Curbing selfish sprawl in Tamil Nadu hills

New legislation enacted by the Jayalalitha ministry seeks to contain ecological degradation in the state's hill stations by controlling construction activity. Local residents, however, are doubtful if it will succeed.

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Crowding out nature: The Udhag RESIDENTS of hill stations in Tamil Nadu are sceptical that much-publicised legislation by chief minister J Jayalalitha can protective the states hill stations from ecological devastation.

The law enforced as an amendment to the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Act of 1920, seeks to protect the Nilgiri and Palni hills from the ecological devastation that would result from uncontrolled growth in the hill station municipalities of Udhagamangalam (better known as Ootacamund or Ooty), Coonoor and Kodaikanal. The growth is due in part to the growing demands of tourism: In 1992, 14 lakh tourists visited Udhagamangalam, a rise of nearly 20 per cent from the previous year.

The legislation prohibits all mining and construction and renovation of buildings in hill stations without a licence from the state government. And, such licences will be granted only if the builder undertakes to preserve the local "landscape, vegetative cover and climate". A special committee will examine construction proposals by government agencies.

The legislation was enacted in response to the demands of hill-station residents, legislative assembly members and state forest officials for measures to safeguard the Nilgiris and the Palnis. These hills are a rich storehouse of vegetation ranging from tropical evergreen to temperate. The hills also contain thick shola forests. Says district forest officer K P Doraisamy, "These forests have the inherent capacity to regenerate themselves. We must realise the importance of preserving them."

B J Krishnan, an Udhagamangalam environmentalist, maintains protecting the hills is important because "the southern forest division of the Nilgiris provides water to four major tributaries of the Cauvery: Bhavani, Moyar, Chaliyar and Kabini. Forty per cent of Tamil Nadu's electricity is generated from damming these rivers."

Krishnan notes Udhagamangalam has emerged as a major tourist centre in recent years because of unsettled social and political conditions in northern India. The result is rampant unauthorised construction, he adds. S Chandrashekharan, a restaurant cashier in Udhagamangalam, corroborates Krishnan and says, "The tourist influx used to peak in the summer, now it's high all through the year." Furthermore, because Udhagamangalam is a prime film-shooting location, the number of hotels in the hillstation is second only to Madras in the state and their occupancy rate is high. Buildings sprouting on the town's periphery have pushed it's boundaries by more than 5 km.

Longtime residents such as Narayanaswamy Naidu, who has lived in Udhagamangalam for 30 years, are pessimistic that the act will become a mere "bureaucratic bottleneck", because though it is already in effect, building activity is continuing. But district collector Leela Nair says these buildings were licensed "before the freeze". Many say that pre-dating applications to before the Act came into effect is being employed by some builders as a means to circumvent the law.

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