Environmentalists in Tiruvannamalai are not new to the fight to save trees along the 'Girivalam' path. Only last year, they were up in arms against the Highways Department that wanted to fell trees to widen the path for pilgrims. An interim order from the National Green Tribunal, directing that not a single tree be cut, came as relief to activists in December. But now, another battle awaits them, in the form of a Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department order.
In a move bound to stoke controversy, the HR&CE Department in a document dated February 27, has ordered the axing of 545 naturally grown trees in the 'Sona nathi thoppu'. The land to be razed, belongs to the Arunachaleswarar Temple and contains 22 species of trees. According to the order, accessed by TNM, the trees are being razed to construct a 'Yatri Nivas'(Tourist Guest House) for pilgrims who embark on the Girivalam path.
The path is essentially a 14km road around the sacred Annamalai hill, which is considered to be a form of Lord Shiva. A journey around the hill is undertaken by pilgrims every full moon day of the month. Lakhs of devotees participate in this ritual in Tiruvannamalai.
The move has led to outrage among activists who claim that the order will result in the destruction of untouched land that is home to trees that are over a century old. Moreover, activists allege, it will destroy the habitat of animals and over 40 species of birds that exist in the area.
Activists in the area, are now questioning the HR&CE department over the need to build a Yatri Nivas, in an area where a plush green canopy is hard to come by. "This is a completely insensitive act. There are enough places to rest for those travelling along the Girivalam path. There are several empty lands that belong to the temple. If you must build a Yatri Nivas, why not build it there?" asks Kumar Ambayeram, an environmentalist based in Tiruvannamalai.
Activists claim that they are currently contemplating taking the matter to court, if there is a move to execute the HR&CE's order.
"This is the only patch of trees that survives even during a drought. We all know how dry this area can get. It is a safe haven for animals and birds. You can't ruin greenery when it is already scarce," he argues.
Activists further claim that this order comes at a time when afforestation programmes taken up by the Forest department are bearing fruit. According to The Hindu, the forest department has planted saplings in 275 acres over the years. In addition to this in 2010, they began a drive to plant 50,000 saplings in 260 hectares of the Adi Annamalai reserve forests. "After decades worth of efforts, the region is becoming greener. At such a time, this is a big blow," says one environmentalist, under the condition of anonymity.
"The trees in the land under the Arunachaleswarar temple are the only ones that have stood there for decades naturally. The trees there are extremely tall and wide. It will take three people to cover the girth of one tree with their arms. Building a Yatri Nivas is just not a good enough reason to destroy this hotspot of biodiversity," he argues.
If they were to go through with the instructions in the order, 22 species including Palm, Neem, Coconut and varieties of mango will be felled.
Despite attempts by TNM to contact the Commissioner of the HR&CE Department, he was unavailable for comment.