Why ecologists, locals are divided over denotification of Nilgiris private forests

Why ecologists, locals are divided over denotification of Nilgiris private forests

The recent recommendation by a committee, headed by the district collector to denotify more than 5,000 hectares of private forest land in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district, has divided environmentalists and locals. While the former has pointed out that the area to be denotified is eco-sensitive in nature, locals are celebrating the move, saying 30-year-old mistakes have been rectified.

The root of the locals’ complaint lies in a 1991 notification. Following the Tamil Nadu Preservation of Private Forests (TNPPF) Act, 1949, which brought forest lands owned by erstwhile landlords (zamindars) into the government hold, the district administration issued a fresh notification in 1991. Plots bigger than 5 acres are to be considered forests and protected. Plots smaller than 5 acres can be sold, but only after getting an approval from the committee headed by the district collector.

But locals have always objected to the 1991 notification, claiming that many places even within Gudalur town were erroneously marked as forests. Plots measuring a few cents were also brought under the notified areas, which goes against the TNPPF Act, they said.

“The district management notified large swathes of land historically inhabited by locals without consulting them in 1991. We were told that the freshly notified areas were decided based on land records, and they didn’t check whether those fall into private forest category. People holding ryotwari pattas of less than 5 acres or even a few cents were affected, as the government issued orders in 2009 banning sale or registrations of the notified lands. They weren’t able to sell their land even for essential needs, such as education or marrying off their kids,” said PT Varghese, president of People’s Livelihood Movement, which fights for the rights of people living on forest land.

Also read: How Nilgiris’ tea, exotic plantations are warding off its endemic Shola birds

20% of forests at risk

The Nilgiris district administration claims that since the demands were genuine, a re-notification has been recommended to the high-level committee under the Tamil Nadu government. But ecologists point out that the 5,200 hectares in question amount to 20% of the total private forests in Nilgiris, risking the fine balance of the environment of the ecologically sensitive hills.

Ecologists pointed out that the idea behind the notification, as per the Act, was to restrict the felling of trees or change the contours of the zone to protect its forests. “More than 30,000 hectares of private forest are protected as per the notification in Nilgiris. Out of that, 5,200 hectares have been recommended to be denotified. It comes to 52 sq km, and 20% of the total private forest lands. The magnitude shows how harmful the recommendations could be,” said N Mohanraj, former coordinator of WWF India.

Mohanraj pointed out that the act in no way prohibits the sale of lands measuring less than 5 acres, if proper approval is obtained. “The government had to issue stringent orders in 2009 since many people split up their lands for sale or other purposes. The district committee is entrusted with the role of protecting the forests,” he told The Federal.

Also read: How tea brews trouble for parties in the Nilgiris

Process is punishment

However, locals complain that the process is the punishment. “On paper, it is clear that a person owning less than 5 acres of patta land can apply for sale or lease of land. But the process is where the problem lies. The district committee has the District Forest Officer, Tehsildar, and Executive Engineer of the Agriculture department as its members. All of them have to get information from ground-level staff before signing on the document. Every stage involves bribery to move files. Even then, it drags on for years,” said Ahmed Yaseen, a resident of Gudalur in Nilgiris.

Yaseen further pointed out that the 1991 notification had many flaws that had to be rectified. “The plots notified as private in 1991 came under 10 villages of Gudalur with a significant human population. Almost 70% of Gudalur region was brought under the notification, which is clearly untenable. Some of the notified areas included many urban areas with no trace of forests,” Yaseen told The Federal.

The irony of Nilgiris

On the one hand, Nilgiris is India’s oldest biosphere, formed in 1986, and is considered fragile. On the other hand, it was one of the first hill stations in India to be marked so by the British, making it a popular tourist destination even today, bringing along with it human dwellings. That has led to large human settlements and agricultural activities in and around the forests. That is at the core of the conflict.

Already, the popular hill station Ooty in Nilgiris district is plagued with unplanned urbanization, catering to 25 lakh tourists every year. Some of the areas recommended for denotification involve one village in Ooty, too.

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A large chunk of forest cover of Nilgiris district was lost to tea and coffee plantations during the British era. The private forest act was brought in to curtail further loss of forest land, as almost 50% of the forested area in Nilgiris district is already covered with plantations. Conservationists point out that it is one of the reasons for an increased number of landslides in the hills, which sit on soft soil. Nearly 40 tonnes of soil are washed away every year in the Nilgiris, which is alarming.

Since 50% of the Nilgiris forests were denuded in the past to make way for plantations, the condition has worsened. Unlike other rivers of the states, those originating from the Nilgiris are reportedly muddy throughout the year because of continuous erosion. The roots of coffee and tea plants cannot hold on to the soil as well as big trees do.

Deforestation has also reportedly led to an increase in human-animal conflict. Wild elephants lost much of their food resources and corridors to plantations. Last year, 32 people were killed in the Nilgiris by wild animals; 26 of them were killed by elephants. Since some of the denotified lands fall under the Segur Elephant Corridor, concerns over a rise in human-animal conflict were also raised.

The bigger picture

Ecologists warn that we should not miss the bigger picture in dealing with the issue. “The Tamil Nadu government wants to increase the forest cover of the state from 26% to 33%. Such denotification will worsen the forest cover and not improve it,” said Mohanraj. Nilgiris is currently Tamil Nadu’s fifth-largest district in terms of forest cover.

Even though locals seem to be the immediate beneficiaries of the decision, we must not lose sight of long-term impact, said Mohanraj. “Because of the private forest Act, we could stop the construction of a needle factory in the Nilgiris in the past,” he said.

“Now, when the locals sell the land, rich people from faraway places will buy them. They have all the liberty to change the contours of the land once it is denotified. They will build bungalows, or resorts, and other commercial buildings. Already, municipal administration officials are worried about the pollution of commercial buildings and the menace of bungalows locked throughout the year. We have to see it from the perspective that Nilgiris is an important catchment area for River Cauvery. It is also the lifeline of Erode and Coimbatore cities,” he said.

Varghese agreed that these forests are to be protected, but said locals always stand in the forefront in protecting them.

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“The government has many wings to protect the forest land from urbanisation, pollution, and commercialisation, which must continue to function appropriately. But from the very beginning, tribals and locals have been protecting these forests, as our livelihood depends on them. We petitioned the government 20 years ago to do something to stop the onslaught of alien plants on the Nilgiris forest but to no avail. Traditional knowledge of tribals was ignored and now they claim we are the problem,” Varghese told The Federal.

“All we are asking is for the district administration and the government to rectify the mistakes they made in 1991,” he said.

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