The recent conflict between the owners of a homestay and a male elephant in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, that led to the death of the elephant, has again brought into focus the tussle over land that is being earmarked for elephant movement in the area. The dispute, which has gone through years of litigation in the courts, got intense after the area to be acquired for the corridor was expanded, displacing those whose lives and livelihoods depended on the lands that were being earmarked for the animals.
With Nilgiris, the triangular mountain block, forming the link between the Western and the Eastern Ghats, the elephant migration corridors become ecologically very important. The corridor links different habitats and is thus critical for maintaining a viable elephant population in the region.
In her late sixties, Valliyamma Murugan, who lives close to the ancient Mariamman Temple at Bokkapuram forest village near Masinagudi in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, has reasons to believe that her gods have stopped smiling. A widow hailing from the backward Adi Dravidar community, she lives along with her 15-year-old granddaughter (the only surviving close relative) in a small hut located inside two acres and 16 cents (2.16 acres) farmland legally bought by her late husband 45 years ago, after verifying all the revenue and ownership documents.
Valliyamma, who ekes out a living by planting vegetables, paddy, sugarcane, watermelon, and millets on her land and one-acre additional leased government land, is now facing a peculiar problem. Revenue and forest authorities have found her hut and the agricultural land as encroachments in the proposed Sigur Elephant Corridor, the lone connection link between Western and Eastern Ghats’ forests. For more than a year, Valliyamma’s hut has been marked illegal, and a board carrying the word ‘sealed’ is hanging on the walls.
“In the last 45 years, I lived here in perfect harmony with the forests and never engaged in forest resource plundering. At this old age, I feel it would be very difficult to migrate to the world outside along with my granddaughter,” she said, while struggling to contain her emotions. “I will resist any attempt to evict me in the name of conservation. Conservation involves the rest of the forest-dwelling local community and me,” said Valliyamma.
A little away at Kurumba Padi, 76-year-old Betta Kurumba tribe Soma Bomman too faces the same predicament. A traditional forest dweller, his small house has been marked as illegal.
Now, a pall of gloom has descended all over Masinagudi. Along with it, surrounding villages like Moyar, Singara, Chemmanatham, Bokkapuram, Mavinhall, Kovilpatti, and Thottilikki are also facing a massive eviction to facilitate the gigantic elephant corridor.
A path for the keystone species
Once executed, the corridor will connect Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wayanad, Mudumalai, Nilgiri North, B.R. Hills, and Sathyamangalam forest areas spread in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. After implementation, it would be beneficial to over 6,300 elephants and several other wild animals, including Asian king vultures, white striped hyenas, tigers, blackbucks, and four-horned antelopes.
While conservation activists claim that the corridor would bring about enormous benefits to wildlife in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, the local community alleges that over 12,000 people and 25,000 livestock would be badly affected if the corridor plan is implemented in haste without addressing their survival questions. At least 200 families of farmers and 700 families of Dalit and tribal communities would have to relocate to areas with no livelihood options, they say.
“The Supreme Court has directed the district authorities to spare tribals and other traditional forest dwellers while implementing the elephant corridor project. But even my representation to the district collector failed to bring about any relief,” said Soma Bomman.
However, conservation activists disagree saying that, “The apex court verdict, if implemented, will help augment conservation in the entire Western Ghats region by acting tough against illegal constructions, encroachments, and other disturbances. As far as jumbos of eastern and western ghats are concerned, they will get a free walk in their traditional migration path,” argues K. Mohanraj, a Coimbatore-based environmentalist actively involved in conservation activities in Nilgiris.
“In its order, the court has termed elephants as a keystone species of the forest ecosystem and termed them as India’s national heritage animal. In the Masinagudi-Sigur area, the forests have faced large-fragmentation over the years due to unscrupulous encroachment and other developmental activities. As a result of the fragmentation, the elephants are frequently entering human-dominated areas and cause man-animal conflict. Cattle grazing, tourism resorts, electric fences, agricultural lands, and vehicular traffic during night hours are posing a threat to the elephants, which are in the habit of migrating across 350-500 sq km annually,” said S. Jayachandran of the Tamil Nadu Green Movement.
On another corner of Bokkapuram lies Jungle Retreat, a homestay facility spread over 32 acres but sealed last year as part of the efforts to remove human presence in the elephant corridor. 49-year-old Rohan Mathais and his tribal employee, 23-year-old Shankar Mathod, are the only people there. They say that the facility was developed in original patta land (land with title deeds) without causing any disturbance to nature.
“When I came here, it was a barren land used by the local Badaga community members for cattle grazing. The whole area lacked any character of forests, and overgrazing by cattle had emerged as a big threat to the green patches in Masinagudi and Sigur,” recalls Mathais.
According to him, he used hardly two percent of the total 32 acres as a built-up area while leaving the rest of the land to develop an eco-friendly atmosphere by planting forest trees and bamboo. He had employed 95 local tribal people, who earlier engaged in poaching and hunting, at the homestay facility with diverse roles ranging from guides to caretakers. One was 28-year-old tribal youth Rajesh Kariyan, an avid bird watcher and trekking and safari organiser. Last year, he became jobless, as in the case of many others.
“Now I am waging a losing battle for this sealed facility, which never caused any harm to wildlife. I had made only eco-friendly constructions purely based on approved plans. Despite my purchasing of original patta land in 1996, I am now being termed as an encroacher. I am a bird watcher and an avid animal lover. I never promoted any anti-environmental activities,” said Mathias.
It is over four months since the Supreme Court of India upheld an earlier directive of the Madras High Court to remove all human encroachments in the Sigur elephant corridor area.
As a result, 39 resorts of the Masinagudi region face closure while uncertainty looms large over the Irula, Kurumba, Mullu Kurumba, and Then (honey) Kurumba tribals of the area and several Adi Dravidars and those who migrated from Karnataka.
Though a three-member committee has been constituted as per orders of the Supreme Court to hear the individual level grievances of those affected by the order and to decide on the extent of compensation to be provided, tribes and the local community have approached the court saying that they lack confidence in two of the committee members, who earlier were part of the conservation NGOs which wanted an exclusive elephant territory free from any human presence. The locals allege that these experts had forced authorities to abandon the idea of co-existence.
According to M. Narasimman, a 68-year-old vice-president of Tamil Nadu Vivasayikal Nala Sanghom, an agrarian body, the local community would not vacate the area where they lived in perfect harmony with wildlife for several generations.
Citing growing instances of extreme human-animal conflicts in the Thadagam region of Coimbatore and Kolappally near Gudalur, Narasimman, whose family moved to Masinagudi from Melkottai in Karnataka when he was two years old, said Masinagudi-Sigur-Moyar regions of Nilgiris lack any major human-animal conflict for the last several years despite human presence.
While most of the resorts and homestays in Masinagudi, in the northern slopes of the Nilgiris famous for Ooty hill station, have been sealed for over a year now, it’s estimated that 309 buildings are needed to be demolished for the corridor shortly. Besides, several houses and other constructions would be razed.
The corridor expanded over the years
Though known environmentalist E.R.C. Davidar mooted a free corridor for elephants between Eastern and the Western Ghats in 1972, the fresh bout of efforts began in 2004 when Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India, a study report on India’s elephant corridors by Wildlife Trust of India with the support of Project Elephant under Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, had identified four passages in the Sigur Plateau: (i) Avarahalla-Sigur, (ii) Kalhatti-Sigur (iii) Moyar-Avarahalla and (iv) Kalmalai-Singara-Avarahalla. Soon, the four corridors were brought together as a single entity named the Sigur Elephant Corridor. These corridors are part of the many such elephant movement pathways in south India.
In 2006, Tamil Nadu’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden made the corridor’s plan public by saying that 202.90 acres of private land would be acquired after paying compensation to the owners. But it evoked no protest as the required land was very meagre, and there was no need for a massive eviction.
But by December that year, the forest department had enhanced the required private land for the corridor to 397.934 acres. In 2008, a public interest litigation was filed by environmental NGOs Defence of Environment and Animals, Tamil Nadu Green Movement and Osai Environmental Organisation in the Madras High Court for the removal of encroachments from the elephant corridors. In response to the petition, the forest department told the court that it was planning to acquire 592.17 acres of patta lands in Moyar Valley, and Kallar and Jaccanari villages for the corridor. In October 2009, the High Court had ordered an Expert Committee set up to look into the corridor project.
In the subsequent months, the committee had found 7000 acres of private and revenue lands are required for a comprehensive and expanded corridor. The total area comprised 4225 acres of private grounds and about 3000 acres of leased government land. The land occupants consisted of more than 7000 families, mostly Dalits, and Adivasis. Only then did the local community turn against the corridor project, citing the possible displacements and livelihood destruction.
“We, the people here, have no animosity towards elephants and a corridor meant for them. A project that initially wanted 202.90 acres is now demanding 7000 acres and eviction of people living there for generations. This is unrealistic and even against the spirit of the Forest Rights Act. Tribals who live in the forests have constitutional rights to be there. The local community has always told the authorities that we are ready to be involved with any community-managed forest protection program. Why is the forest department not taking us in confidence?” asks P.T. Varghese, president of Masinagudi Farmers and Land Owners Association.
In January 2010, the Masinagudi gram panchayat (village council) had made it clear that it has no opposition to establishing the actual elephant corridor with 397 acres in the Moyar corridor and 68 acres in the Kallar – Jaccanari corridor. But by April 2011, the Madras High Court had directed all the people whose lands fall in the 7000-acre proposed corridor to hand over the vacant position of their lands to the government within three months.
But soon, the Supreme Court had stayed dispossession and demolition of buildings of the local community in response to an appeal filed by Varghese and a few others. In July 2018, the Supreme Court had directed the Nilgiris District Collector to prepare and present a plan of action on identifying the constructions that have been made, when they have been made, and for what purpose the structures are being utilised.
In August that year, the Supreme Court had ordered the closure of resorts and other buildings in the locality based on the activity report. They include 309 resort buildings, 390 houses, 27 public utilities including schools and community halls, nine plantations, 77 agricultural fields, and nine other constructions.
On October 14, 2020, the Supreme Court had upheld the Madras High Court judgment in its final verdict. It deputed a three-member committee consisting of K. Venkatraman, Former Judge of Madras High Court, Ajay Desai, Consultant to World Wide Fund for Nature-India and member of the technical committee on National Elephant Action Plan and Praveen Bhargava, Trustee of Wildlife First and Former Member of National Board for Wildlife. Among them, Desai died recently, and conservationist Nandita Hazarika was appointed to the committee by the Supreme Court.
According to Preetham Philip, a local resident, the hospitality establishments of Masinagudi, Vazhaithottam, and Sigur areas are not located in the elephant corridor declared in the beginning. The local community had turned against it only in 2010 when the government added more area to the corridor.
Located close to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve of Tamil Nadu and Bandipur Tiger Reserve of Karnataka, Masinagudi is a beautiful locality that attracts thousands of tourists every year.
Occupied by Kurumba and Irula tribes for a long time, the area started attracting outsiders soon after the British government began constructing the Pykara Hydroelectric Power Project in the locality in 1932.
When contacted, K. Kalidasan, president of Coimbatore-based environmental NGO Osai, said the people in the area must be relocated to make the purpose of the corridor meaningful. All the buildings in the corridor area must be removed, he said.