How green were the hills

Print edition : April 28, 2017

A view of Munnar. Unbridled development activities have destroyed the ecological balance of the region. Photo: S. Krishnamoorthy

Munnar in the tourist season. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The reports of the Land Revenue Commissioner and the Assembly Committee on encroachments, gross violations of land rules, and unbridled construction in Munnar put the spotlight again on the degradation of one of south India’s most attractive tourism destinations.

WITH all its scars, Munnar may still fit the description, “a heaven on earth”. But the place is increasingly becoming an assortment of denuded forests and fragmented grasslands, dry, polluted streams and ill-used and heavily built-up hills and valleys—the cumulative result of countless private “development” initiatives that have been mauling the giant green canvas of Munnar ever since it became one of south India’s most lucrative tourism destinations.

The town in Idukki district has been changing at an alarming pace, especially in the past two decades. Illegal construction activities are booming; rivers are growing dark and dry and are brimming with garbage; unscientific tourism projects have been adding to the problems of unrestrained urbanisation; traffic is growing beyond the region’s carrying capacity; and a hot, uneasy weather is replacing its seasonal pleasantness.

Munnar’s uncertain future came to light when the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan launched an eviction drive against illegal encroachers of government land in May 2007 ( Frontline, July 27, 2007). The never-before action, by a three-member special task force set up by the government, saw several buildings, including premium resorts, being razed and several acres of encroached land being recovered in Munnar and surrounding areas.

The drive to evict illegal encroachers was launched with the aim of distributing some portion of the recovered land, based on norms, among landless labourers, farmers, tribal people and others who were poor; protecting ecologically fragile land thus recovered; and developing Munnar on the basis of a master plan after taking into account its ecological fragility and tourism potential.

The demolition drive was sure to fail and it did within three months, because it sought to strike at the very heart of a thriving alliance among real estate businessmen, land dealers, corrupt government officials, politicians and political parties—the hidden hands behind the illegal encroachments, as two inquiry reports then brought out clearly.

After its initial successes, the drive triggered a debilitating political controversy, with a part of the local office of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a prominent LDF constituent, also being among the first constructions that were targeted. The controversy soon submerged the real issues in Munnar.

A report submitted by the Additional Director General of Police, Rajan Madhekar, in 2004, demonstrated the scale of encroachment of revenue and forest land in Munnar, Devikulam and the Kanan Devan Hills with the connivance of politicians and revenue officials. Subsequently, the report of the then Principal Secretary (Revenue), Nivedita P. Haran, left no one in doubt that the imminent ecological danger in Munnar was the result of the unhindered activity of the land mafia, which had close links with officials of the Revenue, Registration and Survey departments; that the involvement of top political leaders and officials and lawyers often made village officers—who are key elements in safekeeping and sanctioning records—helpless; that the resurvey ordered by the government had turned out to be a joke and was the main reason for the corruption in the land deals; that the police were reluctant to inquire into the cases involving false title deeds; and that the land-grabbers who destroyed Munnar had already set their eyes on neighbouring Chinnakkanal, Pallivasal, Bison Valley and Pothenmedu areas.

As the drama of the 2007 eviction drive fizzled out, land-grabbers, illegal miners, builders and the forest mafia began to thrive as never before. All the above-mentioned areas, including Munnar, now face large-scale degradation, as a recent report of the State Land Revenue Commissioner has informed the Kerala Assembly’s Committee on Environment.

The Assembly’s Committee has in a special report tabled in House on March 13 recommended that all non-domestic construction activities there should be stopped forthwith. It said the temporary ban should continue until a Munnar Environmental Protection and Development Authority is established within six months to ensure that laws and rules on the major activities that are now going on in Munnar and have proved to be its bane are being followed.

The committee has said that “immediate intervention is required in the matter of large-scale construction activity taking place there with concessions and sanctions obtained illegally using pressure and influence to overcome the government’s regulatory systems”. It has also said, among other things, that construction or continued functioning of buildings that have flouted rules relating to height should be stopped; that the title deeds on land used for purposes other than those that are permitted should be revoked and the land reclaimed by the government; that separate zones should be earmarked and special building rules should be formulated and implemented for each of them.

The committee had sought reports from various government agencies and departments. Among them, the report of the Land Revenue Commissioner on “Munnar’s environmental problems” provides a disturbing picture of the serious issues plaguing the Munnar region.

It says that the most widespread among the illegal activities in the Munnar region are constructions undertaken flouting the title deed/lease conditions. Huge buildings are built in cardamom plantations that have the status of forests and on land assigned only for farming, where the land assignment and regularisation laws allow only construction of houses, small shops and buildings meant to support individual farming operations. No construction activity is allowed in cardamom plantations, except those needed for growing the crop. It also points out that the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court, in an order issued on January 21, 2010, criticised the illegal constructions and encroachments in the Munnar region and said that the authorities concerned should ensure that no construction activity took place in Munnar without the No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued by the District Collector.

However, the court’s use of the name “Munnar” has been wrongly interpreted to mean “Munnar town” alone. Construction activities have been going on without restraint in the villages around Munnar and a large number of resorts have been constructed in environmentally fragile areas and even slopes of hills that are prone to landslides.

The Munnar Special Tribunal Act 2010 defines the “Munnar region” as being composed of eight villages. However, the report states that the special climate and environmental equilibrium of the Munnar region is, in fact, dependent on the geographical peculiarities and biodiversity of a much larger area—a total of 13 contiguous villages that are closely linked by a common geography.

They incorporate a vast area in the Western Ghats region, including the Kanan Devan Hills, Pallivasal, Mankulam and Anaviratti villages in Devikulam taluk; Marayur, Kanthallur, Kottakkambur and Vattavada villages known together as Anjunadu region; and Chinnakkanal, Bison Valley, Pooppara and Santhanpara villages in Udumbanchola taluk that is part of the Cardamom Hill Reserve.

All such villages are situated between 1,300 and 2,500 metres above sea level and also consist of Iravikulam, Pampadumchola, Anamudichola, and Mathikettanchola national parks and Kurinji and Chinnar wildlife sanctuaries. Moreover, the Munnar region includes the two highest peaks in south India, Anaimudi (2,695 m) and Meesappulimala (2,640 m), as well as grasslands, cardamom plantations with the characteristics of forests, reserve forests, and populated areas.

However, unbridled construction activities in the populated areas, and environmentally damaging and unbridled development activities, encroachments by the land mafia in protected areas, granite and sand mining activities, agriculture practices unsuitable to the terrain and ineffective pollution control measures have “destroyed the environmental and ecological balance and polluted the entire region, including its water sources, in such a way that it affects the daily life of lakhs of people living there”. If this situation continues, Munnar will soon disappear from the world tourism map, the report warns.

The report says that the intervention of the land mafia has increased manifold in the region and bogus title deeds have proliferated because land records have not been kept properly and securely in the various offices of the Revenue Department. Revenue records have been consistently destroyed over the years with the connivance of officials. The illegal documents now in vogue include title deeds created using false records; titles given on land unsuitable for assignment (such as the land near the penstock pipes of the Pallivasal hydroelectric project), title deeds issued by officials not authorised to issue such records; title deeds created using bogus power of attorney; and title deeds made in a totally fraudulent manner.

Absence of records

Moreover, the absence of survey/revenue records acts as a hindrance to monitoring the encroachments on government land and the various types of bogus title deeds that are in vogue. Although several inquiries have been conducted, especially during the Munnar eviction drive, they have remained incomplete and actions undertaken in a few cases had to be stopped because of agitations and protests by local political leaders. The largest number of encroachments on government land has been taking place in the Kanan Devan Hills, and Pallivasal and Chinnakkanal villages, where grasslands of much environmental importance and land belonging to various government departments have been usurped by the land mafia.

Although a special office to remove the encroachments and to unearth false title deeds and take action on those responsible has been established, the office is perennially understaffed and has not been able to function properly. At other places, as in the eight villages described as Munnar region under the Munnar Special Tribunal Act 2010, orders issued to village officers to stop construction activity done without NOC from the District Collector have been frustrated by court cases and appeals on them.

The report also indicates that in many areas where the Cardamom Rules of 1935 are applicable, such as the cardamom plantations in Pallivasal and Aanaviratti villages which have all the characteristics of forest land, trees are cut down and rock and sand are mined for commercial building activities. Similar construction activities violating assignment rules are taking place in the larger Munnar region that includes the villages outside the eight villages described in the Special Tribunal Act.

The Land Revenue Commissioner has also called attention to illegal constructions and encroachments in the Cardamom Hill Reserve area, including Chinnakkanal, Bison Valley, Santhanpara and Pooppara villages.

These villages are largely made up of forests that have been converted into cardamom plantations, evergreen forests and grasslands and populated areas. Declared as a reserve forest by the Travancore government in 1896, the Cardamom Hill Reserve area, one of the most important biodiversity areas in the Western Ghats, is now governed by Central forest laws. Yet, a large number of encroachments and illegal constructions “with the connivance of some revenue and forest officials” are taking place. A case in point is Chinnakkanal village, which is a key locale falling under the Cardamom Hill Reserve.

Interestingly, the report focusses attention on the fact that although the villages in the region are categorised as disaster-prone areas in the multiple hazard zonation map prepared by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, the State’s common building and mining rules do not take into account the hazardous conditions prevailing in such sensitive places. As a result, on the one hand, several multistorey buildings have come up in hazardous localities such as Pallivasal and Chinnakkanal villages, and on the other, mining in the high-range areas of Munnar is governed by rules that are applicable to the entire State. This creates a situation whereby mining activities of a dangerous extent and nature can be conducted legally in the Munnar high-range region that is prone to hazards, and the Revenue Department has very few powers to prevent them.

The report also talks at length about the other major environmental issues at Munnar, including mounting water and solid waste pollution in Munnar town and lack of facilities to manage them; man-animal conflicts in the larger Munnar region as a result of increasing human intervention; illegal mining activities; and severe water scarcity caused by large areas in rain-deficit parts of Munnar coming under eucalyptus plantations. The Commissioner’s report also includes 23 detailed suggestions to solve these various issues. The Assembly committee, too, has made its own separate recommendations.

Complex issues

However, the Achuthanandan government’s eviction drive at Munnar in 2007 brought one simple truth to light: whatever may be the dire environmental and social consequences of such large-scale encroachments, no government could hope to evict illegal beneficiaries without disturbing the “hornet’s nest”, as it were, or the unholy network that was behind them—or without being ready to handle the complex set of inconvenient legal issues and historical facts that would then tumble down on its head. The complex legal tangle that would inevitably follow has frustrated all earlier attempts to clean the mess in Munnar.

Media attention is once again on Munnar because the situation is similar to that existed in 2007. Along with the reports of the Land Revenue Commissioner and the Assembly Committee has come the bold action of a young Sub Collector in Devikulam taluk, Sriram Venkataraman, taking on encroachers and unauthorised real estate and mining activity within his jurisdiction.

A political battle is brewing, with the local leaders of parties within the LDF, most prominently those of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in the forefront of an agitation against the eviction drive, portraying it as a move not against the lawbreakers but against the settler farmers and ordinary people who have been living there for generations. The official is facing many threats, including the threat of physical harm—that he would “soon walk on four legs”—even as Revenue Minister E. Chandrasekharan of the CPI firmly said the officer was merely implementing government policy.

At a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram on March 27, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took a conciliatory position, suggesting that the government would act against the encroachers, but the interests of the environment as well as of the people of Idukki would have to be protected. The Congress has demanded that the government act against encroachers and on the reports before it. The State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party has sought the Central government’s intervention “to ensure that a tragedy like the one in Uttarakhand does not happen in Munnar”. A hurriedly put together outfit named Munnar Janakeeya Samiti organised a hartal at the hill station on April 2 against moves by what it called the “media mafia” to portray people of the region living there for generations as encroachers and to “destroy the tourism industry” there.

Kerala is witnessing an all-too familiar political drama while the encroachers and mining and real estate lobbies and other vested interests are waiting for it all to end quickly, so that it will be business as usual in Munnar once again.