Society for Conservation of Nature

SAVED SAKUNTHALAI MALAI

                                                               SAVED  SAKUNTHALAI MALAI

Sometime during 2009 there was a proposal to construct a dam by the Public Works Department (PWD) across Ulakkai Aruviyaaru which flows from the famous Ulakkai Aruvi waterfalls located in Asambu Reserve Forest (RF) of Kanyakumari Forest Division. This river forms a tributary to Pazhayaru, a famous historical river that has mention about it in the ancient Sangam Literature of Tamil as ‘Pagruzhiyaaru’.  According to the Historians, over a period of time, the name ‘Pagruzhiyaaru’ has modified into ‘Pazhayaaru’. The dam was proposed here in order to augment the water supply to Nagercoil town. Since the river originates and flows through Asambu RF, the PWD requisitioned the Forest Department (FD) to allot 4 hectares of forest land from the RF for that project. As per the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, if portion of any RF is to be denotified for non-forestry purpose, twice the extent of the land is to be given by the concerned department as compensatory land. The only condition is that the land which is proposed as compensatory land   should be contiguous to any RF. In addition to this, the fund required for afforestation and for carrying out soil and moisture conservation measures is also to be shared by the concerned department with the Forest Department. Once all these conditions are fulfilled, due permission has to be obtained from the Government of India (GOI). The PWD authorities had requested the Collector and got approval for allotting about 8 hectares of revenue land located close to Velimalai RF. So, accordingly that land was shown to us. Since the land was having many encroachments, it was rejected. Kanyakumari district is known for encroachments. If we accept such area as compensatory land means, the   headache of evicting the encroachments will fall on our head and it will become a perennial problem. Senior Forest Officers cannot forget the ordeals faced by the Forest Personnel while they tried to evict the encroachments in the Jenmam lands of Gudalur taluk of Nilgiris district after accepting the lands from the Revenue Department with the encroachments existed. It is the bounden and foremost duty of the Senior Forest Officers to inform the younger Officers about the intricacies involved in such situations in order to improve their management skills.

The PWD authorities were in constant touch with the Collector for getting a suitable land in order to hand over the same to the Forest Department as the  project had to be implemented early as there was acute water scarcity in Nagercoil town. In this situation one day I and the Collector were discussing certain issues in his chamber. At that time there was a telephonic call from somebody to the Collector. From the way he reacted, I was able to understand that somebody had requested him for some obligation. Once the call is over, he requested me to suggest some way to save Sakunthalai Malai. I thought over it for a while and very immediately suggested to allot that hillock as compensatory land in lieu of 4 hectares of forest land from Asambu RF which was required by PWD for constructing a dam. I added further that as Sakunthalai Malai is close to Therku Malai West RF (a hill range which runs parallel to Aralvai Mozhi to Kanyakumari road on its Eastern side), there will not be any problem in accepting the hillock. By hearing my suggestion he became very happy. I was told that a so called Educationist who hailed from the same district wanted Sakunthalai Malai on lease basis for quarrying as he was in need of stones for forming a private port there. Since that person was having many educational institutions in Chennai and had close contact with the politicians, the Collector was having the apprehension of some political pressure in this matter. As already the people who live close to that hillock and other Environmentalists had raised objection and sent petitions to the District Forest Officer (DFO) and the Collector, it was decided not to allow any quarry there. So, immediately he called the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) and the Thasildar concerned and discussed the matter in detail. As most part of Sakunthalai Malai has rock outcrops, it was decided to allot 20 hectares to Forest Department retaining about 10 hectares with the Revenue Department as they may require the same for future development.

The Divisional Engineer (DE), PWD was informed immediately. As seven copies of proposal had to be prepared with necessary maps of RF and the compensatory land along with other details for submission to the GOI after signing them by the Collector, the DFO and the PWD Engineer, the Revenue authorities and the PWD Engineers were requested by the Collector to assist me in preparing the same for early submission. Sakunthalai Malai also was inspected jointly by the Revenue authorities, PWD Engineers and the DFO.  After the field inspection, all the three department officials sat together tightly and prepared all the maps and filled up the forms meant for the same. That day evening itself, seven copies of maps and the forms after duly signed by the DFO and the PWD Engineer were submitted to the Collector for approving and submitting to the GOI.

As the list of the standing trees had been prepared and the value also had already been assessed, it was easy for us to fill up the forms. At that time there was an able and devoted person in the District Forest Office who had thorough knowledge about the encroachments and the various court cases that were pending with different courts. He was none other than Mr. Harihara Iyer, a retired Inspector of Survey. He was working in the department for more than two decades. He was engaged temporarily to assist the DFO, the Draughting section and the Lease Assistant in preparing counter affidavits for court cases, in evicting the encroachments and in preparation of proposal for recommending quarry, papers under Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA), etc. He was of great help in preparing the forms and maps which are to be submitted to the GOI. Even at the age of 78, he used to accompany us to the field for verification of the boundary and permanent marks of cairns of various RFs. He was more thorough with the boundary and cairn marks than the beat and the section staff. In the same way he was more thorough with the case files. Once while I was travelling to Chennai to attend a meeting pertaining to pending court cases, when I discussed with him, without any file, he was able to share details about different cases.  Recently he passed away and his absence is really a great loss to the department. Many times, the Collector was seeking his help while signing the counter affidavits related to forest cases in which he was the first respondent.

The Collector signed all the seven copies of the forms and the maps and the same was submitted that day itself to the Government of India. Fortunately the next day I happened to be with the Collector in his chamber. When there was a telephonic call, he replied that the said hillock had been proposed as compensatory land to the Forest Department in lieu of the forest land required by the PWD for construction of a dam and the file had already been submitted to the GOI a week back. He added further that as the file had been submitted to the GOI, nothing could be done at that stage. By hearing his convincing words, the Officer could not say anything further and said OK. Subsequently I was told that the person who spoke to the Collector regarding the quarry lease was none other than the top most Officer of the Government of Tamil Nadu. It was evident that as the Collector expected this kind of heavy pressure from the higher ups, he was in a hurry in submitting the proposal to the GOI.

Thus, Sakunthalai Malai, a hillock located contiguous to the Therku Malai West RF was saved by our diligence and timely action. By way of saving the hill, we were able to help the district as a whole to enjoy the valuable ecosystem services for ever. Once while there was some discussion about the incident, Mr. Harihara Iyer recollected the sincere efforts of like minded Officers in overcoming a crisis in saving one of the precious natural resources.

The task was able to be achieved only because of the sincere and earnest team work of likeminded Officers. When such Officers with optimistic ideas happened to work together, this kind of challenge could be overcome easily. That too when it is towards conservation of any natural resource, it is a great pleasure to carry out such activities enthusiastically and earnestly as humans are also part and parcel of Nature.