Thiruvananthapuram: At Kerala's scenic hill station Munnar where rolling mists meet green tea estates, a bureaucrat is at work, tearing down structures that rose up over the years in defiance of environmental rules.
When 30-year-old V. Sriram, a sub-collector arrived in the region last year, what he found was a delicate ecological zone ravaged by encroachments and illegal construction.
His initiatives to fix the damage have alarmed the area's builders, politicians and local residents. The builders worry about their investments, the locals worry of their houses built on small plots of land with or without titles, and the politicians worry about both classes who give them sustenance.
Since last July, Sriram has sent closure notices to 108 multi-storeyed buildings in the region for violation of law, including realtors and quarry operators. This has snowballed into an image crisis for the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, as insiders, allies and dissidents are asking if they support the ‘resort mafia’ or the green brigade.
One question, though, remains to be answered: How serious are Munnar's environmental damages?
Munnar is part of the Western Ghats, a biodiversity hotspot. It is known for unique natural attractions like Neelakurinji, a rare purplish blue flowering plant that blooms once in 12 years, and the endangered Nilgiri tahr.
Scratch the surface and another picture appears. Mint studied two recent official reports—one prepared by a parliamentary sub-committee and another by the state revenue department—detailing the macro and micro level impact of human activity in Munnar.
Both reports, and independent experts, say the region has already lost much of its natural wealth and warns that any further delay in addressing the problems would mean the end of Munnar as we know it 10 years down the line.
Studies show the Neelakurinji now blooms more frequently, as the rare plant has divided into a sub-species. Until some years ago, the tahr was common in Chokramudi, a popular trekking site .
Now, one side of the mountain range has many encroachments and the tahr population has come down drastically. At Idamalakkudi inside the Eravikulam national park, three species of Impatiens, a small and rare flowering plant, have survived thanks only to efforts by a wildlife warden.
Munnar is a lost land, says one of the two above mentioned reports, prepared in January 2017 by A.V. George land revenue commissioner and former superintendent of police in Idukki district, where Munnar is located.
The biggest reason: Encroachments.
George has identified with survey number and name, 110 large structures in Munnar built in violation of rules. Many of them are up to nine storeys high, despite a 2010 high court verdict banning all fresh construction above three floors in the region. George claims he was physically stopped by protesting locals from visiting half of Munnar for preparing the report . So, if anything, the real picture is more worrying.
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“We are too immature to understand the impact these (activities) on the whole ecosystem," says Sriram, the man who has rattled the cage.
“The ecological impact comes in the form of buildings, the removal of forests in the process, the pollution that goes into the environment as a result of these buildings, and so on. In short, if you can close your eyes and imagine a ten-storey building standing on a 60-degree slope, that would give you a small idea of what is going on in Munnar," he said in a phone interview.
On paper, building anything in Munnar is arguably more difficult than anywhere else in Kerala. Munnar and ten surrounding villages are populated with ecologically sensitive areas and hence, the law says any existing or fresh construction should be only allowed for two specific purposes, agriculture and residential uses.
How did it end up this way?
Sriram points out historical and commercial reasons. The Munnar plantation history began with British resident John Daniel Munro, who came here around 160 years ago, and started cultivating coffee and cardamom on the hills by shaving off the forests. Everyone else who came after Munro came either to work in plantations or own those tea estates, also resulting in large scale population of migrant labourers from Tamil Nadu.
“That is also a basic problem of Munnar; nobody calls Munnar their home. Hardly anyone has a sense of belonging. Everything is here for the short-term survival, and they do what is best for that," says Sriram.
The encroachment by the poor migrants is just 5-10% of the problem, he adds. The biggest hurdle right now is the mass exploitation of natural resources by the resort mafia to cater to the tourists, he said.
There is good money in this, for sure. T.C. Rajesh Sindhu, a senior journalist from Idukki district and a popular commentator on its ecological destruction, has been tracking the number of tourists. “In 1994, when Kurinji bloomed, only about 25,000 people came to see it. Next year when Kurinji blooms, we cannot rule out a possibility of one lakh people coming to Munnar per day because about 10 lakh people are coming per year now," he said.
“There are only very few places in Kerala where you can do business and raise big money as in Munnar," said an official associated with a builder’s association, who didn’t want to be quoted. “Perhaps, the regulation agencies and builders have to strive for a balance between development and conservation," this person said.
Mint learns from government officials familiar with the matter that the resorts in Munnar operate at 130% of their capacity in some tourist seasons. Room costs sometimes go as high as ₹ 30,000 per day in Munnar.
“We have two questions to answer. What to do with the buildings that have already constructed or are running now? You can’t just wish away the impact of these buildings, and razing them down would only cause more ecological damage. Second, what to do with the tourists? The place has a carrying capacity, should it be forgotten?" asks Sriram.