These forests in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district were the first to be nationalised in 1969. Today, encroachers have stripped them bare despite legislation meant to protect them.
KA Shaji/ Gudalur

Almost 40 years after the enactment of the Gudalur Janmam Forests (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act to protect evergreen forests, the Oucher Loney Valley also known as the O’Valley in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district bears the scars of deforestation.
Possibly the first initiative to nationalise private forests to prevent their alienation and to abolish the zamindari system, the Act had found place in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution as entry number 80.
But on the ground, the legislation was an abject failure as it didn’t protect either the poor farmers nor the forests in O’Valley, which regulate rainfall in the Nilgiri hills as well as in north Kerala and some adjoining parts of Karnataka.
When the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed the Bill in 1969, the forests were under a Birla Group-run plantation company with a single revenue number. The company certified that there were no leaseholders on its forest land. At present, there are 24 villages of Tamils repatriated from Sri Lanka and Malayali migrants.
In addition, nine influential people have grabbed about 1,000 acres and several others have grabbed smaller areas. Though legally, the area belongs to the government as the inheritor of the lease from an erstwhile dynasty, a conglomerate of landholders, estates and forests enjoy the fruits of it.“Even at the end of the 60s, the Gudalur area had nursed a forest of 80,000 acres. After the so-called conservation begun, only about 6,000 acres remain,” admits District Forest Officer Tippanna S. Dange.
Large scale encroachment by landsharks, deforestation, flouting of orders of even the Supreme Court on conservation, man-animal conflict in the background of shrinking habitats and political patronage to almost all land right violations are now making Gudalur, about 51km from the hill station of Ooty, an area that needs urgent national attention.
The tropical evergreen and moist deciduous forests are part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the highly sensitive ecological hotspots in the world. Animals with a shrinking habitat and about 50,000 small scale farmers with no rights over the land they till are battling it out for survival while plantation companies and people with political patronage are converting forests into tea and coffee plantations.
Hundreds of adivasis belonging to Paniya, Irula, Mullu Kuruma and Kattunaika communities have also been denied their land and livelihood in the process.Big landsharks grabbed large areas of forest to set up their own estates. The land grabbed by them range from 10 to 2,000 hectaresThe destruction of forests dates to 1805, when a provincial ruler from Kerala, Nilambur Kovilakom, annexed 40,500 hectares.
The feudal rulers leased the land in Gudalur to plantation companies run by the British by 1845 to cater to the revenue demands of the Madras Presidency. As a result, more than 21,000 hectares including 12,000 hectares of virgin forest were given to plantation companies. After Independence, Indian companies took over.
Currently there are more than 90 estates with most of them being owned by industrial houses. According to the Nilgiri District Gazette, a little less than 8,000 hectares of the 21,000 hectares held by plantation companies are under plantations. The rest was earlier categorised “private forest” filled with rich flora and fauna.
In the meantime, the Kovilakom developed a tenancy system by allocating about 12,000 hectares of non-leased land among small scale cultivators, a large number of whom were from Travancore. Yet another section of Travancore Malayalis, who couldn’t get an entry into the tenancy system by 50s, began to cultivate large tracts of vacant land and the government termed them encroachers.
As the 60s rolled in, a large number of Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates started arriving in Gudalur in search of rehabilitation and jobs in tea plantations. Most of them were duped into buying small plots and were given fake documents. There are around three lakh Lankan Tamil repatriates and most of them became encroachers as they were cheated by the land mafia.In sharp contrast, big landsharks with political support grabbed larger areas of forest to create their own estates.
The lands grabbed by the powerful and privileged class range from a minimum 10 hectares to 2,000 hectares. They have fabricated documents to support their claim with the connivance of officials, lawyers and politicians. As per statistics available with the forest department and the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), aiadmk leader and advocate Chandramohan has about 150 acres of encroached land in Devala while local Congress leader Marikar Haji owns 112 acres in Padanthurai.
A seven-member group of dmk activists including Elavankudy Poulose and PP Yakoob own 700 acres in Pandalur. Interestingly, the previous Tamil Nadu government had appointed Chandramohan as government pleader in forest-related cases of Nilgiri in 2002 ignoring opposition from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, District Forest Officer, Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association and the PUCL that Chandramohan himself was a land grabber.
According to S. Jayachandran of Tamil Nadu Green Movement, Gudalur is the meeting place of two monsoons and the forests are extremely valuable as they have a large number of rosewood and teak trees. Nirmalya, an Ooty-based social activist, said booby traps are set to kill elephants, leopards and tigers, which come here from the adjoining sanctuaries.
Both conservationists and social organisations blame ineffective implementation of the 1969 Act as it was held up by litigation till 1974, when it was included in the Ninth Schedule.Almost immediately after the Act was notified, nine plantation companies challenged it in the Madras High Court. Leaseholders of the Kovilakom, they wanted Section 17 of the Act repealed, which empowered the government to renew or terminate leases that have taken on Janmom land. As per this section, there was no provision for grant of pattas on land that came under it. They argued that they should be deemed tenants and given title deeds. The court dismissed their petitions, but in 1977 the companies appealed in the Supreme Court and undertook that they won’t expand the area under cultivation.
On that assurance, the sc stayed the Act’s applicability on Gudalur plantations. However, later surveys revealed that the planters had flouted this undertaking. Though the stay was vacated in 1997, the state government never initiated action against the planters. The cases related to the Act are still continuing and the Constitution bench has started final hearings in a petition challenging the constitutional validity of exempting the Ninth Schedule from judicial review.“I will not allow at least the remaining forest patches to be encroached by powerful lobbies.
The Gudalur forests must be protected by any means for the betterment of future generations,” said Dange, who took charge of Nilgiri forests a few months back.The now famous Godavarman case of 1995, which resulted in the banning of tree felling all over the country, had in fact its origin in Gudalur. Thirumulpad Godavarman of the Kovilakom family filed the case after he found tracts of forests that belonged to his ancestral property degraded. “I was travelling through Gudalur and saw large areas of forests being felled and timber logs stacked up for sale.
The situation provoked me to file the case,” said Godavarman. But he had little to say about encroachment by planters.“It was the landlords who destroyed forests by converting them into plantations. Now, their descendant has gone to the apex court, pretending to be the saviour of the forests. But this resulted in keeping the tribals out of their forest environment,’’ said P. Selvaraj, president of a local dalit rights organisation. He also warned against treating tribal people and dalit landless farmers at par with powerful land grabbers.

This story is part of a media fellowship awarded by National Foundation for India
(Tehelka, Nov 18 , 2006)

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