The TN Slum Clearance Board’s project has received flak for planning over 4,000 houses in the foothills of Velliangiri hills, parts of which is a reserve forest area.

Protector turns destroyer How TN govt is encroaching on a Coimbatore reserve forest All images by The Newsminute
Delve Rural Issues Friday, August 23, 2019 - 12:23

Kannadas, 29, is a busy man. On a recent Tuesday morning, he was occupied with continuous phone calls related to his leaf-plate business. Kannadas was born and brought up in Kalimangalam, a picturesque village about 30 kilometres from Coimbatore, with a population of 600 people, at the edge of the Boluvampatti Reserve Forest. For years, he has taken part in protests and signed petitions seeking government intervention on various issues concerning the environment and forests. But though activism isn’t a new calling, for Kannadas, his present concern is a little different. This time, it is to protect the forest from the government itself.

The issue centres around the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB)’s plan to build settlements at the foot of the Velliangiri hills in Coimbatore. The project involves the construction of over 4,600 houses under the auspices of the ‘Housing for All’ scheme in Alandurai and Perur villages in Coimbatore.

The upcoming housing project has sparked massive opposition among the people living in the region for a multitude of reasons: the damage that the project could cause to forest resources and the environment as well as the possibility that the people being moved to these settlements will not have work to sustain them.

The project, whose foundation stage is progressing rapidly, is a settlement with around 600 houses and will ultimately accommodate over 2,000 people, close to the border of the Boluvampatti Reserve Forest. The remaining houses are being built in Thenkarai, Perur-Chettipalayam and Pachanavayal villages in the district.

TNSCB project in Kalimangalam as on  July 16, 2019 

Project conflicts with nature

It was not long ago that Chinnathambi, an elephant who was notorious for entering villages and causing damage to agricultural crops, was captured by the Forest Department officials and converted into a kumki elephant. The Boluvampatti reserve forest is a part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, which is home to many endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna. Kalimangalam, at the edge of the forest, is located near an arm of the Noyyal river, amidst lush green cover and pleasant weather. 

A part of the Nilambur Silent Valley Coimbatore Elephant Reserve, this region is also classified as ‘high’ for human-wildlife conflict, as per the data with Tamil Nadu Forest Department. This TNSCB project is expected to increase the entry of animals into human settlements since the construction is taking place directly on the path that elephants use to reach Noyyal river in search of water.

Environmental activists in Coimbatore are pinning the blame squarely on the Tamil Nadu Forest Department for the potential damage. Yoganathan, an activist and a President’s awardee for his environmental conservation efforts, blames the Forest Department for not doing its duty of conserving the precious forest resources from the TNSCB settlement. “It is not as if the buildings appeared there one fine morning. The construction materials would have taken days to reach the spot,” he says, adding that the Tamil Nadu Forest Department cannot ignore the matter.

Another Coimbatore-based environmental activist K Mohanraj tells TNM that the spot chosen by TNSCB is a well-known path of elephants. “The frequency at which people in villages spot elephants in the residential areas is high,” he points out.

Yoganathan is also of the opinion that complex political structures and collusion among the legislators and officers contribute to such violations, which ends up destroying ecological diversity. Kalimangalam falls under the Thondamuthur Assembly constituency and Pollachi Parliamentary constituency limits.

“If the government and politics are in the correct path, forests can be saved,” he says.

Kannadas adds that numerous written representations given to SP Velumani, the Thondamuthur MLA and the state Minister for Rural Administration have not been attended to.

Apart from affecting forests, the project could also destroy the water table in the village, Kannadas explains.

“Those of us who live here are dependent on rainwater. The normal borewell levels in this area are around 1,200 to 1,400 feet under the ground. The groundwater table here cannot support another 2,000 people. It will lead to chaos and unscrupulous drilling into the earth,” he says.

Deprivation of livelihood

Another major concern is the need for sources of livelihood for new residents. Those who are accommodated in these tenements are likely to hold jobs in Coimbatore city, about 30 kilometres away from the TNSCB settlement.

“The spot where the TNSCB houses are being built is roughly eight kilometres from the nearest tar road. There are no mini buses here. The government buses provide 12 trips to the city and back every day. That is all the connectivity this place has,” Kannadas says.

The job-strapped region may also be further strained if the same people start looking for work in and around Kalimangalam.

MS Velmurugan, the district secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), Coimbatore also puts forth a pertinent point when he questions if the new site has all the basic amenities needed for the people to lead a dignified life.

“If the government is implementing some scheme by calling it good for people, then it becomes imperative to first ask the opinion of those people for whom the scheme is designed for. Isn’t there land within the city to accommodate them all?” he asks.

He also points out that if the government is serious about rehabilitating those from the oppressed communities who live in slums, it can take steps to allot Panchami lands to them. Panchami lands in the city were originally assigned to Scheduled Caste persons but later allotted to non-Dalits. “What happened to all the Panchami lands in the city? The government can retrieve those lands and give it back to the people so that they can live the life they want, closer to their places of work,” he adds.

Sinister plan to reinforce caste divide

Some who oppose the project have also alleged that it systematically keeps socially-oppressed communities, who mostly work as sanitation workers with the Coimbatore Corporation, in the outskirts of the city.

“The plan of all governments is to bring back the social inequality. Only if they (sanitation workers and other people who do menial jobs for their livelihood) live in city will they be actively able to pursue education or employment, which will raise their social and economic standing. The aim of packing these people into  places that are away from cities itself is to deny them of these opportunities,” he alleges.

Velmurugan notes that society’s consistent relocation of those who have worked tirelessly for the development and expansion of the city is a way to ensure that the caste-based segregation still thrives.

The legal tussle

As soon as the construction work in Kalimangalam started on June 24, the Velliangiri Tribal Rights Society filed a petition in the Madras High Court, seeking to stall the construction of settlements, which were rapidly progressing in Kalimangalam village. The counsel for the petitioner had submitted to the court that TNSCB was trying to commence construction in Kalimangalam village before obtaining the necessary Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) clearance for the project.

Villages like Kalimangalam come under the purview of HACA, and requires its clearance for undertaking any construction work in those areas. HACA is an independent body headed by an IAS officer and consists of members from at least 17 departments of the state government. The authority was notified in 1990 for the sole purpose of conserving the hilly regions of Tamil Nadu from damage and destruction due to rapid urbanization among other things.

An official confirmed to TNM that HACA clearance had not been obtained. Meanwhile, the District Forest Officer, Coimbatore Forest Division, in his counter-affidavit, stated that the No Objection Certificate for the project in Kalimangalam was issued by the state Forest Department in a letter from the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Chennai on July 25, 2019. The affidavit does not mention the status of the application to HACA.

Yet, when a TNM reporter visited the construction site on July 16, construction on the project had commenced and was far underway.

The Madras High Court, on August 14, granted an interim stay on the construction works carried out under this project, observing that work should not be allowed to proceed without the required permission. It also posted the case for September for the next hearing.

Meanwhile, a senior official at the TNSCB accepts that the construction at Kalimangalam shouldn’t have started at all. “Only earth work has been done in Kalimangalam. That also shouldn’t have been done without HACA clearance. But since we got No Objection Certificates from a few departments, the site engineers commenced the work thinking that HACA clearance is just a matter of time,” he explains.

Stating that HACA has not cleared the Kalimangalam project yet, he told TNM that orders have been issued to suspend all the work immediately post the court order on August 14. “We will obey the court order in letter and spirit,” he added.

However, activists allege that even when HACA clearances are provided, the ‘toothless’ body lacks the ability to take a stand.

“There is no one to monitor if those conditions are actually implemented. There are no penal provisions for non-compliance of HACA either. It is a toothless body,” Mohanraj, says. 

(With inputs from Sudhakar Balasundaram)

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