Tourism wrecking tourism: Chilling reality of the Nilgiris

The brunt of tourism is felt most in wildlife areas, where firewood is cut for tourist bonfires and night safaris are organised for animal sightings, among other activities.
Representational image of Ooty, the Queen of Hill Stations. (EXPRESS PHOTO)
Representational image of Ooty, the Queen of Hill Stations. (EXPRESS PHOTO)

Writing from Ooty, once the Queen of Hill Stations, I am horrified that it has become one big slum. In 1818, J C Whish and N W Kindersley visited Ooty and enthralled the Collector of Coimbatore, John Sullivan, with their description. Sullivan went to Dimbhatti in 1819 and was mesmerised by the beauty of the hills, writing  to Governor Thomas Munro that “it resembles Switzerland, more than any country of Europe ... the hills beautifully wooded and fine strong springs with running water in every valley.” The Badagas ceded land, and he built his house at Kanerimukku. Soon, the colonial government made Ooty the summer capital and a resort for British officials. Soldiers were sent to Wellington, which is still the home of the Madras Regiment. Then began the urbanisation of Ooty, Coonoor, Wellington and Kotagiri. Gardens, parks, lakes, dams, palaces and churches dotted the hills.

In 1882, Sir Neville Chamberlain (not the PM) invented snooker in Ooty Club. Sullivan built Stone House, while Aranmore Palace was the summer seat of the Madras Presidency. The cool weather prompted rich Indians and maharajas to acquire beautiful homes in Ooty. The British established tea gardens by destroying entire Shola (tropical montane) forests and replacing them with tea and coffee estates. Tea has short roots, and thus the terraced tea gardens began causing landslides. The gun-toting British mercilessly killed wildlife, and the tiger population was nearly wiped out.

Post-Independence, the Government of Madras (later Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala) began tourism development in the Nilgiris. But unchecked tourism, once touted as the future of the hills, is now destroying the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

Tourism has resulted in a high influx of tourists (about 12 lakh annually) from all over India. Ooty and Coonoor are replete with low to medium-cost lodges which have festered like slums. Tourists leave behind solid waste like plastic wrappers, bottles and more. Buses and cars hold up the traffic on the hill road for over two hours during the tourist season. I have been a victim. The Nilgiris should have had organic, forest-based tourism like Kenya and Tanzania instead of urbanised, lodge-based tourism. Ooty Lake, once a drinking water source, is now a collection of raw sewage.

Wildlife tourism is another problem. Tourists have no respect for the environment. The brunt of tourism is felt most in wildlife areas, where firewood is cut for tourist bonfires, night safaris are organised for animal sightings, etc. There has also been an attempted domestication of wild animals, and the region’s meagre resources have been confronted with the rising population of tourists and settlers, with settlers turning forests into farmlands.

And many private estates have been converted into resorts. Resorts, guest houses and campsites have mushroomed in and around Mudumalai and Bandipur Tiger Reserves. In Nagarhole, tourists pay for high-end services in luxury settings. In Wayanad, middle to high-end resorts have come up. Only Silent Valley National Park limits the number of tourists. There is no restriction on vehicles permitted into protected areas, especially Mudumalai. Roads have degraded the forests and exposed the Adivasis to unruly tourists. The excessive traffic, demand for goods and services, and solid waste pollution burden the ecosystem.

Human-wildlife conflicts are another major problem. Small mammals are crushed under speeding vehicles. Trenches are dug, and electric fencing is installed to prevent animals from raiding crops and entering human habitations. Several elephants were electrocuted or fell into deep ditches dug around villages of people working in tourist lodges and shops. Most conflicts occur within the reserve forest boundary, forming large mammals’ home ranges, especially elephants. We read stories of elephants damaging crops, not realising that humans have encroached into reserve forests. The loss of natural habitat and habitat fragmentation are major causes of injuries and deaths of animals in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

With high demand from tourist lodges and hotels, water resources are over-exploited. The major rivers have been tapped for hydroelectricity, culminating in reservoirs which feed the plains and are major drinking water and irrigation sources. Water pollution from raw sewage, chemical pesticides and fertilisers is very high. In fact, the Nilgiris is one of the highest users of fertilisers and pesticides. Large and small industries along the River Bhavani pollute the waters extensively. Here, too, migrant labour and tourists are major sources of pollution.

For over two centuries, the forests have been denuded of valuable teak, sandalwood and rosewood. Exotic species introduced to construct army barracks and railways—wattle, eucalyptus and cinchona planted over grasslands—destroy the pasture lands of indigenous pastoral tribes. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department introduced exotic commercial tree crop plantations and tea plantations. The Kerala Forest Department still plants commercial teak in Nilambur.

The indigenous vegetation of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve has been replaced by tea and coffee plantations, marshes have been converted into vegetable fields, and high-altitude forests into commercial plantations. Cultivation of vegetables with the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on steep slopes leads to soil erosion and lack of water retention. Steep terrain agriculture causes soil erosion. Large agricultural tracts near forests lead to human-animal conflicts. Tea governs the economy of the Nilgiris. Forest lands were cleared for Sri Lankan repatriates to grow tea, resulting in an economic boon but an ecological disaster, promoting the excessive use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Tea prices fell drastically in 2003–04, causing an economic calamity. Commercial endeavours and tourism create a major problem in the district.

In this scenario, the beautiful old homes are converted into hotels and lodges, and Ooty is no longer a tourist paradise or a “Queen”. The Nilgiris were declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1986 but have become a Tourist Horror today. We must learn from African countries, where tourism is controlled, resorts are spread out, and tourism is a pleasure, not a destroyer, as in the Nilgiris.

Nanditha Krishna

Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai

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