Monday, March 8, 2010

The maiming of Munnar

Munnar-Devikulam area in Kerala’s tea country is, or, rather was, a beautiful hill station, undoubtedly one of the best in India. It is said that Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington was the first white man to visit Munnar. That was in 1790.

In the 1870s JD Munro leased nearly 600 sq. kms there from the Punjar Chief, a subordinate to the Maharaja of Travancore, for agricultural purpose. The sahibs found that tea was the most suitable crop for the area which is known as Kannan Devan Hills. The altitude is 1600mts plus.

Muir & Co of Calcutta then took over the land. Then it was James Finlay & Co. In the 1960s Tata joined the venture and it became Tata – Finlay. Later Tata acquried the entire area and the name changed to Tata Tea. The venture could boast of 17 tea estates, 9 tea factories, 1 totally export oriented instant tea factory, and active interest in horticulture including floriculture.

Those who owned the company paid great attention to the ecology and environment from the very begining. This, coupled with the natural beauty of the place provided a delightful ambience to Munnar.

There is Anamudi, the 2695m peak that is the highest south of the Himalayas. The 97 sq. kms Eravikulam National Park originally marked out and maintained by the planters, is the home of the rare Nilgiri Thars (a type of Ibex). It is claimed that the park has 26 species of mammals, birds belonging to 132 species, 101 types of butterflies, and 19 species of amphibians.

The hill slopes turn blue once every twelve years when Neelakurinji (strobilanthes kunthiana) shrubs bloom. It is a big event that attracts thousands of tourists. The perennial streams and lakes in the area offer fishing that includes trout. There are also mineral water springs and a few waterfalls. Thousands of acres of manicured tea gardens add to the beauty of the hill station.

Here are some photographs (click to enlarge):

In 1971 the Kerala Legislative Assembly passed the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Act. Under the provisions of this Act the Kerala Government took over 71,051.22 acres in 1974, leaving the Company 58741.82 acres for agricultural purposes. This is the extent of land that came into the possession of Tata Tea in 1982.

Only a fraction of the land the government annexed through this process was distributed to landless people. There was big scale illegal occupation of government lands. Also large tracts of forests were denuded and turned unsuitable for agriculture.

Thus browning of green Munnar started

It became noticeable with the tourist boom in Kerala. Illegal constructions, mainly of resorts began all over the place by people who were after quick money. They did not bother about the damage their unlicensed projects caused to the ecology and environment. Hill slopes were levelled, natural springs diverted for private use and concrete monstrosities including high-rise ones started changing the landscape.

Three years back, the Kerala Chief Minister (CM) VS Achudanandan (VS) decided to end the murder of Munnar. He sent a task force to evict the encroachers and demolish the illegally constructed buildings. An impressive start was made to save Munnar. And that was as far as it got. Reportedly, the CM’s own party and its allies were against the operation which died a quite death without achieving anything.

People soon forgot about Munnar. That is, till last month when a leading Malayalam TV Channel, Asianet News, telecast a feature that showed in detail what is happening in the area. It was a shocking revelation. The construction activities that were stopped three years back were either completed, or work restarted. And new projects too were on.

The Kerala State Government was quick to make the right noises. It was stated that all encroachers would be evicted. A group of ministers went to the Munnar-Devikulam area and claimed that they found Tata, the big bad boy from the North, was the biggest encroacher. They announced that the ‘illegally’ occupied lands would be recovered from Tata.

With cameras flashing, the ministers visited a check dam (sluice lake) recently repaired by the company. It was announced that the government would demolish the barrier and notice was issued to Tata for unlawfully restricting the flow of a natural stream. The matter is now before the High Court of Kerala. A similar check dam by a private resort, which the Revenue Minister had said would be demolished three years back, is left untouched.

In the meantime the workers in the vicinity of the check dam went on a strike in protest. It was their water source for the last 70 years, they claimed. But the Government has not modified its stand. Also, notices were issued to the old estate bungalows for operating as home stays while no meaningful action was taken against unlawful resorts.

The obvious attempt of the left front which rules the state was to cover up what was happening in Munnar by blaming Tata. But they overlooked a major detail. In 2005 Tata Tea had sold the estates and factories to its 12,000 odd employees at a much lower price than what was offered by others. For this purpose a new company, KANNAN DEVAN HILL PLANTATION COMPANY LTD, was formed. Tata has retained only a nominal interest in the operation and now confines its presence in Munnar mainly to running the general hospital, school and other welfare schemes.

The Communist parties who lead the coalition government in the state seem to be reluctant to take any stern action in Munnar. Will the people of Kerala swallow the Tata story floated by the government and keep quiet?

Who knows?

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

Also see: Ecology: Vanishing Hills


Nebu said...

There is a clamor for taking over Munnar Township from the Tata’s and making it a tourists paradise by the government. If only these people visit Jamshedpur and see for themselves what a fine job the Tata’s are doing there we may well ask the Tata’s to take over our entire state of Kerala and save us.

perumalythoma said...

Ah, I see that you are back.
With another thought-provoking piece.

Let me share a little anecdote.
A couple of years back, I was being driven back to C'tore airport from Munnar. A reasonably long and picturesque drive.
The driver was a Tamilian whose parents worked for Tata Tea.
It suddenly struck me that the entire workforce was Tamilian.
All the boys in the resorts, the drivers, all second generation Tamilians.
So I asked him why the native Malayalee was never considered good enough to work the tea estates.
His answer, I think, says a lot about where Kerala finds itself now.
He said, "Saare, Malayaleeye konduvannirinnangil, ippol Tatayum kanathillayirunnu, teayum kanathillayirunnu".
I think he was very right.

ER Ramachandran said...

These are great pictures to tell a poignant story ,Mr. Tharakan.Thank you.

Haddock said...

Have heard a lot about it, but is yet to see the wonderful place.
Hope to go there one day, before the greenery gives way to brownery.

Sunita said...

I've really missed your posts, great to see you blogging again.
The last time I visited Munnar was about 15 years ago.I'm almost hesitant to go back there again.I'd prefer to carry memories of a beautiful verdant Munnar rather than one ravaged by human greed and selfishness.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you Nebu. You are right.

I believe that there is a move for a new legislation to take over lands in 'Tata's' possession in Munnar. If it is illegally held, what is the need for a new law?

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thanks, perumalythoma. That's a good one.

Almost the entire workforce at the Munnar tea estates is Tamilian. Some of the families have been working tere for generations.

Abraham Tharakan said...

ER Ramachandran, thank you. I am happy that you liked the post.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Haddock, it is certainly worth a visit.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Yes Sunita, the Munnar of your memories may not be there any more.

Kariyachan said...

I think it has got to do with the 'time changes all' mantra.

A good 300+ years back, what was a mass of virgin rain forests which belonged to the Meenachil & Poonjar principalities , gave way to tea plantations..! Like any piece of land on earth, Moonar would also keep on changing , for we wont be able to prevent the inevitable changes in the name of progress and development and commercial interests.

It depends upon which side of the fence we sit.. the layman who get employemnt due to the increased urbanisation, or the land owners and business interests who seek better prospects VS the sincere enthusiastic Nature Loving individuality.


Such lovely pictures. It is sad that money and greed can cause such ravage of nature.

akvenugopal said...

From minister K.P.Rajendrans website.

The Assurance Committee of the Legislative Assembly reported that more than 50,000 acres of land was under illegal occupation of Tata Tea Company.

Abraham Tharakan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abraham Tharakan said...

Thanks, Raji.

Abraham Tharakan said...

AK Venugopal, thank you for the comment. I feel that all government lands under illegal occupation should be recovered immediately.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Kariyachan, thank you for the thoughtful comment