeking residency inside the reserve forest.
Theni District Collector M. Pallavi Baldev says that she has visited Arasaradi, Bommarasapuram, Indira Nagar, and some other villages inside the Meghamalai reserve forest to understand the pulse of the people. During her interaction, she says that she came to understand their apprehensions, but is confident of providing an amicable solution to all concerned.
“We cannot let the people down as they have been residents there for many years and the public needs to be guided. We are willing to ensure that a transparent consultative process exists between the State government, the district administration, the Forest Department and the people who live inside the forest. We are discussing alternatives for the dwellers,” Ms. Baldev says, adding that the administration will soon submit a status report to the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court as the court has given the administration and the Forest Department time till January 21.
Apart from alternative solutions for the public, financial institutions like National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) have sanctioned a three-year project worth ₹15.9 crore for the rejuvenation of the Vaigai across Theni and Madurai districts. A total of ₹1.6 crore has been allocated for the Meghamalai unit for the year 2016-2017 for digging trenches, creation of check dams and construction of percolation ponds to improve groundwater and prevent soil erosion. Work is under way and more funds are expected soon, says Mr. Kalanithi.
Tiger reserve plan
In order to further the process of conservation, the Forest Department has submitted a proposal to the Central government to notify the Meghamalai sanctuary and the Srivilliputhur Grizzled Squirrel Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve.
Mr. Kalanithi says that a detailed project report has been submitted to begin the protection of tigers which often meander into Meghamalai from the adjoining Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady. With the notification, there will be a well-protected tiger corridor, he adds.
With about 65,000 hectares of Meghamalai and about 40,000 hectares of the Srivilliputhur sanctuary, the new tiger reserve could eventually lead to the creation of a corridor linking Periyar and Kalakkadu Mundanthurai tiger reserves, activists say.
“The proposed tiger reserve will be divided into core and buffer areas. No private parties will be allowed to reside or cultivate inside the core area and the top carnivore will receive full protection status,” the wildlife warden says.
Security will be beefed up and there will be a higher flow of resources, particularly funds from the National Tiger Conservation Authority which manages Project Tiger. It will incentivise relocation for residents, and without cultivation in the estates, the source of the Vaigai too can be safeguarded, he notes.
Mr. Kalanithi says the tiger reserve can provide employment opportunities to the tribals as they can become anti-poaching watchers.
Tourism can be enhanced in fringe areas or buffer areas through nature trails, short treks and eco-shops. From the revenue generated, the reserve will be self-sustaining, he says. “A proposal has been sent to the Central government and a response regarding the notification is expected shortly,” he explains. Conservationist Raja feels that the number of offences will reduce as well.
Despite the abundance of promised opportunities outside, Mr. Chappanimuthu from Arasaradi says that the forest will always be his truehome.
“The call of the birds and the sight of elephants make me elated each day. If we can work for the betterment of the forest without compromising the availability of basic necessities, it is okay to move out and help in creating change,” he concludes reluctantly.