Kodaikanal has tended to attract all sorts of people, ever since the first missionaries arrived over a century and a half ago. Some just got off the bus, soaked in the cold, mist and indolent life, and decided to hang on for a bit—and then to stay on for a bit longer. Some have always been here. Some have made it their second home. Others made a deliberate decision to settle down here.
These included some restless souls, full of life and energy, with wings on their feet and an honest and clear voice that advocated for the town as it underwent a change, often for the worst, following the national growth paradigm that followed the green revolution of the 1960s. There are too many to name here, but among those who left their mark on Kodaikanal are the Viraraghavans, who founded the Palni Hills Conservation Council, and Navroz Mody and his advocate friend Sriram Panchu, who moved the Supreme Court to stop the nefarious activities of builders. But heading the honours list of such community-minded people is 77-year-old Minoo Avari.
Avari has steadfastly put himself on the line to protect the environment, both as an individual and as the president of the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal (UCCK) and the former president of the Mya Palanimalai Farmers’ Association (MPFA). Decades of campaigning led to several victories: calling attention to the issue of noise pollution by getting the court to prohibit cone speakers, preventing an incursive railway line along the lake, cutting down ration-shop malpractices and easing the life of planters by taking on the Coffee Board. Avari also speaks of the promise that younger generations hold for the future of a town currently being taken over by ‘greed accompanied by a politician – business nexus’.
Recently, Avari spoke with me, a friend, fellow golfer, and former journalist who has reported on the issues affecting Kodaikanal. We had some extensive discussions regarding the changes the town has witnessed. Selected excerpts follow.
Nitin Padte (NP): You began your career as a planter in Darjeeling. What made you move thousands of miles south and, in particular, to Kodaikanal?
Minoo Avari (MA): I was a planter in Darjeeling in the 1960s. In the mid-1960s, the Congress government in West Bengal fell. With neither the Congress nor the Communist government able to wrest power, a United Front government came into being. This was a terrible time in Darjeeling, with lawlessness and rampant violence becoming a common occurrence. Planters were being threatened, and managers were being butchered on their plantations. It was four years of hell, and continuing to live in Darjeeling had become life-threatening. This is when I applied to the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and got posted to Tirunelveli as a planter in 1970. Two of our children were born there, at the nearest hospital in Nagercoil. I have fond memories of Tirunelveli—we often ate at the railway station, where they served great mutton biryani.
I came to Kodaikanal via Annamalai and Coorg in 1980 and bought agricultural property to grow coffee. The appeal that Kodaikanal had was its natural beauty. Trees, streams, cascades of water—and, of course, the golf course! It was relatively quiet then and a perfect place to live in. It’s been over 15 years since I sold my two coffee properties in Pethuparai, and now we live in our home, Fleurette, on Sivanadi Road. While I have stopped being a planter, my commitment to making life better for the residents of Kodaikanal by leading and participating in initiatives—whether it’s against noise pollution or encroachment on land by the building lobby—has grown, and continues unabated. None of this would have been possible without the support and understanding of my wife, Shehzarin. It was not easy for her.
NP: Can you tell us about the genesis of this community consciousness?
MA: I would say it began in the ’70s, while I was in Coorg. I had taken up the battle against a temple in Sidapur. At three in the morning, it would use cone loudspeakers, which had been banned by the courts. I managed to take up the issue of this nuisance with the police and the temple authorities, and put an end to the noise. My encounters with noise pollution continued after I migrated to Kodaikanal. This time it was the church in Moonjikal that was using loudspeakers to send its messages and sermons across the silence of the valley. I confronted the priest of the church, requesting him to stop broadcasting.
The priest was obviously not going to listen to me, and to intimidate me he whipped up local fervour against me. The people did not know my name or whom he was referring to. They were simply banded together by the priest. However, when they realised it was me, they recalled that as president of the Consumer Protection Association, I had been very active in helping them during the disastrous and destructive rains the previous year. The people were in a very bad shape, and a few other concerned citizens and I had mobilised the municipality and the government to help them. We took many of them to the hospital, gave them food and clothes, and helped resettle them. So, the tables were turned for the priest—not only did the church stop the broadcast but the people he had gathered together to oppose me also got him transferred out of the church.
NP: When you arrived in Kodaikanal in 1980, you were quite an outsider, not even an Indian from the southern parts. How did you settle in and what were the early challenges?
MA: When I came to Kodaikanal in 1980, I was greeted with ‘Go back to where you’ve come from. You’re an outsider.’ I suppose I have now stuck around longer than most ‘insiders’. With my concern for issues affecting the town, I quickly struck a rapport with the locals and even the politicians, who actually rallied around to help with issues like corrupt labour inspectors and the difficulty with the toll gate. You see, the private toll collectors, who had bought the right to collect tolls from all vehicles going past Silver Cascade Falls, began taking tolls from even the local people and farmers.
By then, the MPFA, of which I was the president for several decades, had been formed, and they took up this issue. Even those who were coming to Kodaikanal from the outlying hamlets merely to get petrol, go to the bank or hospital, or meet the tehsildar were being charged a toll. The MPFA protested and managed to get free access to Kodaikanal for the locals.
NP: What would you consider your most valuable victory?
MA: I was a part of the Consumer Protection Association of Kodaikanal, which was a powerful body that took up several civic causes. I remember how the ration shops in the region were quite exploitative. They had very poor-quality rice that even the dogs wouldn’t eat, and they cheated customers by using rigged weights. This affected all the economically marginalised people in Kodaikanal, including the workers on the plantations. We stopped this practice by sending people to inspect the ration shops and weigh the food they were selling.
NP: Land encroachment and illegal constructions by the builders’ lobby has been a major issue affecting the town’s environment. When did Kodaikanal begin to change in terms of construction?
MA: Up to 1985, Kodaikanal was a sleepy town. That year, investment began coming in in the form of land purchases, the construction of second homes here by the rich in surrounding cities, and the proliferation of the hotel industry. Till then, there was only the Carlton and some other small hotels. What began in 1985, and was followed by the famous Pleasant Stay hotel case, has only gained pace, and today there are more hotels than tourists.
NP: You came to Kodaikanal as a planter and have remained one for over four decades. Were there any specific issues that you and the other planters faced?
MA: When I came here the plantation owners were continuously harassed and bullied by the plantation inspectors who demanded money for no legitimate reason. The MPFA decided to collectively refuse to pay any bribes to the inspector and asked him to file a case against them. This effectively put a stop to the illegal collection. And then there was also the time the Coffee Board forced us planters to sell all our coffee to them. Not only were we cheated on weight, the payment we received for the coffee they bought could take anywhere up to ten years to recover. We fought against the Coffee Board and then we were free to sell to whomsoever we wanted. In fact, this part of the Coffee Board’s function was soon disbanded.
The MPFA was the first NGO of its kind, and aside from tackling corrupt plantation officers, took on the toll-gate issue with the municipality. This organisation continues to flourish under its dynamic president, Joe Antony. Among its many notable members is Shaker Nagarajan, who held the post of president of the formidable Planters’ Association of Tamil Nadu and is currently president of the Tamil Nadu Hill Banana Growers’ Association (Dindigul).
NP: What are some of the other issues that you and the citizens’ forums have been engaged with?
MA: The township keeps coming up with some hare-brained, harmful schemes. One year, the municipality decided to get a railway line laid along the periphery of the lake. They had acquired a horrible engine. This was when Justice Lobo formed the United Citizen’s Council of Kodaikanal (UCCK) and put a stop to the nonsense. Later I took over as president of this organisation, a position I still hold. The UCCK has filed innumerable cases against illegal commercial buildings encouraging the courts to take suo moto action based on their initiative. Our hands were often tied because not only did the builders blatantly flout the court’s orders, the municipality was complicit in the matter and gave permission to construct on some ‘technicality’.
NP: You have often been seen as a lone warrior. How has the larger community within Kodaikanal engaged itself with the issues affecting the town?
MA: It is true that when I came to Kodaikanal and began speaking out, I often found that I was the only one doing so. Everyone, including the politicians, came to me. Slowly, public consciousness and the numerous bodies representing affected people have grown. Now there are younger residents who have taken up the cudgels.
There are several other NGOs that come under the banner of the UCCK, and among them are the Kodai Smile Association and Effect Kodai. Some of the others have ceased to exist now, but each of them has contributed. Abbas of Kodai Smile and Veerbhadran of Effect Kodai take care of the wants of the common man. Ward Seven councillor, Prabha Jeeva, is also a very public-minded person and takes on the municipality to improve conditions in Kodaikanal. Anil and Sunayana Choudhry instituted INTACH’s Kodaikanal branch— their performance has been sterling. With the advent of The Kodai Chronicle, there seems to be greater optimism and, as long as it grows from strength to strength, I feel it will break the shackles of mindless political schemes that only benefit a few of the political classes.
NP: So far, we have focused on Minoo, the public personality, who has taken up issues on behalf of the town for a long time. But you are also known for your passion for sports and writing.
MA: I have been on the national tennis circuit, and, apart from golf, it continues to be my main recreation. We organised a 45-and-over and 60-and-over tennis tournament at the Kodaikanal Club, which saw many participants. I have a passion for riding my motorcycle and have gone on rides to Munnar, the Kolli Hills and even Coimbatore and Madurai. My other passion is writing. Between Heaven and Earth, an anthology of mountain writing edited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma, includes a few Christmas stories by me; as does Indian Christmas, edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle. I have written short stories about my days in Darjeeling and playing on the tennis circuit, and a book on migrating from the north to the south and the challenges I faced.
Apart from that I continue to raise my voice in Kodaikanal on my Facebook page. After a long innings, while I will continue to fight for common causes, I would like to pass on the baton to the younger generations and spend the rest of my life doing the few things that I am passionate about.
NP: Over the last few decades, the town has been increasingly sought after as a tourist destination, and this has affected its development. Where do you think we are headed?
MA: Illegal establishments are mushrooming, and it will take a concerted effort to stop some of these. Employment, greed and the massive tourist influx are a dire combination! Already the Palani Hills are overrun with shops, hotels and illegal activities, turning this neck of the woods into the proverbial Sodom and Gomorrah of yore. When the demand stops, all of this will stop, too. But right now, it is going berserk. I don’t go into the town at all on weekends. Road rage accidents are a common occurrence and there are traffic jams everywhere. Even though the politician-business lobby tries to bypass processes and laws and flout court orders, I think persistence and keeping with the legal process is the most important recourse that organisations like the UCCK follow.
Along with this, social media, which is already being used by youngsters, will spread awareness of the issues being faced by the town. People like me have an important role to play in providing guidance to these youngsters. This will make a difference.