Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gurus for Corporates, Enemies for Animals

Massive illegal constructions by an assorted bunch of institutions run by spiritual leaders, education entrepreneurs and real estate companies are threatening the very survival of wild elephants in the Western ghats, near the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border.
 Pushed out of the elephant corridor by  huge buildings sprouting overnight, many of them with electrified fences to keep elephants off, the wandering tuskers have been increasingly straying into the nearby villages, killing and maiming people and destroying crops and property.
Fifty one people were killed by elephants in the Coimbatore division since 2009, at least 37 were hurt and elephants had attacked standing crops and property hunderds of times.
 Elephant corridors are narrow strips of land that allow elephants to move from one habitat patch to another, as they have always done to survive. There are 88 identified elephant corridors in India. Usually elephants move from one place to another in search of water and food, always unerringly treading the same beaten routes and paths. Forest officials estimate there are  usually 350 to 400 elephants in the region during October to March, who migrates through the corridor in the remaining months bringing the number down to around 80.
 India Today began an investigation into the blight from Chinnampathy Village near Mavuthampathy, part of the elephant corridor. A huge chunk of the area has now been fenced off by Himalaya developers, a real estate company. When elephants find their usual path blocked by fencing, they get easily confused,  stray into populated parts and wreak havoc.
Nearby is the Modamathi medu village, where on May 21, Balasubramaniam, a farmer was stomped to death by an elephant.  The nearly 500 families in the village now live in fear. Every home keeps a powerful  flashlight, costing nearly Rs 3,500, hoping to scare the wild elephants off when they come down in the nights. One of them, Ramathal, says they had been living there for the last 40 years but the threat is now for real. ``The elephants are not scared anymore. They keep coming, and they are now getting fierce” she said. When the tuskers march in, it is usually 
people from Murugampathy, a neighbouring tribal village, who come to their rescue now.

A night watchman is there for every Agri-family for protecting the fields from the elephants. If elephants come nearby they inform the forest department. Coimbatore Forest Division has a special squad for Elephants. Like Fire service Station, mobile phones of the squad members are always ringing for help in the evening and nights. There is a special vehicle for this purpose which is closed in all the four sides.
Every evening, the squad is ready with crackers and special torches which are powerful and everything is visible for even 1 km away. While talking to India Today, the squad gets call from a village and rushes there to find a lone wild tusker. They  fire  crackers and wave the flashlights to send it back to  forest. On the road leading to Kerala, near Madhukkarai, the squad warns passengers who have got out from vehicles, to leave immediately since the elephants, turned away from their corridor,  have been regularly treading this road. Once elephants are spotted, the road remains blocked and traffic jams have become common here.  Once elephants had reached as far as the local Vadavalli bus stand itself.
Religious and Educational institutions like the Isha yoga foundation have set up high voltage electric fences around their premises. When the elephants touch the fence, they are either hurt or get irritated and go on a rampage.  In Poondi area, near Vellaiyangiri hill, the Isha yoga foundation, headed by Jaggi Vasudev has an elaborate electric fence in place. The waters of Neeliyaaru, a small river running behind the Isha foundation complex is virtually sucked off by a well that the organisation has dug near it, for its own use.
According to the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA), no construction in the area is allowed without its permission. But that has not dissuaded the violaters. The Coimbatore office of Tamil Nadu’s Town & Country Planning Department had issued notice to Isha Foundation asking it to stop construction work there in November last year. The notice said :  ‘’While inspecting the site on 02.11.2012 it was found that the construction of 60 building blocks were completed and 34 building blocks were under construction. Of which building permission for none of the building blocks were issued…..’’ It had asked the foundation to stop construction forthwith or face prosecution.
 Earlier in last February, the Forest Department too had issued it a notice against constructions, but to no avail. This was after the Divisional forest Officer M.S. Parthipan sent a letter dated 19.01.12 to the local Forest Officer stressing that Isha Foundation was clearly transgressing the elephant corridor between Sadivayal and Thanikandi.
 ``After the foundation was set up there, lakhs of people are converging there,  using the forest roads and causing disturbance to the forest animals. Hundreds of workers, heavy vehicles and machines are being used for constructions and it is a big threat to forest animals and elephant corridor. Natural Forest trees are being destroyed and electric fencing has been put up by them, distracting elephants traffic and causing elephants to often stray into nearby fields and cause heavy damage to crops, property and human lives ‘’, says the official letter.
  In the hill area, there is a reserve forest boundary marked  by a forest department’s stone.  From the boundary line, 150 metres buffer zone has to be maintained. No construction work is allowed there. But Isha foundation has nearly 30 buildings right within this buffer zone.
 “The foundation itself has admitted in a letter to Forest Department, that from 1994 to 2011 it had constructed on 63,380 sq.metres of land there, while the local panchayat had given it permission for only 32,855.80 sq. metres. Now its area has gone upto 4,27,700 sq.m and all the constructions were from 1.70 metres to 473 metres from the Reserve Forest (RF) boundary. All these buildings are right in the elephant corridor and man-animal conflict is high in this area. Inspite of  warnings Isha has not stopped  constructions.  During every Mahasivarathri festival,  more than 2 lakh people come here. The sound and light system here frighten the elephants and we just don’t have enough staff to control the scared elephants. So  please do not allow Isha foundation to construct anymore”, wrote the  Coimbatore District Forest Officer to the HACA last August.
 But Isha finished all its buildings and opened them in 2012 December itself. When India Today contacted Isha foundation its spokesperson
claimed they did have most of the required permissions.  ‘’We have to get permission from 6 Departments and have obtained it from 5. Only one Department’s approval is pending,’’ according to him.
 When asked about this issue, local Boluvampatti Panchayat President Sadhanantham told India Today, “They are constructing buildings on their own. Whenever I try to pass a resolution in the panchayat against this, members abstain. Isha has managed support by some means. How can a panchayat  pass a resolution without its members? Our panchayat  is a small body that has no strength to oppose Isha, they have far higher tie-ups.  I am helpless’’ he said.
 Poovulagin Nanbargal, an Environment group had filed a public interest litigation   against Isha. When India Today asked Vetriselvan of Poovulagin Nanbargal and an advocate, he said ‘’ We have filed a petition asking Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu to take immediate steps to demolish all the illegal buildings and structures constructed by Isha Foundation. And when the whole Tamil Nadu suffers without electricity, Isha has got 24 hours electricity. We have questioned Tamil Nadu Electricity Board about this issue.’’
 In Isha's nearby tribal village Thanikandi, India Today met Selvi, who had lost her husband to a wild elephant. ''I am helpless after his death. Elephants usually do not harm us. But they have become angry and fierce of late", she said tearfully.
 But it is not just the Isha Foundation. The equally prominent Mata Amritanandamayi Trust claims it has obtained permission for every building it has in the area. But while issuing its NOC, the HACA had clearly asked it to ensure that a buffer zone of 150 metres should be maintained strictly from the RF boundary and it had not done so. A huge water tank, which is used for the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham university’s students has come up right inside the buffer zone of RF.  And its solar powered electric fencing to keep elephants away is just one  meter from the RF boundary. Perhaps as a compromising action, Amrita has built a open water tank there for the elephants. But when India Today visited the area, it had only dirty and evidently unusable water from long ago. full of green algae and worms. An elephant needs at least 200 liters of fresh water a day.
The Forest Department had issued notice to the Amritanandamayi trust in April this year for its failure to maintain the buffer zone, but nothing has been done yet. When India Today tried to contact Amritanandamayi Trust officials, they maintained that their higher authorities will get in touch to explain. But that never happened..

North of  the area the trust has occupied, all  forest trees have been destroyed and the place now looks like a barren plateau. The land is getting ready for some construction, whose ownership remains unknown. But this is the place where usually elephants come down. ‘’If this way is also blocked, elephants will be confused and begin entering right into the heavily populated town areas. Recently, elephants killed a naval officer and an old lady, which has created more panic among the locals. ’’ says an Elephant watcher working for the Coimbatore District Forest Department.
List of Institutions that violated rules by not getting NOC for constructions (Obtained through an RTI application on  22.01.2013)
1.
Karunya University, Coimbatore – 641 114
Got for one part
2
Evangeline Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Coimbatore - 641114
Did not get NOC
3
Karunya International Residential School,Coimbatore - 641114
Did not get NOC
4
Chinmaya International Residential School,Coimbatore – 641114
Did not get NOC
5
Isha Yoga Center, Velliangiril Foothills,Coimbatore - 641114
Did not get NOC
6
Isha Home School, Velliangiri Foothills,Coimbatore
Did not get NOC
7
Isha Vidhya Matriculation School, Sandegoundenpalayam, Coimbatore – 641 109
Did not get NOC
8
Tamara Resorts, Perumal Kovil pathy,Coimbatore - 641101
Did not get NOC
9
Indus College of Engineering, Kaliamangalam, Alandurai Village, Coimbatore - 641101
Did not get NOC
10
Guruvayurappan Institute of Management, Navakkarai, Coimbatore – 641105
Did not get NOC
11
SAN International Business School, Mavvuthampathy, Coimbatore – 641105
Applied
12
AVC – Saranya, Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, Mavuthampathy, Navakarai, Coimbatore – 641105
Did not get NOC
13
Sri Venkateswara College of Computer Applications and Management, Ettimadai,Coimbatore – 641105
Did not get NOC
14
Kovail Hills Golf and Country Club, Integrated Feeder Township, IT SEZ, by RAKINDO developers Pvt. Ltd, Perur Chettipalayam village
Did not get NOC
15
V.L.B. Janaki ammal college of Engineering and Technology, Kovaipudur, Coimbatore – 641 042
Did not get NOC
16
V.L.B. Janakiammal Polytechnic College, Kovaipudur, Coimbatore – 641 102
Did not get NOC
17
Satchidanda Jothi Nikethan, Kallar, Mettupalayam – 641 305
Refused NOC
18
Black Thunder Theme park private Limited,Odanthurai Village, Mettuppalayam – 641 305
Did not get NOC
19
Avinashilingam University For Women, thadagam post, Coimbatore – 641 108
Applied
20
Kari Kubel Instititue for Development Education, Mangarai, Coimbatore – 641 108
Did not get NOC
21
Ayurveda Hospital & Arya Vaidya Pharmacy Training, Mangarai, Coimbatore– 641 017
Did not get NOC

Elsewhere, a thousand Acre project is in full swing covering Perur Chettipalayam, Madhukkarai and Theethipalayam areas, in the name of Kovail Hills Golf and Country Club, Integrated Feeder Township and an  IT SEZ, by Rakindo developers Pvt. Ltd.  Some parts of the area fall under HACA, but  Rakindo has not got the NOC for those. A huge chunk of the hill is being converted into a golf course, which is an important part of the elephant corridor, says a Forest Department worker. This is also evident from a water tank built by the Department for elephants there. The site inspection report signed by the District collector says that ‘’This area is of rich flora & fauna. Further, it is very near to the hillock. Boluvampatti reserved forest is nearby. The elephants are passing through this area often. It is not safe area for human habitation as elephants are likely to create danger for human beings who pass on the roads and pathways. It is also a catchment of Noyyal river system. Further there is a possibility of depletion of ground water. Already farmers in this area are suffering for lack of water. The revenue department has rejected the application for transfer of certain channel are odai (stream) area also.  Hence, considering the maintenance of geological balance, farmers interest, interest of water table maintenance, elephant life and sustainable development for the future in public interest, this layout for construction is to be rejected as this project is a danger…..’’
But despite that, Rakindo officials claimed to India Today that they already have procured NOC's from the Forest, Mining & Engineering and Agriculture Departments.
More shocking is the site of Indus Engineering college situated in Kaliamangalam near Alanthurai. The college campus starts just under the slope. The RF boundary stone itself is inside the campus and on the Forest Department Authorities' order a part of the wall is demolished. But If the Forest Department goes by the book on maintaining the buffer zone, almost the entire college building may have to be demolished. 
 In Mathuvarayapuram, the Chinmaya International Residential school is deep inside the forest and it was possible to locate the RF boundary stone only after a long foot journey in the elephant path of the forest. Here also buffer zone is not maintained which is evident from the distance of compound wall of the school and the boundeary stone is one or two meters.  Local Panchayat President Guna says the school built its wall without bothering for the panchayat’s permission. `` We wrote to Forest Department regarding this.'' He said.
 Karunya University straddles the space near Chinmaya school. Karunya does  maintain the buffer zone and the RF boundary line. But  RTI Activist Siva says its nearly 7,500 students right near the deep reserve forest and the elephant corridor is itself a big problem. It pollutes the environment. The hostels are inside the premises and all wastes are dumped under the hill. They have a proposal for a Law college which will be coming up soon near the buffer zone.” .
When India Today asked Karunya Institution, its Chief Engineer Sudhakar told ‘’We do not want to be blamed and are stepping carefully. Waste management is being done now and there will be no more dumping. We are providing food daily to two elephants in Sadivayal. We have just put up our board on the site but since you have mentioned the  buffer zone, we will now remove the board. Actually we have not yet finalized our site,’’ he said.
Details of Compensation paid for elephant attacks (from 2009 -2013) Coimbatore Division
S. No
Year of Incident
Death
Injury
Crop Damage
Damages to Shop
Live Stock
No. of Incidents
Amount
No. of Incidents
Amount
No. of Incidents
Amount
No. of Incidents
Amount
No. of Incidents
Amount
1
2009
11
11,00,000
5
70,000
369
39,24,000
6
27,000


2
2010
9
9,00,000
12
3,00,000
228
27,53,000
3
17,000


3
2011
14
18,50,000
9
1,70,000
445
31,36,430
12
38,000
37
67,500
4
2012
11
12,75,000
2
33,000
389
41,41,000
22
1,30,000


5
2013
6
9.00.000
9
30.000
336
2.12.000
9
37.000



Near Thondamuthur, in Attukkal, the District Administration has sealed a site. ‘’Huge rocks were broken into pieces and about 13 lorry load was there in the site, which is so near to the Reserved Forest. The site has to be approved by HACA, which is not even applied. So we are sealing it’’ says the District collector’s order. Not only quarrying, but looting of sand is also common in the small rivers nearby, which creates a huge ecological problem and imperils wild animals which depend on them for water.
 The next is Mettupalayam. Along the Ooty main road is the popular Black thunder theme park. On the other side of the park are huge tract that violate buffer zone from the boundary regulations of Reserved Forests. The compound wall here also just starts within some metres from the stone and also some buildings are not got the NOC.
 Near the theme park is the Sachidhanda Jothi Nikethen Residential School. Cross  a tribal village and the famous Mettupalayam – Ooty railroute, and the electric fencing around the school to keep elephants away becomes visible. Here also, buffer zone is not maintained and the fence starts very near to the boundary stone of RF. Locals say it is common to spot elephants  the rail route.
 Moving to near Anaikkatti, in Tholampalayam,  Shivaa developers has a site with a swimming pool and club house and restaurant. From the RF stone,   buildings are visible within the 150 meter buffer zone.  This site remains locked and sealed by the Town and Country Planning Department, Coimbatore. The notice dated 18.02.2013 clearly says it is unauthorized.  ``You are hereby called upon to restore the land to its condition before the said construction took place within 30 days’’ the notice warned. But Shivaa developers had obtained a court stay and the case is still pending.
When contacted the District Collector Karunakaran said ''We have sent many notices to several institutions for unauthorizsed and unapproved constructions. We are doing our duty, .'' he maintained.
 A top official in the Forest Department says his officials cannot do much.  ''If someone applies for an NOC from HACA, we will be asked for our opinion. If the proposed construction falls within the elephant corridor, we usually ask to reject the proposal _  and if further construction is done, we issue a notice to stop it. But we have no powers to seal or lock or demolish. We can only tell them to stop. We don't have an enforcement mechanism. So, the institutions never respect us and violate the rules. We keep warning them and they keep constructing.''
The District Town and Country Planning Department (DTCP) does have the power to lock, seal and demolish any unauthorized construction in their jurisidiction. DTCP director Sabapathy says ''We have clearly informed the Chinmaya school that getting an approval from local panchayat is not enough. As, the area comes under HACA, NOC has to be got. But Chinmaya has gone to court and we have countered it. About Isha and Indus College we have sent all the complaints to our commissioner and waiting for reply. Thamara resorts have asked  for time till June end.''
Commissioner of Town and Country Planning A.Karthik claimed : ''If we get any complaint regarding unapproved constructions, we will definitely take necessary actions''
 State Forest Minister Pachaimal told India today ''I enquired about these issues. It seems all the lands are Patta lands. Usually Patta lands are not in the elephant corridor. Perhaps the elephants are going near those sites. We had alloted Rs 20 crores to build Agazhis to prevent elephants coming to the villages or town.''


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