As communities in the Western Ghats prepare for the national elections, the Munnar-Devikulam region and its fragile ecology are turning hot subjects of political debate not only in Idukki constituency but also in entire Kerala. With settlers and land mafias resisting any governmental action against encroachments and illegal constructions, an environmental catastrophe is now lurking behind in areas like Chinnakanal, Pallivasal, Anayirankal and Bison Valley in addition to Munnar and Devikulam.

In Munnar, plantations, and resort and hotel mafias are causing massive changes in land use patterns. A few weeks ago S Rajendran, a member of Kerala’s legislative assembly from Munnar, was caught on camera publicly insulting a sub-collector who opposes encroachments and illegal constructions in Munnar and 11 surrounding village panchayats.

The target of his slander was sub-collector Renu Raj and the provocation was her decision to stop construction of a shopping complex without required permissions on a river bank. As per the visuals aired by leading Malayalam television channels, Rajendran, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and R Karuppusami, the local panchayat president, who incidentally belongs to the rival Indian National Congress party, had blocked the revenue officials who came to prevent the construction and launched the tirade against the sub-collector unmindful of the presence of television cameras.

The environmentally sensitive Idukki was represented in the outgoing Lok Sabha by Joyce George, a lawyer associated with High Range Protection Council, an organisation formed by apolitical vested interests exclusively to lead agitations against the implementation of both the Madhav Gadgil Committee and Kasturirangan Committee reports for the conservation of the Western Ghats. Conservation of the Western Ghats and the Kasturirangan Committee report on it were the main poll issues in Idukki during the previously held Lok Sabha election.

Hotels and resorts have been built over unstable slopes. Photo by special arrangement.
Hotels and resorts have been built over unstable slopes. Photo by special arrangement.

Misinterpretation of reports

“Joyce George and Rajendran are just two indicators of the larger malaise. In the Idukki constituency, voters are highly misled and misinformed by rival political parties including CPI(M), Congress and BJP. No one of them is talking against the land mafia that dictates terms. Misinterpretation of Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports is the main political activity here,” said CR Neelakandan, a Kochi-based environmentalist who led many protests in Munnar-Devikulam against illegal encroachments.

Idukki, a Western Ghats district, has seven assembly constituencies – three at lower ranges of the hills and four at higher ranges. In the high ranges of Idukki, there are still organised attempts to make political mileage by turning people’s sentiments against the Kasturirangan committee that recommended 37% of the Western Ghats, which is extremely rich in biodiversity, should be declared as eco-sensitive areas. The committee had also recommended banning mining, quarrying, construction of thermal power plants and highly polluting industries and construction of buildings spread over more than 0.2 hectares and townships spanning more than 50 hectares inside areas identified as ecologically sensitive areas.

“Of the 123 villages identified by the committee as ESAs [ecologically sensitive areas] in Kerala, 48 are in high ranges of Idukki. People living here are misled and misinformed by the political parties about the Western Ghats conservation and the Gadgil and Kasthurirangan reports. They fear that conservation of the Western Ghats will affect their daily lives, livelihood and ownership rights on their property, and finally they would be evicted from the region,” Neelakandan observed.

There are multiple uses for land in the Anamalai Hills on which Munnar is located. Photo credit: Raji Warrier.
There are multiple uses for land in the Anamalai Hills on which Munnar is located. Photo credit: Raji Warrier.

Encroachment continues

Munnar and Devikulam are biodiversity hotspots known for unique natural attractions such as the Neelakurinji, a rare purplish blue flowering plant that blooms once in 12 years, and the highly endangered Nilgiri tahr.

Misusing the fears of the local community, land mafias are now thriving in Munnar and other parts of Idukki causing enormous damage to the land and livelihood. They seem learned no lesson from the worst floods of August 2018 in which Munnar resembled almost a ghost town. Shops and hotels were shut with people remained in their homes or in relief camps. Devikulam Taluk had witnessed 12 major landslides and 18 monsoon-related deaths in the floods. Two dozen foreign tourists were rescued from hotels and resorts, presumably illegal constructions, in Munnar with the support of Army during landslides. Change in land use patterns had aggravated misery in Munnar according to experts.

Whatever be the stand of major political parties, two recent official reports, one prepared by a parliamentary sub-committee and another by the Kerala Revenue Department, detail the macro- and micro-level impact of human activity in Munnar. The reports say the region has already lost much of its natural wealth and warn that any further delay in addressing the encroachment issue would mean the end of the hill station.

According to botanist Jomy Augustine, botanist and professor at St Thomas College in Palai, massive changes occurred during recent years in land use pattern as a result of encroachments, which have started badly affecting the famous Neelakurinji plants that blooms once in 12 years. “There is a sharp reduction in the geographical area where Neelakurinji blooms. Along with encroachment, climate change caused by environmental degradation is also affecting the geographical distribution of the plant that brought Munnar in the world tourism map,” he said.

However, Augustine, who has conducted studies on Munnar’s plant species, said there was no scientific basis to the argument of a section of environmental activists that the plant was divided into several sub-species in recent years, resulting in frequent blooming. “No frequent blooming of the species as reported. In different localities, maturing of the plant happens in different occasions,” he added.

Until a few years ago, the Nilgiri tahr was common in Chokramudi, a popular trekking site in Munnar. Now, a portion of the mountain range has many encroachments and the tahr population has come down drastically.

Lost land?

“It’s a lost land,” summed up a January 2017 report prepared by then Kerala land revenue commissioner AV George. George had identified 110 large structures in Munnar built in violation of the applicable rules. Many of them are up to nine storeys high even though a 2010 High Court verdict prevents all fresh construction above three floors in the region. George narrates in his report that he was physically prevented by hired goons of the land mafia from visiting half of Munnar for preparing the report.

“An ecologically fragile region with numerous resorts and hotels, Munnar has captured attention for its troubling links of local politicians with large-scale encroachers. When the state’s revenue department orders eviction drives against such encroachers, it results in hostilities between bureaucrats and politicians,’’ pointed out Hareesh Vasudevan, an environmental lawyer with the Kerala High Court.

It was in 2017, Sreeram Venkitaraman, a young IAS officer who was serving as the sub-collector of Devikulam revenue division, was transferred out of the region which the government termed was ‘routine.’ But his abrupt transfer was widely seen as the outcome of his anti-encroachment drives against resort owners at the hill station. His actions, including the pulling down of a cross put up by an evangelist group on encroached land, had attracted the wrath of the political leadership.

Even though illegal constructions and encroachments in and around Munnar have grabbed headlines, the list of encroached land remains in cold storage with no action against any of the involved parties. No concrete action has been taken to reclaim the illegally occupied land.

According to government sources, former Idukki district collector GR Gokul had submitted names of 154 large-scale encroachers in Munnar Township alone to revenue department in 2017 as desired by the state government. But nearly two years after the submission, the report is gathering dust and not even a single encroacher has been evicted. “We regularly issue notices to illegal constructions and order eviction against new encroachers. But all political parties have joined their hands to protect the land grabbers,” said a top official working in Munnar. The encroachment list points out that lands adjacent to roads, riverbanks and shola forests have been encroached.

The hills around Munnar were devastated by landslides during the August 2018 floods. Photo by special arrangement.
The hills around Munnar were devastated by landslides during the August 2018 floods. Photo by special arrangement.

A new law in the pipeline

Though it is very late, the state government now claims it is in the process of protecting Munnar and other parts of Idukki from further destruction. “The government is working on a new law, keeping the special nature of Munnar and Idukki,” announced Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan last week at a major conference in Kochi.

“Munnar is such a place that it is unable to accommodate the tourism rush there. So, we may have to look for alternative models. Perhaps everybody may not be able to stay back there. Instead, they will have to visit the places of interest there and come back. These aspects will be taken care of in the new law,” he said. He has also indicated about tough action against encroachments and illegal constructions.

“Munnar-Devikulam is facing issues of encroachments, illegal constructions, unscientific tourism flow and contamination of river water. The issues require both administrative and scientific remedies. A master plan with focus on environmental sustenance of the region is essential,’’ said Vasudevan.

Tourism and plantation paradise

Over the years, tourism industry started redefining Munnar-Devikulam by highlighting the region’s natural beauty and rare flora and fauna. Hotels and resorts started mushrooming soon with Munnar earning the distinction of an important tourist destination for domestic and international travellers. On the other hand, there began the region’s exposure to large-scale environmental degradation.

Untouched and unexplored by the outer world till later part of 19th century, the ecologically-sensitive mountain region of Munnar-Devikulam which presently forms a major share of Idukki Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala was origninally the home of the Muthuvan community. The tribe’s strength reduced over the recent years and they have been pushed to the fringes.

It was a chance visit of John Daniel Munro, the then British resident of the princely state of Travancore, way back in 1870. Munro floated the North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society in 1879 to cultivate cash crops, including coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal (a kind of agave). However, tea started replacing everything else in Munnar-Devikulam soon with the arrival of British planter AH Sharp. In 1897, the Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company was formed to manage these estates 33 tea plantations started in such a short span of time.

Though a massive flood that occurred in 1924 had destroyed most of the terrains of the region, the plantation sector got a rebirth post-independence when the Tata Group entered the plantation sector and took over control of the Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company. Twice flooded and twice destroyed, Munnar refuses to learn. The development versus environment debate will heat up in this mountain town in the weeks leading to the elections.

Floods inundated the tourist town of Munnar. Photo credit: Prasad Ambatt.
Floods inundated the tourist town of Munnar. Photo credit: Prasad Ambatt.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.