Whose corridor is it anyway?

By M Suchitra

It is an enchanting picture from the Vibhuthi Malai hillock on the fringes of Mudumalai national park. Dense forests are interspersed with blue mountains, gentle grasslands, thick bamboo clusters and ribbon-like rivulets. The stretch is dotted with fenced farms, huts and an array of resorts that have mushroomed over the past decade, including that of Bollywood actor Mithun Chakraborty.

Bokkapuram, about 30 km from the tourist hotspot Ooty, is part of Sigur plateau in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, the only link between the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats. For about two years, the plateau has been involved in a fierce battle. At daggers drawn are the state forest department and wildlife conservation groups on one side and farmers, tribal people and resort owners on the other.

What triggered the conflict was the state government’s August 2010 order to acquire 2,822 hectares (ha) from the 44,800 ha plateau for a proposed elephant corridor. Of this, 1,710 ha is private land. The forest department and wildlife conservation groups contend the land is required for ‘management activity to take care of the elephants and other wildlife’.

In April last year, the Madras High Court upheld the government order notifying the new corridor. It directed resort owners and other private land owners to ‘vacate and hand over vacant possessions of land’ falling within the notified elephant corridor to the Nilgiris district collector within three months. The Supreme Court, where the case is pending, stayed the order in July last year. A final verdict is expected soon. The conflict escalated on 21 April when the union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) submitted a statement in the SC against the new corridor. It said that private land that the state government proposes to take over includes resorts, estates, land cultivated by about 200 farmers and another 700 Dalit and Adivasi families living there for generations. Many Dalit and Adivasi youths are employed as workers in the resorts. Their rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) have not been settled yet, the ministry noted.

Conservation groups say the statement was an outcome of lobbying by resort owners. The corridor was proposed on the basis of a report of an expert committee formed by the state government in 2009. It was set up to look into the petition of Chennai-based wildlife group, In Defence of Environment and Animals, seeking removal of encroachments in the animal corridors in the Nilgiris.

‘When the SC asked the ministry to give its comments on the expert committee’s report, the ministry tried to set up a new committee to study the ground realities all over again,’ says S Jayachandran of Tamil Nadu green movement, a non-profit organisation. He had filed a petition in the Madras High Court against a memorandum issued by MoEF on 17 February this year to constitute a new committee. The High Court refused the ministry’s proposal to form a new panel.

People are angry with the proposed corridor. It will affect five hamlets of Bokkapuram and parts of Masinagudi, Kadanadu and Hullathi panchayats. They say the identification and demarcation of the new corridor lacks logic and scientific backing. The expert committee, which comprised five state forest officials, conducted field studies for only two days and was ready with a report within 20 days.

P T Verghese, president of Masinagudi Farmers and Land Owners Association, cites the book Right of Passage: Elephant Corridors of India, which identified 88 elephant corridors in the country.

‘Scientists and experts identified the corridors after conducting a thorough field study. What is the need for another corridor covering thousands of hectares?’ asks Verghese. The corridors identified in the book do not affect forest-dwellers, tribal people or the general population.

People and resort owners allege the state government officials have been influenced by big conservation groups like World Wide Fund for Nature, operating in the area for many years. Studies conducted since the 1970s point out the importance of Sigur plateau in the long-term conservation of elephant population. These studies were conducted by research institutions and conservation groups like the Indian Institute of Science, Bombay Natural History Society, Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre and Project Elephant under MoEF.

The plateau connects the contiguous ranges of Nagarhole, Bandipur, Wayanad and Mudumalai national parks, and the Nilgiris north division to Bilgiriranga and Satyamangalam wildlife sanctuaries in the Eastern Ghats. The national parks and their adjoining reserve forests in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, spreading over 1.2 million ha and supporting about 8,000 elephants, is the largest remaining Asiatic elephant population, an endangered species. They are also home to tigers, panthers, wild dogs, hyenas and other large mammals.

Though the wildlife sanctuaries are protected, Sigur plateau is largely unprotected – it does not fall under any national park. In the last two decades, elephant habitats have fragmented because of increased human activities, the expert committee said in its report. The plateau has been declared an environmentally sensitive area under the Environment Protection Act. This prohibits construction of resorts in  the area. There are 57 resorts within the proposed corridor, the report says. Many have solar electric fences which obstruct animal movement, it says. In fact, 11 forest guest houses in the core of the tiger reserve have electric fences around them, says Mathias.

‘Considering the ecological importance of the area, government should have initiated steps to protect this land long back,’ says B J Krishnan, environmental lawyer. There is too much confusion about land ownership and its legal status, he adds. Patta land becomes private forest ‘On the one hand, the government collectes tax from us and on the other hand, it says we are functioning illegally,’ says Mathias.

The Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forest (TNPPF) Act, 1949, prohibits sale, purchase, lease and mortgage of land without the permission of a district-level committee headed by the collector.

According to the state government, resort owners at Sigur did not take permission to purchase land from such a committee. Therefore, all transactions stand invalid and there is no need to pay them compensation.

However, these tracts of land were originally with title deeds (patta).

Resorts have mushroomed in the area in the last 10 years. Had the government implemented the notification in 1991, the area would have remained undisturbed.

While giving a go-ahead to the corridor, the Madras High Court directed the state government to strictly follow the FRA in the case of tribes and other forest-dwellers. But ‘there is ambiguity in the order itself,' says C R Bijoy, who works for Campaign For Survival and Dignity, a national platform of tribal and forest dwellers’ organisations in 10 states. ‘The ruling says settle the rights first and then acquire land,’ he says.

If the apex court upholds the High Court order without any modification, it will enable forest departments to take over vast stretches of land without settlement of rights. This will have serious consequences for vast areas of forests with forest-dwellers across the country.

Fear of eviction looms large over tribal people. When the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve, thousands of hectares belonging to nine village panchayats were included in the sanctuary’s core area.

‘When we approach the gram panchayat for basic amenities like drinking water, they say they cannot do anything because we fall within the corridor,’ says Kulmasi, a tribal leader in Bokkapuram village. The tribal people say they have been living here for generations and have no conflict with animals. The expert committee report revealed that in the past 10 years only five persons were killed by elephants in Sigur. The figure for the country is 2,897.

The Elephant Task Force of the MoEF specifically recommended against acquisition and takeover of land for protecting elephant corridors. ‘No conservation is possible through just exercising bureaucratic or judicial powers and antagonising the local communities,’ says P S Easa, conservation expert and one of the editors of Right of Passage. Areas under conflict can be declared as community forest resource under FRA or an environmentally sensitive area under the Environment Protection Act in consultation with local communities. With the prevailing distrust, a dialogue between the two sides is necessary to solve the problem democratically, says Easa.

On arrangement with the Down to Earth magazine.
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