|Jumbo issue: Land acquisition for an elephant corridor in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve region has hit a deadlock
An adult Asian elephants requires 250-300kg of fodder and 200 litres of water a day. The pachyderms in the wild spend 16 to 20 hours a days searching for food and water. Thus, migratory routes between fragmented habitats are crucial for the survival of these giants.
The Western Ghats, home to the largest population of Asian elephants, is a region where elephants have roamed like kings. However, as human and developmental pressure started cutting off their migratory routes, protection of elephant corridors or “narrow channels between habitats” has become paramount.
Currently, the word corridor has become a hot potato in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve region in Tamil Nadu, with green activists and land owners engaged in a bitter battle over demarcation of about 4,225 acres of patta land in Sholur panchayat which is part of Sigur plateau, a crucial link between the Western and Eastern Ghats.
It all began in 2006, when the Union environment ministry had directed states to protect elephant corridors identified in a Wildlife Trust of India’s reference book, Right of Passage. The book gives details of 88 corridors across India, after the first detailed study by elephant experts and agencies.
In 2008, an activist filed a petition seeking removal of encroachments on the four elephant corridors that were identified in the region. Subsequently, a government order was passed to acquire 583.42 acres of patta land within the corridors. But as that order was challenged, the Madras High Court directed the Tamil Nadu forest department to “identify and inform” about the corridors in the region.
Land owners here point out that this exercise had already been carried out under the WTI umbrella and that the findings had been ratified by the forest department. However, an expert committee consisting of top forest department officials was formed and it sought the acquisition of 4,225 acres of patta land for a fifth corridor in the region.
In 2010, a government order directing acquisition of the area required was issued. It was challenged, but the Madras High Court upheld the order in April 2011. The case is in the Supreme Court.
The areas in question come under Moyar, Mavanallah, Bokkapuram and Vazhaithottam hamlets, and the proposed acquisition would displace more than 100 families. “Most of these lands have been agricultural since 1527. They were never forests,” argues P.T. Varghese, who heads a land owners’ association. “Right of Passage does not mention any fifth corridor; now where did it come from?”
M. Narasimhan, who heads the CPI(M)’s farmers union in the region, concurs. “These areas marked by the expert committee have been under cultivation for long,” he says. “Just take the case of Vazhaithottam hamlet: the name means plantain farm; will any sane person would have done plantain farming had this been a traditional elephant corridor?”
Meanwhile, the expert committee’s report states: “The increasing human population in this area [Sigur Plateau] has caused substantial impact on the vegetation. The mushrooming growth of leisure resorts in the corridor area and extension of settlements have caused problems of human-elephant conflict.”
The greens, too, are unrelenting. “As a co-appellant in the case, I should not be commenting, yet I would stress that most people claiming to be farmers are encroachers, and they are being backed by the resort owners. We will fight it out in the Supreme Court,” says S. Jayachandran, secretary of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association.
It is easy to portray resort owners as “insensitive”, says Vikram Mathias, who owns Jungle Hut resort, established in 1985. “To say that we are merely resort owners would undermine and trivialise our relation with this land. We are not absentee owners who come in from time to time and just reap profit; we live here,” he says. “Most areas here were initially barren. Today we are a veritable jungle, thanks to private reforestation initiatives. Any botanist will be able to verify the ages of these trees.”
What about allegations of resorts flouting rules by erecting electric fencing, baiting animals, organising illegal safaris, using high-beam flashlights and playing loud music?
“Let me ask you, how come the forest department has not taken any action so far?” he asks. “I agree there could be resorts that are involved in such malpractices, but one should not generalise. Indeed, for long, some of us have been asking the authorities to give us eco-tourism guidelines, but they have not bothered to respond. Can’t we try set a precedent of successfully cohabiting with animals?” Now that is a question the Supreme Court has to answer.