Village in arms

By Deepa Kozhisseri
Published: Sunday 31 August 2008

Masinagudi residents are apprehensive of what Mudumalai tiger reserve holds for them

On July 15, inside the core of Mudumalai tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu, a group of workers waited for a jeep to take them to Masinagudi--a small town with a contiguous village--few kilometres away. After hours when the jeep did not turn up, it was rumoured that the drivers were on strike. The rumours were not totally unfounded. The panchayat of Masinagudi in Nigiri district has dug its heels against the notification of a buffer zone of the tiger reserve.

The confrontation has its roots in a Tamil Nadu government notification of December 2007. The entire 321 sq km of the Mudumalai protected area was designated a critical wildlife area or core of tiger reserve--parts of it was earlier formed a national park and parts a wildlife sanctuary, each with different implications for people living in its vicinity.On the anvil is also a proposal to declare 500 sq km of contiguous area as a buffer zone. Forest officials in Tamil Nadu say that all procedures for the buffer zone notification are over, and it's only a matter of time before the buffer zone to be formally declared. The impending declaration is causing much heartburn in Masinagudi.

Although no relocation has been proposed, people in Masinagudi fear that a buffer zone notification will prevent them from grazing cattle and that they will not be able to take tourists in jeeps to the tiger reserve.

Masinagudi has a total population of 15,000. It was originally a tribal area. But hydroelectricity projects in Singara and Moya hamlets brought a lot of immigrant labour who stayed back. Today there are just 600 tribals in the area.

About a fifth of the people in the village rear cattle, most of the bovines are scrub cattle that are valued only for their dung that is sold in neighbouring Kerala. The cattle are also sold for meat in neighbouring Kerala. The 500-odd families in Moyar are particularly dependent on cattle rearing--the village has 2,500 cattle. Lingae Gowda of the village who has about 1.2 hectares (ha), 20 goats and 5 cows fears movement inside the forest will be restricted. Sangeeta Binu, president of the Masinagudi panchayat, who refused to sign the gram sabha resolution giving consent to the buffer zone notification, agrees "It will be impossible for us to keep cattle, and it will be difficult for us to live here.''

Five hundred families in Masinagudi dependant on jeep safaris that are often taken out at night are peeved that two checkposts outside the core area are closed from 8 pm to 6 am.

The drivers' association, cattle owners, migrant coolie workers have got together against the impending notification. They have demanded that villagers be given grazing permits for their cattle. People of Moyar want to take water from the Avarhalla Canal.

Down to Earth
People in Moyar hamlet of Masinagudi, particularly dependent on animal rearing, fear livelihood loss

Official version
Forest officials in Tamil Nadu have a different version. The National Tiger Conservation Authority will provide funds which will be used for livelihood activities in the buffer zone, they say. Rajeev Kumar Srivatsav, Field Director, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, elaborates on the official plans. "All procedures for declaring a buffer zone are over. We are sorting out the concerns of people in Masinagudi. I am trying to coordinate with the electricity, water, horticulture, agriculture departments to form eco development councils to enhance livelihood options for those in the periphery,'' he says. Eco tourism will be routed through the councils and local youth trained as forest guides.

Anand Patil, district collector of Nilgiris, talks of other plans. "Sand and stone mining will not be allowed in a protected area, but the other demands of Masinagudi are being sorted," he says. The administration has agreed to build a check dam for people of Moyar and has also agreed not to interfere with the collection of minor forest produce 400-500 sq metres outside the sanctuary. "In case of emergency villagers will be allowed to go past checkposts at night," he says.

The issue of grazing rights has also not been sorted out. "We will discuss the matter with the Tamil Nadu government," Patil says.

Rampant tourism
"There are vested interests behind the opposition to the declaration of the buffer zone. Every day people trek into forest illegally. If a village forest committee with forest officer is made in charge of tourism, this will stop. At present resort owners control trekking and tourist jeeps. They are those who stand to loose once a buffer zone is declared," contends N Mohanraj, Cordinator for Nilgiris and Eastern Ghats Landscape of the World Wildlife Fund, Masinagudi. He has a point. There are 50 resorts in Masinagudi and the adjoining villages of Bokapuram, Mavanhalla, Vazhaithotam and Chokanhalli. In Bokapuram buildings erected by outsiders have come up too close to the protected forest.

Tourism has its downside. Nilgiris Biosphere Fading Glory, the report of a study conducted by the Bangalore based ngo Equations, notes that prostitution is rampant in the resorts. Local people are employed in only menial jobs, the study shows. The report notes more than 150 wild animals are killed on the Mysore-Ooty road between April and June every year.

Wildlife experts say that the resorts have mushroomed because the forest department has not provided accommodation in the protected area. "Some resorts that will stand to lose some of their treks and other activities once the buffer zone is notified, but there also resorts that want there activities legalized,'' says Nigel Otter, a wildlife enthusiast from the region.

Mohanraj believes that channelling tourism through eco-development councils will take care of a lot of problems. Once the councils are formed in the buffer all tourism benefits will go the local people. "If only people begin to see the benefits they will protect the forest because they alone can protect it. The government has spent Rs 1 crore per tiger, if the majority of this amount was spent on people living around tiger reserves then they would want to save the tiger,'' he says.

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