It has been over two months since the Supreme Court, settling a long legal battle, ordered the closure of 39 resorts in Tamil Nadu’s Masinagudi, which falls in an elephant corridor.
“…the will of men must give way to elephants,” Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde had said over the course of hearings in the case. The SC had also provided for a three-member inquiry committee to hear the individual grievances of those affected by the order, along with “compensation as per law”.
While these resorts in the Nilgiris have been sealed for over a year now, they house 309 buildings on their premises, which include private residences. As the year draws to a close, the property owners are refusing to vacate, claiming they are being turned out of their homes — a home they have always shared with elephants, unlike “foreign NGOs who come here and try to tell us how to live”.
Their other complaints include that the compensation offered is inadequate, and that the court-appointed committee has not spent enough time listening to their problems.
Also affected are the local tribal communities, who depend on these resorts for livelihood.
So how did the Masinagudi area get embroiled in a protracted court case, and what is the elephant in the room the locals claim the “foreign NGOs” have missed?
The court battle
The October Supreme Court judgment came on 32 appeals filed by resorts and private land owners, including actor Mithun Chakraborty, under the banner of Hospitality Association of Mudumalai, against a Madras High Court verdict of 2011. The High Court had upheld a Tamil Nadu government order notifying the elephant corridor in the area that included Masinagudi.
The resort owners had claimed that their land was not in the elephant corridors declared earlier, and was included only after the government added more area to the corridor in 2010.
The original petition in the case had been filed by A Rangarajan in 1996, while two PILs were filed by activist “Elephant” Rajendran and NGO Nilgiris Wildlife Protection in 2007-08, in which the matters raised included “encroachments on elephant corridors” in Masinagudi.
In October 2009, the Madras High Court ordered an expert committee to examine the disputed corridor issues in Masinagudi. The expert committee identified 7,000 acres of private and revenue lands here for the new corridor. A government order dated August 31, 2010, disposed of all 642 objections received against the new corridor, and notified it. The HC in 2011 upheld this order, directing all residents to hand over their land to the district administration. The 39 resorts in the area were to be razed. This was when the resort owners and private landowners approached the Supreme Court.
The three-member inquiry committee set up by the SC included Justice K Venkatraman, former judge, Madras High Court, elephant expert Ajay Desai, and Praveen Bhargav, Trustee of Wildlife First.
What the locals say
Masinagudi is a trijunction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka and attracts thousands of tourists every year. This place connects the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) to Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve (STR), serving as the elephant corridor.
Originally home to the Kurumba and Irula tribes, the area saw outsiders move in after the British government started building the Singara dam (Pykara Hydroelectric Power House) in 1932. The employees who worked with this project settled in the villages near Singara. With agriculture here not very profitable, these settlers eventually built hotels and resorts.
Environment activists and NGOs say these resorts would see blaring loudspeakers, noisy tourists, and unregulated construction. “In 2006, Christmas and New year’s eve was celebrated in a grand manner in Masinagudi, an eco-sensitive area in Nilgiris. This was the beginning of the elephant corridor issues, and the court cases,” said Kalidas, president of NGO Osai, which works on various environmental issues across Tamil Nadu.
The locals, however, say they are well aware that the land is used by elephants, and their voices should have been considered while notifying the corridor.
“Committee people came, stood atop the Vibhoothi hill watching the movement of elephants, and then declared the whole place an elephant corridor. This is our land. We know that elephants travel from MTR to STR. Why did these committees not include local residents or tribal elephant trackers?” a landowner says, on condition of anonymity.
The locals also claim that not everyone affected is a rich resort owner — many stand to lose their homes and livelihoods.
“After the HC ordered closing down the resorts and cutting power supply to them, most of our community people became jobless. I was working as a trekking guide in one of those resorts. My son is pursuing his undergraduate degree. But I can’t support him now,” says Shivan, a Betta Kurumba tribe member who lives in Bokkapuram village in the area.
“In 2007, our village didn’t come under the elephant corridor, but then they added another 150 acres to it. Elephants use two passages to cross our village to Masinagudi, one located very next to the Viboothi foothills and another 3 km away from our hamlet. Our tribal hamlet is sandwiched between these two passages and we have never had any disturbances from elephants so far. Now, officials say our village is part of the elephant corridor expansion. This entire issue is very confusing and disheartening for us,” Shivan adds.
Masinagudi Livelihood Association president Varghese says the compensation offered to them is inadequate. “The Elephant Task Force report had earlier stated there was no encroachment in the proposed elephant corridors in Masinagudi. That means we were not encroachers then. But the central and state government repeatedly extended the land for the corridor. Now, the compensation they are giving us for the land is not enough even for a single-story house in Ooty or Coonoor.”
M Narasimman, farmer leader and local president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, says the locals were in danger of losing their way of life itself.
“Where is the word encroachment coming from? We live here, we are no encroachers. We are more concerned about elephants than any foreign NGOs who come and try to rule us, telling us where to live, how to live. Chellanatham gravestones in the area prove that we have lived here for many years, and we value coexistence with animals. As Masanahalla, this place once served as the bustling capital city of Wayanad. Media houses and people don’t talk about what we have lost over a decade. We are apprehensive of losing our ancestral habitats,” Narasimman says.
The making of an elephant corridor
In 2005, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) along with collaborators published Right of Passage: National Elephant Corridors Project. The first edition of this report identified 88 corridors across the country. The second edition, published in 2017, showed 101 corridors. As per the second edition, 28 corridors are in Southern India, 25 in Central India, 23 in North-Eastern India, 14 in Northern West Bengal region, and 11 in Northern Western India.
“An estimated 69.3% of these corridors are being regularly used by elephants, either around the year or in a particular season, and 24.7% are being used occasionally” the report sites. It describes an elephant corridor as a “linear landscape element that provides for survivorship and movement between other habitats”.
In 2006, to curb human-animal conflicts and reduce animal fatalities, the risk of inbreeding, and extinction, the Centre proposed 88 corridors as important corridors for elephants in India. Later in 2010, the Elephant Task Force by the Ministry of Environment published Gajah, which recommended the state governments to announce the corridor lands as reserved forests or private forests, and declared all the corridor areas as ecologically sensitive areas.
In this report, three of the corridors in Nilgiris were listed under Priority 1 elephant corridors, and the remaining two were categorized under Priority 2 elephant corridors. The report also said there was no encroachment in the identified corridors, which the Masinagudi residents now cite. However, the elephant corridor was subsequently widened to include more areas.
The way forward
While the elephants have the right to passage in their corridors, some suggest the issue in Masinagudi could have been solved without “making locals homeless”.
“Instead of asking people to vacate their ancestral lands, the government should have given them guidelines for alternative tourism or livelihood, which could have helped elephants too,” says Godwin Vasanth Bosco, a Nilgiris-based ecologist.
“The landowners can be encouraged to grow private forests, which will restore the lost ecosystem of Nilgiris. The Forest department can introduce eco-tourism. Trees like Anogeisses lattifolia, Terminalia crenulata, Dendrocalamus strictus (giant bamboo) can cover the land and also give good yield to the owners. At present, invasive species like Lantana and Eucalyptus cover the Nilgiris, because of which elephants rely on villages for food. Before announcing any passage as a corridor, the government should make sure pachyderms and other wild animals have everything they need in the forest and its corridors,” Bosco adds.