In 1992, the Palni Hills Conservation Council, a small environmental group in Kodaikanal, took on the might of the Tamil Nadu government, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and her colleagues in the notorious Pleasant Stay hotel case. They were charged with misusing their office to sanction the illegal construction of a seven-storeyed hotel in Kodaikanal, in blatant violation of building regulations. Jayalalithaa and the four accused were convicted—and later acquitted of all charges. But it created an uproar at the time as the late chief minister’s followers resorted to state-wide protests. Moreover, the case had political repercussions, as Jayalalithaa was disqualified from contesting the 2001 Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections.
Three years later, in 1995, a two-judge court ruled that the five additional floors of Hotel Pleasant Stay, which were built in violation of the law, be demolished. It was a landmark victory, a story of perseverance and determination that often took murky turns. And this was achieved by ordinary citizens who set up an environmental action group in a small town in the mountains.
The picturesque hill station of Kodaikanal lies about 7,000 feet above sea level, on an eastern offshoot of the Western Ghats called the Palani Hills. The forests and valleys of this mountain terrain are natural catchments that trap rainwater and release it into perennial streams, making the region a major watershed for the towns and villages in the plains below.
The Palani Hills are a biodiversity hotspot that are home to an astonishing range of flora and fauna, but they have been under constant threat from tourism and other forms of development. Over the years, commercial plantations of eucalyptus and wattle have replaced the lush grasslands that were the natural habitat of the Indian bison, the Nilgiri tahr, the Malabar squirrel and a host of other species. Commercial forestry, which was started by the British, was later taken over by the Forest Department to supply wood pulp to South India Viscose and tannin to leather industries, like Tan India. As the demands of these companies grew, so did the area under commercial forestry.
Concerned about the deteriorating conditions of Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills, a group of citizens formed the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC) in 1985. They consisted of environmentalists, botanists, wildlife enthusiasts and ordinary residents, each with a mission to save the Palani Hills from further degradation. One of the primary aims of the group was to conduct conservation and restoration programmes to protect the indigenous flora and fauna of the Palanis, and to safeguard their habitat, a unique ecosystem consisting of shola forests and grasslands.
‘The major impetus was to prevent further erosion of these fragile ecosystems, the already degraded sholas and grasslands,’ say Girija Viraraghavan and her husband, eminent rosarian and retired IAS, M S Viraraghavan, who are long-time residents of Kodaikanal and founder members of the group.
The PHCC raised objections when they became aware of South India Viscose’s expansion plans, stressing the disastrous effects of monoculture plantations on the region, especially on the Palani Hills watershed. Girija says, ‘In fact, we emphasised the need to altogether phase out commercial forestry and restore the original vegetation of these hills. Considering our petition and a similar one filed by the Save Nilgiris Campaign, the Ministry of Company Law allowed the expansion of SIV subject to the condition that the requirements of wood would be met solely by import.’ In other words, their objection was partly sustained as it put a stop to expansion plans. Years later, SIV was penalised for environmental breaches that resulted in the pollution of two major rivers in the plains of Tamil Nadu, and the company eventually closed down in 1997.
In Kodaikanal, problems continued to crop up like the mythical multi-headed Hydra.
The PHCC continued to take on other builders who were indiscriminately flouting building regulations set down by the Master Plan, a policy guide that helps communities in their decisions on land use development—a document that the PHCC had helped formulate. Years before, the group had obtained an injunction order against another hotel, Fernhill, that was being built in a strictly residential area of Kodaikanal, and later, against Sterling Resorts, which had constructed a large resort on the periphery of the Gymkhana marsh near the lake.
In 2001, a serious environmental breach was discovered when it came to light that Hindustan Unilever’s thermometer factory in Kodaikanal was dumping mercury-contaminated waste in the adjoining shola forest. PHCC member and Green Peace–activist Navroze Modi brought this to the attention of Green Peace, leading to protests and campaigns by concerned citizens and factory workers. The factory was immediately shut down and the workers were compensated, but the matter is far from settled, as effective soil remediation still needs to be carried out.
‘As news of the Pleasant Stay demolishing order spread, many builders reconsidered their grand building plans as they feared a similar outcome,’ said council member G Bala. ‘Imagine how many more would have come up if not for the PHCC.’ Bala, a third-generation Kodaiite, was only 19 when Professor V Sampat, head of the state Horticultural Research Station in Kodaikanal, urged him to join the citizens group. Inspired by the people he met there, he soon left what may have led to a secure government job and joined the PHCC as project manager and then secretary, learning all the while. ‘I met people like wildlife biologist Rauf Ali and Greenpeace campaigner Navroze Modi, and young students and staff from Kodai International School, like environmentalist Ian Lockwood, who were all so passionate about saving the Palani Hills.’ Today, he is a member of the executive council and hopes more local residents will join and actively participate in citizens NGOs like the PHCC as these mountain ecosystems continue to be under threat.
At present, there are 151 life and annual members with 6 office bearers to adminster the groups activities. The Executive Committee which meets at least 6 times a year, approves financial statements and budgets and also the acceptance of new members.
Over the years, the PHCC has conducted workshops and training programmes on a range of topics, from beekeeping to biodynamic farming. Their nurseries, which stretch down to the foothills, stock thousands of saplings of over 70 species that have successfully restored acres of degraded land over the years. Other activities include educating farmers on non-invasive farming practices, conducting literacy classes and building wells to provide drinking water to remote tribal settlements.
The PHCC’s tree-planting operations will eventually form a green belt around the foothills of the Palani ranges, altering the microclimate of the region—an invaluable contribution to addressing climate change. The spring rejuvenation programme ‘Water and Women’ teaches women how to address the severe water shortage faced by hill communities by nurturing and sustaining existing springs and streams.
Mark Antrobus, the current president of the PHCC, says there have been many challenges, successes and failures. ‘As always, Kodai Lake, which is the town’s star tourist attraction, is a bone of contention, and it is a constant battle to prevent construction and encroachment on the marshes.’ Listing the many problems—sewage, run-off from toxic agriculture, indiscriminate building on the marshes and eutrophication of the lake—Mark stresses the need to see the lake ecosystem as a micro watershed, not a mere playground for tourists. Future plans as president will include his pet project: having local farms practise chemical-free agriculture, thereby protecting the fragile ecosystem from toxin-laden fertilisers and pesticides.
Once a small hill station with a population of 5,000, Kodaikanal now has a population of almost 90,000. Today, the town also plays host to over a million tourists each year, well over its carrying capacity, pushing its limited infrastructure to the limit. The growth in the tourism industry led to a spurt in construction and mountains of garbage spilling over into the forests. Added to that was the increased use of toxic fertilisers and pesticides by small farmers around the Palanis.
As Girija says, ‘The problems do not belong to Kodaikanal alone. Our mountains are plagued by greed, corruption and dubious land deals that have disastrous results. For instance, the loss of habitat for herbivores, like bison, have caused them to move into towns.’
As Kodaikanal and hill stations around the country get inundated by tourists, it is clear that governments have lost sight of the immense value of our mountain ecosystems. Though the Palani Hills are considered a wildlife sanctuary, it is hard to see how this area can be protected unless there are some curbs on tourism. Unfortunately, development plans are centred around how to attract more visitors, not the more pressing need of protecting these fragile ecosystems.
Iti Maloney, director at the Center of Environment and Humanity (CEH), which focuses on environmental education, returned to Kodaikanal to continue the work her father, Clarence Maloney, a dedicated environmentalist, had started. At 28, she is also one of the youngest members of the PHCC and believes her generation is definitely aware of environmental issues on a global scale but may be involved on different platforms. ‘A lot of activism, awareness and discussion happen on the internet. Social media is a way to express and act on problems that are going to impact our lives very soon.’ She is hopeful that the council will attract more young people if there are definite roles for them. ‘The PHCC has valuable experience, expertise and documentation, collected over the years. At present, CEH uses those resources and we do work together, which is how we have both benefited. We rely on their knowledge of shola species and the data and information collected.’
Ethnobotanist and author Madhu Ramnath, a PHCC-member who lives between Kodaikanal and Bastar in Chhattisgarh, says, ‘While the PHCC has done invaluable work in the field of documentation, tree planting and actual citizen action, we need to change with the times for more people to get actively involved. Like many old organisations, we may have fallen into a rut, and the PHCC needs an upheaval, a revamping of old systems. Change is essential for growth, and this is what a younger generation of committed environmental workers will bring to the table. Right now, there is an urgent need to be witness to what is happening in our mountains. It is a crucial time—there are changes in the environment every day that have implications and need to be recorded. We are looking for two dedicated persons to do this; these are paid positions.’ Like Iti, Ramnath believes that a collaboration with other local NGOs with the same goals is necessary, as each has something to offer the other.
Citizen initiatives like the PHCC and the Center for Environment and Humanity are essential to act as watchdogs for the protection of our natural heritage. But it is clear that it requires more citizen participation to question and demand information about decisions that are detrimental to the environment. Article 51-A (g) in the Indian Constitution says, ‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life and to have compassion for living creatures.’ In a literal sense, it is not only the right of every citizen to protect the natural world but also as much an obligation that comes with citizenship.
I spoke to PHCC member, environmentalist and writer Pippa Mukherjee, who says she is disappointed by the indifference of most local residents. At 82, she has hiked the length and breadth of the Palani Hills and has devoted much of her life to writing about the flora of this region and other environmental issues. She has a message for residents of Kodaikanal and other hill towns: ‘You live here, and you use the limited resources of this small town, so don’t take this privilege for granted. If we want to preserve the Palanis for future generations, each one of you has to get out there and fight for your town, for these mountains. Get actively involved, in any capacity. We have lost so much already. But nature is generous, and restoration is possible.’
The PHCC is currently involved in activities related to tree planting, apiculture, environmental education, spring rejuvenation, grassland restoration and the creation of a wild foods nursery. To learn more about their initiatives or to get involved, visit www.palnihills.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call on +91 4542 240157.