Development-conservation dilemma in the Nilgiri Mountains of South India
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The Nilgiri Mountains of south India is considered unique by anthropologists, geologists, climatologists, botanists as well as tourists. It has remained a subject of constant study and research over the last two centuries. Man-nature balance had continued undisturbed in the Nilgiris for thousands of years until the early 19th century when it became a British colony attracting, in due course, various developmental activities. Subsequently, the Nilgiris and its popular hill stations emerged as favourite places for the British population in India for rest and recuperation, game and for raising commercial plantations. In the process, the traditional indigenous crops were replaced by “English” vegetables and the natural forests gave way to commercial plantations of coffee, tea and other exotic species of trees.
After Independence in 1947, the government of India accelerated the developmental process on the same lines as during the colonial period leading to a rapid growth of urbanisation and commercial plantations. Increasing pressure on land for agriculture and monoculture plantations displaced an alarmingly high proportion of natural forests and grasslands leading to an extensive loss of biodiversity and turning the Nilgiris into a biodiversity “hotspot”, as identified by World Wildlife Fund, India (1995). Mindless development since the 1970s further tilted the scale precariously, pushing the hills to the brink of an ecological disaster. Nilgiris entered an anxious era of landslides, which have become more frequent and disastrous in recent decades. The “Report on the study of Landslides of November 1993 in Nilgiris District” observed that “occurrence of land-slides in Nilgiris, particularly at the onset and during the north-east monsoons, is a ubiquitous, recurring, annual phenomenon”.
The colonists simultaneously developed the Nilgiris as a tourist resort for the English population. When independence came, the English were replaced by the Indian princely classes, politicians, capitalists and bureaucrats. After the 1970s, tourism became a mass industry for various reasons. Tourist arrivals increased exponentially to cross a million a year since 2000. However, without a proper plan to promote it on desired lines, the lop-sided and haphazard growth of tourism brought more harm than good to the hills.
Alongside, unrelenting commercialization and immigration explosion with no corresponding improvements in infrastructures and amenities have begun to strain the carrying capacity of the hills, leading to water famine, pollution, urban congestion and marginalisation of the indigenous people.
The Nilgiris is at the cross roads in the 21st century. Its development appears to have reached its limits with the predominant plantation economy collapsing and its tourism industry stagnating. Any further shifts in land use or cropping pattern appear economically unsound and ecologically catastrophic. Promotion of tourism again may prove counter productive unless there is a radical change in the focus and objectives of the industry in consonance with the overall priorities of the district.
The Nilgiris is desperately looking for the best international practices to balance the needs of development and conservation.
KeywordsNilgiris tea tourism landslides eucalyptus
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