In the holy hill of Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, an environmental crisis is brewing.
Over the years, the Girivalam path leading to the shrine of Annamalaiyar has been greeted from bullock carts and barefoot devotees to now SUVs, tempos and sedans. What remains however, is its swathe of green cover and rare shrubs.
The hills average about 3 lakh visitors a month, given that many travel in the third week of the month during full moon. On auspicious days of Chithirai Maadam and Karthikeya Deepam, 5 lakh turn up with their prayers to God. For fair weather devotees, the wealth is in its sanctum sanctorum. But for the hill that houses close to 5 lakh residents, the wealth is in its greenery.
Over the last week, a campaign to save the trees along the Girivalam path has kicked off. The government is also planning an acquisition of land in the area. âThis is all patta land, I donât know how the government can just claim the right of ruining an entire forest,â says Kumar Ambriyam, a local activist. Kumar has been actively challenging the order with one line â âTake away the forest, and you take away an entire ecosystem. â
So why is this a problem?
First, the proposal to widen the road for a new path will also go through agricultural fields.
Two, the planned expansion of the path cutting into a number of âRest-a-Whileâ parks created by the administration for the benefit of pilgrims and local wildlife. These parks provide a tranquil resting spot for those doing the 13 km Pradakshina (holy route to the temple), and enhance the protective buffer for adjacent Reserved Forest lands.
Three, the present route of the Arunachala Girivalam path dates back centuries. It was formally marked during Pandya times centuries ago following a route already long in existence at this time. The marker stones laid down by the king were still visible until recently. Any change in this route will be a loss of cultural and historical heritage, cherished by pilgrims around the world.
Four, this is not good for the tourists either, says Murugan, an activist, âPeople faint because of the lack of shade, and now all the tree shade will be gone. The herbal properties of goods sold to devotees as Siddha medicine will no longer be there,â he says.
After relentless protests, the number of trees to be cut from reduced from 218 to 125 trees. Officials have assured locals that for every tree that is being cut, the plan would be to grow 20 trees, and saplings were already placed where trees were cut on Chengam Road. But trees take 30 years to reach the stature of ones that are being cut.
Activists donât understand the need ffor a road widening project.."Why would you need to widen the road for, as the officials say, ambulances and emergency purposes and not use the existing path?â says Murugan.
The forests are home to a varied species of animals and medicinal plants, and as Murugan says, saplings can never replace these species. âDeer, jackals, porcupines and anteaters consider this forest home. Kadambai, Maruthu, Azhinjil and Iluppai trees can be found only in this part of forest in Tiruvannamalai hill,â he says.
Whatâs the alternative? Many propose that the government needs to finish constructing the ring Road and focus their efforts there instead of an alternate pathway. âBarricade the road that is existing and create an emergency lane. These paths are for people who come once a month, what about us who live here. Are we worth anything to the government?â asks Kumar.
The citizens have moved the National Green Tribunal in this regard, but due to the reshuffle of collectors, the NGT has postponed the hearing to August second week. Work has been halted as of now.
Until then, it's about time the government acknowledges that the hills do have eyes.