A biosphere reserve under siege

Tourism Nilgiris: Part 2

Let’s take a look at the ground situation in the Nilgiris. Someone asked me, “Does the fact that the Nilgiris biosphere reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, enter into the collective consciousness of the powers that be?”

I sincerely hope it has.
So what is a biosphere reserve… it is an ecosystem with rare plants and animals which are of interest to scientists. The label is supposed to help plan, manage and conserve this unique ecosystem. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve was constituted by UNESCO in 1986 under the Man and Biosphere programme and is India’s first biosphere. The 5000 sq km which it covers are rich in fauna and flora. The tribes, such as the Badagas (though technically not tribal) Todas and Kotas who call the Nilgiris their home are not found anywhere else. Their way of life, cuisine and culture is unique.
Toda woman wearing the traditional embroidered cloak Photo courtesy Suryaprakash Piljain 

This unique biosphere reserve has, since 1818 (when it was ‘discovered’ by John Sullivan, then Commissioner of Coimbatore) been under attack. The hills were sparsely populated and the British loved the salubrious climate which reminded them of the mist and drizzle back home. Many of them, who had made their money in India, built their residences, planted their gardens in Ooty, Coonoor and Kotagiri recreating small islands of faraway Cornwall, Kent or Yorkshire as the case may be. They planted tea, coffee, cinchona, wattle, oranges, apples and other English fruits as well as the infamous eucalyptus; the jury is still out on lantana.

Many decisions taken quite erroneously in the 19th century were disastrous for the environment; such as the conversion of the grasslands into tea estates, the draining of swamps, the building of dams in the higher reaches and the introduction of exotic plants. The British however, left their stamp on the hills with the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, the Wellington Barracks, the manicured tea gardens, the garden houses and the two beautiful parks. Despite the present climate of trashing the colonial period, when the British left, the Nilgiris was still in a fairly good state.

After 1947, the Nilgiris lost its exclusive tag as many more people started climbing the ghats, looking for new opportunities. Besides the plantations and the schools there were not many employment opportunities in the hills, so on quite a regular basis, people left to seek greener pastures, which in a way kept the population in the hill towns in check. It is also important to remember that between the 1950s and the first decade of the 21st century the population in India literally exploded* this was also reflected in the Nilgiris.

Then, in mid ‘60s, under the Srimavo- Shastri Pact signed in 1964, many of the repatriated Sri Lankans were settled in the Nilgiris. In 1968, the Tamil Nadu Government set up the Tea Project in the Nilgiris, to rehabilitate the Sri Lanka repatriates and more Government forest land was cleared to plant tea.

The impact of the increase in population had many negative fall outs. Overcrowding in the relatively small towns of Ooty and Coonoor was the immediate fall out. Suddenly the houses near the markets were becoming double storied, there were encroachments on Government land and the more wealthy people were going further away to live. As land prices shot up, the real estate guys moved in.

For instance, as land started getting expensive in Coonoor; land along the Kotagiri road was developed as house sites. The large orchards and gardens around big garden houses were also getting divided as families splintered and partitioned their share. By the mid ‘80s and the ‘90s, many of the big bungalows in Coonoor came on to the market; to be snapped up by the new elite, the IT czars.

Around this time, tea prices started crashing as erstwhile captive markets in Russia and West Asia became more discerning. The tea industry woke up, rather late, and started looking for other markets. The owner-managed tea estates were swift to market with their branding and manufacture of quality tea.

At this juncture it is important to mention that there are a large number of small holdings of tea, as many of the Badagas switched from vegetables cultivation to tea. This along with the bought-leaf factory or stand alone tea factory, a phenomenon unique to the Nilgiris, makes for small players in a corporate dominated industry.

Let me digress a bit to tell you, how the small tea farmer makes his money; the tea which is plucked every day is sold to a tea factory which pays the farmer on a weekly basis. The manufactured tea is then sold in the tea auction. Needless to say, the payout to the farmer is a small amount and the prices fetched at the auction are also low. What the small farmer and the bought-leaf factory owner make are often not enough to sustain a family. This has resulted in landowners selling out to developers who are in a rush to convert former tea estates into gated communities, many of them eye sores. This is especially evident on the Prospect -Naduvattoam stretch of the road from Ooty to Gudalur.

More people mean more vehicles, which mean havoc as the roads are narrow, winding and badly maintained. But, this is no deterrent to the crowds who visit the hills, especially during the school holiday season or long weekends. At this time, the traffic is practically crawling. Last year, during the annual flower show, 10,000 vehicles came into Ooty, which has just two main roads in a 3 km radius. The steep Kalhatti ghat road is a killer and is often blocked to vehicles not bearing the district’s TN 43 registration number. Despite this, there are number of fatal accidents on this stretch.

The man-animal conflict in the hills has reached unmanageable proportions. The Government officials are at their wit’s end as to how to deal with this problem. More wild animals are venturing out of the forests as forest cover is getting depleted and the streams and water bodies are all drying up.

Vehicular traffic as well as the famed Nilgiri Mountain Railway is often disrupted by herds of elephants that have wandered out of the forests in search of fodder or water or both. Leopards and gaur or Indian bison roam the streets of Coonoor freely. Recently a girl was gored to death by a gaur while taking a selfie with her husband in Coonoor’s Sims Park; a young man met his death when he surprised a herd on his morning run. Monkeys are rampant, destroying crops and even attacking children and shoppers in busy Bedford Circle, in the heart of Coonoor.

Coonoor, the second biggest town in the hills has been facing a water shortage for the longest time. The water for the entire town is supplied mainly from Ralliah Dam. This dam was commissioned in 1941 and constructed to handle just about 5000 connections, i.e. households and businesses. Today the population of Coonoor has more than doubled from the initial 20,000 people for whom the dam was built. The dam in most parts is dependent of the monsoon rains and is also partially stream fed. Samantha Iyanna says that the streams are all choked up with silt, weeds and trash.

The News Minute reported that because of the failure of the monsoon, Coonoor received just 1024 mm of rainfall, last year while the requirement is much more. Every year, the number of tourists visiting is increasing, with last year recording almost 31 lakh tourists. Year on year, the arrival numbers are growing, but the water in Ralliah dam isn’t and the infrastructure definitely isn’t. Adding to all this is the open defecation problem. There are not enough public toilets in places of tourist interest like the Botanical Gardens, Sim’s Park, and Lamb’s Rock and so on.

This brings us to the next issue, that is, garbage collection. There is so much garbage everywhere in the hills. The streams that flow by the Coonoor market and the Ooty bus stand are inundated with non-biodegradable garbage. The civic authorities don’t have the resources: vehicles or man power to remove the garbage. MOB has started a drive to create awareness about segregation of waste matter, collecting garbage and cleaning Ooty. But it is a long and arduous journey.
Garbage in Ooty..  Photo courtesy Shobana Chandra

*The 1951 census put the population of India at 361 million which increased to 1.21 million in the 2011 census.


  1. Beautifully explained. Thanks for this lovely article


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