Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Kerala's invitation to disaster and disease by triggering a potential loss of 50 Lakh old growth trees

Photo of an old growth Hopea Parviflora, RET IUCN Endangered Species
 - the buttress roots harvests rain, leaf litter falling on forest floor acts like sponge thus ensuring our rivers remain perennial all year round. Above photo is representative of the size of 50 Lakh trees that would be felled in Kerala

23rd March 2020 was World Climate Action Day , 22nd Mar 2020 World Water Day and 21st Mar 2020 International Day of Forests. All the above three themes are interconnected from an environmental standpoint with conserving forests at the core of ensuring carbon sequestration and water conservation. All our major rivers of peninsular India originate from forests. Without Forests, humanity do not stand any chance to survive on this planet.

Amendment of a diluted law 

On 23rd Mar 2020, Manorama print reported an order of the Principal Secretary, Revenue department for allowing owners of the patta land for chopping down reserved trees except for sandal. Let us peep into the prevailing laws in Kerala and the changes to some critical sections.

a) The Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth in Non forest areas (Amendment) Act, 2007 categorises tree species as "specified" which include Sandal wood, Teak, Rosewood, Irul, Thempaavu, Kampakam, Chadachi, Chandana Vembu and Vellakil.  These 9 species belong to the State and hence permission is needed for any felling.

b) The amendment of 2007 allowed the owner of the land to cut and remove 28 tree species without the permission of the authorities.  The 2007 amendment diluted the act and triggered large scale tree felling in  areas under cardamom plantations including some endemic species like Aranamaram. 

c) This act is a diluted version of Kerala Preservation of Trees Act 1986 which was enacted for regulating indiscriminate tree felling, prevent soil erosion in the state.

d) The recent order of Mar 2020, overrides two preceding laws - Kerala Preservation of Trees Act 1986 and the Kerala Promotion of Tree Growth Act in Non forest areas making it easy for felling large old growth trees of any species except Sandalwood possible without any permission. 

What does this mean ? 

The new provision would mean decimation of many old growth endangered species like Kambakam ( Hopea parviflora, Endangered ) , Vella Akil ( Dysoxylum malabaricum, Endangered). Many of them fall under the category of rare, endangered and threatened tree (RET as per IUCN) species of Western Ghats. Similarly there are species  that are found only in the Western Ghats like Toona ciliata .

The 8 species that are dereserved as per the 2020 order include Teak (Tectona grandis), Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), Irul (Xylia xylocarpa), Thempavu (Terminalia tomentosa), Kampakam (Hopea parviflora) , Chadachi (Grewia tiliaefolia), Chandana Vembu (Toona ciliata), Vella Akil (Dysoxylum malabaricum)

With the notice to dereserve these 8  additional  species, what we would set to lose is a larger biodiversity and canopy layer in the landscape of the fragile hills. These are centuries old grandmother trees of rosewood and irul  that have been safeguarding the steep hill slopes of villages in the landslide prone area.

The History

In 1950s and 1960s approximately 40,000 Ha of forest land was assigned for plantation purpose for livelihoods as part of Land assignment act. Later the assignees were given patta by revenue department. The trees on these lands were reserved and not permitted for free felling. These assigned lands are on rocky terrain which made it impossible for any quarrying activities so far. The vested interest had tried dereserving of these old growth trees repeatedly during the tenure of Shri. V S  Achyuthandan, Shri. EK Nayanar and Shri.Umman Chandi as Chief Ministers of State. Due to stiff opposition and fear of potential landslides, trees were reserved by the Government. The right of removing and selling matured and diseased trees was with the Government. The proceeds would go to the Government exchequer which belongs to the public. Thus since independence, these old growth trees that were once part of forest land remained a property of the Government though the land holders received patta from revenue department for using the land for livelihood purposes.

An estimated 1/4th of the total geographical land area of Kerala will be impacted by this tree felling order if other land types like Jamma are included. This would mean 10 Lakh Hectares of land area which would have these 8 species of trees. 

Impact to a minimum of 50 Lakh, 300 year old trees 

With the new order of 2020, the proceeds of felled trees will be the sole property of large private landholders. With an estimated loss of a minimum of 10 Lakh Hectares of over 300 year old growth trees, the number of trees would approximate to a minimum 50 Lakhs. Since the time of independence and prior to the enactment of Forest Conservation Act 1980 these reserved trees have stood the test of times from human sabotage.

The present Kerala Govt has successfully ensured axe falling on these large old growth trees for opening up the land area for other kinds of development. Once the trees are gone, the exposed rocky terrain in these landscapes will be unfit for cultivation and make it an ideal breeding ground for quarry mafia to thrive.

Landslides and Floods of Kerala

Kerala is yet to recover from the damages caused by unprecedented floods and landslides for two consecutive years in 2018 and 2019.   According to the ministry's National Emergency Response Centre (NERC), 488 people have died in Kerala and 54.11 lakh in 14 districts have been severely hit by floods and landslidesAs per the GO Order of State Disaster Management (SDMA) dated 23rd Aug 2019, 1038 villages in Kerala are declared as flood/ landslide affected. Over 600 acres were washed away in the landslide and and landslip incidents in Wayanad in Year 2019. Puthumala and Kavalappara saw some of the worst disasters in the recent past with scores of people buried alive.

The new order by Kerala Principal Secretary of Revenue department is a perfect recipe to trigger disasters in the hill districts. Our hope is that the Government will also set aside disaster relief to the planters who are cutting the branch of the very same tree they are sitting on. 

Habitat loss and disease outbreaks

In 2012 David Quammen published the book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He wrote, “The next big and murderous human pandemic —most likely a virus—will spill over into humans from a nonhuman animal.  He quotes in his interview with Steve Mirsky in Scientific American "We humans are an outbreak population because we have so exploded in terms of our numbers, in terms of our total mass, in terms of the amount of resources that we irrigate; we're cutting our way through the tropical forests, building timber camps, building villages, killing animals and eating them, disrupting relationships between reservoir hosts and the viruses and other microbes that live within them. I say in the book, "You shake a tree, and things fall out." And that's one of the reasons why there's a drumbeat of increasing cases of these emerging diseases, particularly viruses." 

Even HIV, AIDS apart from Corona, Nipah, Zika, Ebola, SARS, Yellow fever, influenza among others originated due to deforestation, urbanization, bushmeat consumption, extensive road networks and contact of indigenous people with outside world.


To the knowledge of those enacting laws, 

1. 50 Lakh tree loss of 300 year old growth trees would mean habitat loss of many more mammal, bird species. By removing permission required for tree feeling, many hillocks would be left barren without any Govt control.

2. Habitat loss is one of the primary causes of this spillover effect of viruses that trigger deadly diseases in humans. New Roads, Four laning through thick ever green forests, clear felling for timber, hydro electric projects, railway lines, mining could unleash the large reservoir of deadly virus from the wild animals through our animal husbandry to humans. COVID19 could just be the beginning of this deadly outbreak humans have triggered.

3. Tropical forests are home to several biologically important species of trees that supply an unending food source to several pollinator species and birds. Interestingly our Gods own country is home to some of the last remaining tropical forests on the planet.

4. Western Ghats are considered to be one of the eight most important "hotspots" of biological diversity in the world. Out of these 39 site elements of UNESCO World Heritage site, 18 of them are in Kerala. This brings out the endemicity, criticality and threat status of the landscape that is at stake for such indiscriminate tree felling outside the reserved forest land.  

5. It is appalling to note that the Government is yet to learn its lessons on importance of  forest/ old growth tree conservation from two consecutive floods and landslides and two deadly virus outbreaks in the State. These 300 year old grandmother trees and its well formed root systems are one of the last hopes on a landscape that is reeling under the aftermath of devastating landslides where poor farmers have lost their source of livelihood.

It is ironical to note that a Government who was applauded for it's first carbon-neutral initiatives in the country and who took proactive steps in the face of two deadly viruses for the welfare of the people have fallen prey to the large landowners and private interests of timber and quarry mafia. Counter-productive and questionable measures in enacting such an amendment which is potentially the reason for such virus outbreaks in Kerala after discounting the significant international mobile population of Kerala, while also declaring INR 20,000 Crore special package to tackle the impact of Covid 19 outbreak.

The Sanskrit phrase reverberates into the future of our children "Vinaashakaalae Vipareethabuddhi". Hope there will be proactive interventions by the Honorable Chief Minister of State to stop clear felling on Kerala's fragile mountain slopes.

About the Author

Meera Rajesh has 10 years of experience working with hill communities in restoration of forest lands by conserving 150+ tree species of Western Ghats including RET. She is also a lawyer who works on environmental causes.

References :

Destruction of Habitats and disease outbreaks

Other news

Friday, April 3, 2015

Athirappally , an invasion into my childrens' future

(Key data points from articles written by Shri SP Ravi, Dr Latha Anantha , Shri.NA Naseer in March 2015 edition of Koodu magazine )

I carry vivid memories of the beautiful backdrop of the magnificent waterfalls when I visited the place way back in 1990.As a child, I used to dream of visiting Niagara falls . Athirappally gave a sense of pride of a Niagara of Kerala. In my small state, dotted by the majestic Western Ghats and the Arabian sea, a place of abundant beauty surrounded by the tropical wet evergreen forests and the magnificent falls. My young mind was carried into a world of the wild when I sighted lion tailed macaques and hornbills. There was something magical about the river, the waterfalls and the surrounding forests. I had been there once as a young child and something pulled me to drive down that landscape last year. Growing up, I understand the importance of these tropical forests that are unique to the western slopes of Western Ghats, growing denser as you go southwards on the ghats and beyond the Palghat gap. I was fascinated by the river Chalakkudy, its' origins somewhere on the hill slopes of Nelliyampathy as Karapara river and on Anamudi peak and flowing westwards meandering into the Arabian sea. Rivers originate in the womb of these magnificent forests

 I remember studying about the various invasions to this country to plunder the wealth of this nation and to establish control. When I first heard about the hydro electric power project on Athirappally, a sense of invasion into my spiritual and natural space struck. This time, the invasion was by our own leaders in power. I felt pained by the thought of the vast stretches of these evergreen forests being inundated , never to be surfaced again for me nor my children to enjoy. Some places have the power to touch your inner being and Athirappally was one.May be these landscapes talk to you, I don't know.

The sense of invasion into my space of this Nigara of Kerala felt so deep and I could never understand the reasons to inundate this landscape and reduce the waterfalls to a trickle . Many progressive thinkers in my family questioned the need for power vs need to protect nature. Eye brows were raised and few questioned if environmentalists were trying to send them back to caves by stopping the power project ! 

I was puzzled . Somewhere deep, the hunger for energy didn't sound right. All the while, the primary question I had was on the energy consumed by the various malls that were sprouting in every small town. Who is regulating their energy use ? and what percentage of energy do they use vs domestic average ? What is the industry that is in dire need of energy in Kerala and how is it contributing to my well-being ?  Many of these malls operate their ACs with the doors open and there is no regulation to make them dependent on self reliant renewable energy. When the malls guzzle power, I see the subsidy for energy removed for the already deprived agri sector.  I feel invaded once again, my right to energy, is taken away by irresponsible businesses.

These forests are habitats of critically endangered species of hornbills and lion tailed macaques. Elephants have been using these landscapes for their migration paths for centuries. Their roles are way beyond their own existence and they sustain the forests by efficient seed dispersal. Landscapes that are divided and disintegrated face the wrath of man animal conflicts .

I chanced upon the articles in Koodu magazine by prominent personalities who have spent their life understanding the intricacies of energy and conservation. Translating few of the key points :

1. The proposed project is for 163 MW capacity
2. There are 6 upstream dams on river Chalakkudy apart from proposed Athirappally power project.Four dams are meant for water diversion to Tamil Nadu. Two projects owned by the state of Kerala are hydropower projects
3. The upstream Peringalkuthu powerstation is working for 60% of the time
4. Athirappally  (147m) has a lower head than Peringalkuthu (170m). You can imagine that this would further bring down the possibility of power generating capacity of Athirappally. However, the installed capacity of the generators would be 3 times that of Peringalkuthu ! This means, the generators at Athirappally would be inactive for 5 times longer than when it is active.
5. The actual PLF would be 12% only. That means the power generation would be equal to about 12 percent of 163 MW only.The claim is that this low capacity power would be supplied for the peak duration in the evenings.
6. The Thumboormuzhi irrigation project supplies water to approximately 35,000 acre of land in Thrissur and Ernakulam districts. Once Athirappalli project comes alive, the water from Thumboormuzhi would be roughly 7650 litres per second for 20 hours during the day. The minimum water requirement is 15,000-20,000 litres per second to continue the Thumboormuzhi irrigation project and the water availability for these districts would be drastically impacted by the much hyped power project.
8. Cost of the project will be that of 163 MW. However, the power output would be equal to about 20 MW only. There would be an annual loss of more than  Rs. 100 crores for the next 15 years. Only if the power is sold at Rs.15 per unit will there be any profit incurred on the project. ( This at a time when private companies in other states are promising Rs.7 per unit for  solar power ! ) 
9. If implemented , Athirappilly waterfalls visited by 8-10 lakh tourists a year both domestic and foreign would lose its magnificent fall, sheen and glory forever since 80 percent of the water presently flowing would be diverted for power generation

I decided to focus on two key data points  :" 100 crore annual loss for the next 15 years, and 20 MW power output ". A simple calculation .

a) Assuming 10 units of power consumption by every household ( this is without sending anyone back to caves by including tube lights , few reading lamps, garden lights, TV , ceiling fans, microwave, mixer, refrigerator, washing machine, laptops) is equivalent to roughly 2.3 Kw .

b) 20 MW power generated @ the rate of 2.3 Kw power consumed per household would supply to 8700 households. (without considering transmission losses and power thefts) 

c) If we assume Rs.5 Lakh per household for installing solar power , the money needed from State exchequer is just Rs.43 crores one time. Let us assume the battery change required by households would be borne by individual owners after 7 years. (This would come down if  solar systems are created for clusters)

My ordinary brain fails to understand the economic viability behind Rs.100 crore annual loss for 15 years and Rs.43 crore one time expenditure on solar power without sending anyone in Kerala to caves.

Athirappally Facts

1. The 80.5 hectare riparian ecosystem along the river Chalakkudy is the last remaining of its' kind in below 800 m MSL elevation riverine areas in Kerala.
2. With the previous 6 power projects, 50% of the riparian ecosystem has collapsed . The KSEB claims only 138.6 hectare forests would be impacted . The remaining riparian ecosystem  is one of its' kind with unique niche specific  tropical wet evergreen forests in the Western Ghats and is irreplaceable for maintaining the ecological connectivity between the upstream and the downstream
3. The project area includes  elephant movement connecting the  Parambikkulam tiger reserve and the Pooyamkutty forests. 
4. 108 species of fish have been found in Chalakkudy river and out of these many are in the critically endangered category
5. Habitat of critically endangered birds and mammals like Hornbills, Lion tailed macaques.
6. 85 families of PTG ( primitive  tribal group) , Kadar based in Vazhachal and Pokalapara settlements whose only home are these forests face the danger of evacuation once the forests are inundated by the new dam.

The farce called "EIAs"

1. TGBRI should have done the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment ( REIA ) during summer - impacts should have been studied when water levels are low in the river. Instead they submitted a report in favour of the project by conducting REIA in peak monsoon.

2. WAPCOS conducted another impact assessment in 2002. They didn't find any PTG (Primitive Tribal Group) families in the area, neither could they find more than 30 fish species when Cochin University study has found more than 68 species in the area ! 

3. Haryana based WAPCOS has ensured all projects for which it has done EIA clears the project of environmental impact ! 

4. The Kasturirangan Committee never interacted with the local people, panchayat while doing an impact analysis of the project, even though they visited Athirappally to give a verdict that the project is essential. 

None of the reports mention about the 1500 people who participated in the Public Hearing in year 2006 and gave their misgivings on the project. This includes tribals, locals, experts on power and many interested citizens. Their statements were not reflected in the final decision to grant clearance to the project.

Guidelines for approving hydro electric project along the western ghats in Kasturirangan report hasn't been applied in the report for Athirappally ! 

What is USA doing to their dams ?

River beds have remained cradles of many ancient civilizations. Water being the basic life form shapes the landscape, a river evolves the topography and the species associated with it. Human settlements along the river is thus a part of this natural love affair of life and water. 

In the past few decades, there has been lot of research on the intrinsic value a river brings to the topography .It is evident that this value is something that humans cannot perceive in trillions of dollars. Various models like the TEEB (The economics of ecosystems and Biodiversity) have come into existence. 

One of the noted outcome of all these new trends is the mega dam detonations that USA has been performing to ensure there is an uninterrupted flow of the river on that topography that brings in the associated benefits that are intangible to human monetary system. Sharing a few :

Invasion into my Childrens' future :

TGBRI, WAPCOS, Kasturirangan Committee and the various ministries who are considering approving this project have constantly tried to invade my childrens' space. I need energy to function because in the past 50 years I was never taught how to function reducing the need for it. I am convinced that my basic energy requirement can be met with Solar power and grid as backup for my power guzzlers like microwave , refrigerator and ACs. I can safely tell my educated family members they don't have to go back to caves ! 

When will my leaders in power ask the businesses to generate their renewable power ? Will they ever understand the importance of Kaadar community who are dependent on the river for many centuries before discovery of electricity in the 1600s ? Will the river ever flow ? or will the waterfalls flow from those heights displaying its' might bringing along the fishes needed for thousands along the rivers ? 

Will my children ever see the Athirappally I saw as a Child ? Will my Niagara of Kerala survive the 'power' hungry leaders of our State ? 

The sounds of lion tailed macaques and  hornbills would reverberate in me till my grave. Landscape does magic to one's inner being and that is beyond energy and power.

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Making India" Swach !

The idea of Swach Bharath is definitely a positive one. Before we bask in the goodness of the new political agenda, why don't we ask some fundamental questions about the term "Swach". Will holding brooms solve any issues ? Littering has been an age old habit - the difference we have is in the type of material we litter. In olden times we littered banana leaves while travelling by train that added more nutrition into the soil. Today we litter aluminum foils that wrap chapathis or kurkure / lays packets that can never be recycled ! 

The core issues lie in manufacturing, toxic waste disposal, packaging , toxic industries in close proximity to our food and water sources (forests, rivers and agricultural land). Can a govt who has shown such amazing speed in clearing industrial projects think of stopping a process that would be hard on the mass producing industries ? Below are my humble views working in waste management at the urban level.

Swach Bharath should be about enforcement of existing laws that would instill "right behaviour" in the mass producing industries. Can the new Govt  bend the industry to bring in targets for waste reduction at a policy level for every Industry segment ? Can there be targets set for every big city to reduce their dependency on landfills ? 

1. STOP industries dumping toxic effluents into the Gangas and Cauveries of this country.

2. STOP category A toxic industries coming up in the ECO Fragile areas - all over Western ghats, all over Himalayas ; close proximity to forests, rivers, lakes and any natural body

3. STOP giving permission to start new landfills and reduce burden on existing ones

4. Ban all plastic covers from all shops, irrespective of microns. Start with malls first and then move to smaller vendors. 

5.Ban tetrapacks that are energy intensive to recycle

6.Stop the Kurukures, lays manufactures of India packing in 3 layer packaging that is impossible to recycle 

7.Stop sanitary pad makers remove the plastic lining that junks the rivers, streams and water bodies . Promote groups like Eco Femme as womens' collective in villages .

8. Ask all cellphone industry to start a unit for "REPAIR" which is cost effective for consumers. Provide incentive for sending old phones to recycling units

9. STOP manufacturing CFL and promote LEDs

10. Enforce medical waste handling for every hospital that is given permission to operate

 11. Start eWaste and Medical waste recycling facility in every town. Provide more dry waste collection centres.

12. Give permission to open up food joints/ greater than 200 sized apartments / malls only with a biogas implementation. Old food joints should be charged penalty for not implementing wet waste handling at source. 

13. SHUT down polluting industries causing human and animal health issues

and the list goes on..

Fundamentally when we allow "make in India" , the foreign companies MUST cater to the environmental laws of this country so that we do not have another Union Carbide or Plachimada repeating.  "Swach " must start in the minds of the politicians in ensuring the intentions are truly "pro people" - " people" means those from the lowest strata of this country and not the high profile industries of this country.

 Let the Pourakarmikas hold the brooms .  The govt can ensure they are paid well for handling what the ministers cannot do. Ministers SHOULD go beyond the brooms and ensure atleast the list above is catered to in every nook and corner of India. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Borrowing Water from our children

My childhood was spent in valleys and scrub forests closer to the foot hills of Western ghats. I have vivid memories of  Vythiri mountains travelling through the winding roads of the 10 hair pin bends . One of the favourite memories of these annual vacations was the sighting of a lion tailed macaque on the 7th hairpin bend and the occasional stop over at the numerous streams to refill our drinking water source. I have loved the mountains and rivers as a child and when I grew up after spending 8 years into my IT job I realised my first love had always been nature. The reconnecting with nature happened under a banyan tree in Auroville and then there was no looking back. If  I have to die for a cause, it must be fighting for mother earth. 

The recent reports of Prof Madhav Gadgil to protect Western Ghats drew more curiosity in me to understand the need for conserving Western Ghats. It is known as the "biodiversity hotspot", all 44 perennial rivers of Kerala originate in these mountains , the majestic mountains force moisture laden winds coming off the Arabian sea to rise and receive in consequence heavy precipitation of 2000mm or more in year - commonly known as "monsoon" .The finance minister admits the economy of India is largely dependent on monsoons and monsoon is dependent on Western Ghats - geologically and biologically. Western Ghats is also known as the "water tower" of peninsular India -  nearly 4000 species of flowering plants or about 27% of the India's total species are known from the Ghats, of 645 species of evergreen trees  about 56% is endemic to the Ghats and the list goes on. To  an ordinary citizen like me, these biodiversity ranges represent food/ medicine  and  water security and   natural sequester of the much debated carbon dioxide - the contributor of global warming covering the three basic essential needs of homo sapiens - Air, Water and Food/ medicine.

There is a restlessness that has crept in my mind after few recent trips to the Kerala side of the ghats . Constantly one can see biodiverse patches being razed for monoculture crops like rubber , ginger  . Earlier coffee used to be grown under the shade of evergreen trees, but now there is systematic razing of  forest species to give way for  silver oak - the exotic timber species from Australia. Our quest to build palacial bunglows using granite has led to sprouting of quarries in these hydrologically and geologically fragile areas in the past decade. Our quest for travelling luxuriously has led to change in land use pattern from agro - based to resort based economy . One hydro electric project can sink many such landscapes and forest patches. In effect, locals find it difficult to buy farms as the land prices have sky rocketed - an age old practice of "farming" is projected as "unsustainable" because of vested interests pumping  money ( black or white ? ) into the system.The outcome - educated are at the behest of politicians , business men and govt officials who have  turned into real estate brokers or lobbyists for the mafia  impacting the  landscapes, hydrology and biodiversity of Western Ghats.
Shola Grasslands act as "Water Sinks"
Importance of Shola grasslands 
Wayanad is home to 3 major  rivers from the Western Ghats (Panamaram river, Manantavady river, Thirunelli river) flowing from the shola grasslands which eventually joins Kabani in Karnataka. Kabani (tributary of Cauvery river ) is a sixth order river and many many rivulets from the evergreen and shola forest patches form rivers that support major taluks Kalpetta, Manantavady and Sultan Battery. Many west flowing rivers like the mighty Chaliyar, Mahe Puzha, Kuttiyadi and Korapuzha river has its origins in the evergreen forests of Western Ghats in Wayanad and Nilgiri. Shola grasslands are the water sinks of the western ghats. They retain most of the rain they get over the monsoons and release it slowly through the year via a network of streams and rivers that eventually serve the needs of a huge number of human settlement across south India. The  Sholas are a mosaic of mountain evergreen forests and grasslands. They are found only in high altitude (> 1500 m ASL) regions within the tropics, and are limited to the southern part of the Western Ghats. 

In effect Shlolas and grasslands ensure the rivers on which the livelihood of millions are dependent are remaining perennial water source during periods of no rain.

Sholas and grasslands form a complete eco system .Many of these are endemic to the Western Ghats and some come under the category, 'rare' and 'threatened'.  Fire resistant temperate species dominate the fringes which act as natural fire belt
Table shows the various forests and mountains from where the rivulets originate to form major rivers

The striking factor is the importance of these "not so significant mountains in the tourist map" as the source of drinking water and its importance in hydrology and geology of the land. Every evergreen forest with its' diverse forest species act like a sponge during the monsoon and slowly releasing water during the dry months. Nature's water control mechanism is visible in all these mountain peaks. 

Human atrocities on Mountains and Rivers of Wayanad

Quarrying : There were atleast 15 illegal quarries run inside the forest land for the past 30 years which was stopped by the local officials.  Many more run outside the forests causing high level of air pollution to children and adults. These are run flouting safety rules of less than 10 m from human inhabitation. Quarries are like scars of mother earth - they deplete the ground water sources, make the land prone to landslides . Once the landscape is gone there is no scope for planting anything on it. This is an irreversible process.

Phantom Rock, as the name suggests, is blocks of huge rocks in the shape of a human skull. During the season, a lot of visitors, including foreigners, reach here to see this wonder of nature. As many as 50 granite quarries near the rock are posing serious threats to this exquisite formation. Below is Phantom rock : Pic Courtesy EM Manoj , The Hindu. 

The quarries have just spared the Phantom rock and are eating away the surrounding landscapes causing serious health issues to people living around it. Children constantly live in fear of being hit by stones from the blasts of the quarry. Tribes have been dependent on these mountains for centuries and in less than a decade we have depleted their land and water.

Unsustainable Tourism : Landscapes of Wayanad are the attraction for tourists . They have the power to connect you spritually with nature's settings. Chembra , Banasura peaks are complete with its' foothills also intact. Uncontrolled development is spreading like cancer in these landscapes .  Forest lands are eaten away in the name of "eco tourism" . Once a quiet historical point of Vythiri is now eaten away by roadside resorts, multi storeyed apartments. There are no standards set by the government on segregation of waste and its safe disposal / recycling / composting. Many restaurants continue to give away "use and throw" plates, spoons and glasses which add to the volumes of waste that Wayanad is generating in its eco sensitive zone. Waste is also dumped on the Shola forest patches/ river beds and many times the forest department has to fight with local panchayats. Read
The general tendency for any tourist place is to become over crowded. Crowd  attracts traffic , noise pollution and generates volumes of  "un managed waste" in the form of "Kurkure /lays covers" that are non recyclable .
Crowded spots of tourism causing point pollution
Non Recyclable packets are sold 

Eating into shola grass lands - Eye sore for landscape - Imagine converting the entire mountain with homestays and resorts. Uncontrolled development will be the end of Western Ghats in Wayanad

Foothills of Chembra being eaten away by homestays and resorts . Conversion of farmlands are rampant with tourism

We as customers can  ask a few questions to ensure environmentally sustainable tourism : 

  1. Are these resorts built on forest land or have impacted shola or evergreen patches ?
  2. How are they disposing their solid waste and waste water ? 
  3. Are styrofoam plates and cups banned in Wayanad hotels and restaurants  ?
  4. Is there a ban on plastic covers in local shops and restaurants ?
  5. What kind of chemical free detergents are used to reduce impacts on surface and ground water ?
  6. Are they creating habitat loss for large mammals like elephants and tigers ? 
  7. How is  district administration  auditing the practices followed by these resorts ?
  8. How are local environmental samithis treated if there are complaints raised on environmental practices followed by resorts and other point pollution areas ?

How can we as consumers travel responsibly to environmentally fragile places : 

  1. Can we say NO to Kurkure and Lays while visiting these pristine landscapes ? 
  2. Can women start using Ecofemme sanitary pads and not contaminate the rivers and forests . Sanitary pads cannot be recycled and goes to landfills 
  3. Can we ensure we do not throw any kind of plastic/ paper litter inside the reserves or any other place ?
  4. Can we ensure we travel at 40km per hour inside a wildlife sanctuary or a national park to avoid surprises with large mammals ?
  5. Can we ensure the plastics we carry are taken back home and not left in these eco destinations ?
  6. Can we abide by the rules of the forest and not feed or tease animals ? 
  7. Can we ensure we carry our own water bottles and look for places for refill rather than depending on bisleri and acquafina ?
  8. Can we ensure we do not dump anything into the common dustbins causing more volume of waste for disposal and management ?
  9. Can we start camping in farms rather than asking for luxurious constructions in pristine landscapes ? OR stay in hotels closer to towns rather than on resorts built altering landscapes.
  10. Can we overall reduce our needs and wants while travelling and be willing to compromise on luxury ?

Can we say "NO" to places like Wayand where there is no limitation to convert landscapes into resorts, apartments and multi storeyed buildings ? Can we as customers show our purchasing power on "right governance " ?

"Unsustainable" Development:
The shola forest and grasslands in the picture below are the main source of water to Pookode lake,  a famous tourist destination in Wayand. This pernnial fresh water lake, nestled among wooded hills, is the only of its kinds in Kerala.Pethia pookodensis is a species of fish known to occur only in Pookode lake. The lake has abundance of blue lotus and fresh water fishes. The forests surrounding the lake hold many wild animals and birds.

Various groups including Kerala veterinary and animal sciences university has acquired 3000 acres of forest/ tribal land for developing as concrete campus. The phase I of the construction is complete. The picture shows how one of the main buildings is built on the shola grassland. Few mountains were already mowed down for these constructions. There were two lakes inside the campus used by the tribals - one is converted into a playground.
Buildings cutting the shola forest patches
The proposed sheep farm is planned right above the rivulet to Pookode lake. Planned contamination of water
The master plan of veterinary construction was obtained through RTI . The plan includes a helipad, indoor stadium and close to 30 concrete buildings on the shola grasslands.  Above all, tribal land is being diverted for large scale development purposes on shola grasslands. The university claims there are no trees on the land when they started construction. Wish they knew the importance of shola grasslands !!!

The master plan of the university campus gives a glimpse  of how large scale conversion of shola grasslands  to concrete structures would be done in a planned manner.Converting shola grassland would have adverse impacts on water holding/ releasing capacity.  The proposed sheep farm inside the campus will  also dump heavy loads of animal waste into the shola forest and the rivulets connecting the feeder to Pookode lake. These human interference in massive scale would mean slow death of rivers and the lake itself.  

Similar to the Pookode project is the plan to convert 100 hectares of  wetlands into an international airport near Panamaram when there are 2 airports 3 hours away (Kozhikode and Kannur ). The impact would be taking hectares of mountains elsewhere to fill the wetlands, quarrying granite from nearby hills . The impact is just not restricted to the identified place in Panamaram but to other places where landscapes would be altered to build the airport. 

Pookode and Panamaram are just examples of how large scale development project on eco fragile lands could adversely impact large sections of pristine landscapes, rivers , mountains and paddy fields that would provide food and water to locals dependent on them. These are natural systems that has evolved over millions of years and one such "development " project would completely annihilate the ecology linked to landscape forever . The impact would be slow death of rivers, drought, lack of ground water.

 It is important that we DO NOT support multi crore projects tampering with fragile ecosystems. This would be equivalent to cutting the branch of the tree we are sitting on . There are many places in the plains where  university or airport could have been planned. Why choose Wayanad which is part of the biodiversity hotspot ? Don't we have the responsibility to ensure that our next generation can meet their basic needs ? (Especially water )

Shifting our lifestyles 
Western countries have started realising their folly of unsustainable development over the past few decades. Many large corporations have started adopting LEED certification and adopting green building practices. Many people have started adopting simpler lifestyles using cob, adobe, rammed earth as construction material for their individual needs within and outside India.

  1. If we already own homes can we stop thinking of buying new ones and also changing the granite ,marble slabs in our rooms for aesthetics ? 
  2. Can we think of local mud as a main medium for construction instead of depending on granite /marble quarries . It takes millions of years to form these rocks . Quarrying affects the local population's health and the hydology and geology of the land.
  3. Can we look at planting trees which would supply wood for our construction later on ? Teak, bamboo, areca if grown on your own land can become good renewable material for future building. Dependence on forests endlesslessly for wood is unsustainable.
  4. Can we adopt green building practices while constructing without altering the landscapes, moving mountains and mud ? 
  5. Can we start composting our waste at source and depend on natural light in our homes ? (Reduction of waste and energy )
  6. Can we ask the local administration to bring in policies to use JCB in hilly areas. The use of JCB would trigger landslides in these fragile lands that are heavily deforested of its' native species.
For more information on mud construction techniques in India :
and also read the book "Little Home on a Small Planet"

Living roof homes
Protecting our landscapes and forests

There are heroes of our times who have been doing the herculean task of safeguarding the forests. Ethical forest officers, lawyers, media, eco samithis make up the best possible combination of ensuring vested interests do not prevail and eat up the landscapes and forests. They fight  very tough battles to ensure our food and water security.  

Seven generation sustainability

There is a famous great law of the Iroquois  : "In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation ... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine". Seven generation sustainability is an ecological concept that urges the current generation of humans to live sustainably and work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. This holds appropriate to think seven generations ahead ( about 140 years into the future) and decide whether the decisions they make today would benefit their children seven generations into the future.  

Borrowing from our children

I travel through the Vythiri hair pin bends quite often these days. My heart feels heavy seeing the encroachment of forests on the mountains. Illegal areca/ rubber plantations, hotels , road side vendors cashing from the views of hills  are eating away the pristine evergreen forests.  The highly endangered lion tailed macaques would have shifted its' habitat from the Vythiri hills , probably they will never return .... I know I will never be able to experience that oneness with nature  in these hills when the mountains are stripped off its' stones and hills are denuded for timber.

Our forests, mountains and rivers are borrowed from our children. We have no right to allow any politician to control our lands in the name of tourism , unsustainable development and quarrying. The local tribes have conserved these places for centuries. In  half a decade the greed for more money is depleting our rivers and forests.

 It is immaterial if we intellectually support Prof Madhav Gadgil's recommendations for Western Ghats - the reality is Western Ghats need to be conserved for millions of people dependent on these mountains and  its' water, medicinal plants and forests into our seventh generation. It is the duty of every citizen to conserve it . Let us not allow religious leaders , politicians, govt officers with vested interest on land to take decisions for our posterity. We have the right as consumer to demand for sustainable tourism . Green thinking must go beyond mere planting of trees to large scale conservation of eco fragile landscapes within and outside forest boundaries .
Voice YOUR Opinions
Write to Wayanad collector and ask for sustainable tourism in the hills.
References :