Two hill stations in South India need to be saved urgently. One is Gone and the other is Going. If something's gotta be done. It's gotta to be done now. But who gives a damn?
Ooty: Not so long ago in Ooty, distance was measured by time. Going down to the movies was a thirty minute brisk walk and to the Boat Lake a fifteen minute march and a leisurely stroll to the Botanical gardens could easily set you back by an hour. And this measurement of course, would vary in accordance with your starting point. At that time very few people who lived in Ooty had cars and most people who had a pair of legs purposefully used them to cover distance and considered them not as body parts to be painfully exercised at some point of the day.
Taking a cab was a luxury but sometimes a necessity. The cabbie would ensure all his passengers were safely seated within the confines of the car before he embarked on the arduous mission of starting the car. Instead of smoothly turning the key in the ignition, he would advance the throttle, pull the hand brake then jump out of the cab with a crank, run to the front of the car and shove the crank into the hole in the bumper and wind it till the motor fired and then the cabbie would race back and jump in to steer the car to its destination. (It was a fun way to travel short distances. In the plains these cars had disappeared a long time ago. Even before I came on to this planet.)
The passengers were blissfully unaware that they were sitting in a machine that had all the power to run over the cabbie and go mindlessly on its way if the brakes failed. But such incidences of runaway cabs were never reported and the five or six antiquated cabs that served the folks in Ooty survived till the late seventies. Then like everything else that was charming about Ooty, they too disappeared and were replaced by swanky cars with key starter engines.
The boom in tourism brought in the commercial factor. The King Star chocolates were once a treasure: the fudges, the Japcakes and turkey sweets were exclusive to this shop. But now they are mass produced by all and sundry and are available even in the smallest of tea shops. They have been renamed Ooty chocolates. This chocolate revolution reminds one of what the Bard said of excesses. “The surfeit of the sweetest things, the deepest loathing to the stomach brings.” The other victim is the Everlasting Flowers that could be easily picked off the scented bushes on the roadside. Now they no longer decorate the roadsides and have to be bought in the market place!
This is not a rant against change. O yeah! Change is good. But sometimes change can be irreversibly for the worse. And no change is as bad as what the concrete excrescences have done to the face of Ooty. The once quaint town is today a vast market place and the dirt and squalor have permeated everywhere. The woods and the flowers have slowly disappeared and nature alone does not draw people to the place anymore. Amusement parks are now urgently required to provide exhilaration that was once just got from the Majestic view of the Blue Hills.
Munnar: In the Western ghats, Munnar is now the destination of mass tourism. That’s great and if it remains unspoilt then the same tourists can WoW it when they go back. But things are changing in these rolling hills famous for the Nilakurinijis (Strobilanthes). The flowers, which gave the Nilgiris its name, mass flower impressively and whole hillsides get covered with their showy presence. But they bloom just once in 12 Years! And 2006 is a lucky year! Travel to Munnar will definitely be highlighted on many a tourist brochure: the flowers a must see tourist attraction. 12 years later will you still see these flowers? Or will Munnar go the Ooty way?
These hills are also home to the Nilgiri Tahr found nowhere else in the world. The largest surviving population of the Nilgiri Tahr specific to the shola (grassland) eco system is found in the Eravikulam National Park. And their number is a PITIABLE 750! And if you go there they will probably pose for photographs too. Though they still have not learnt to say cheese they are not fleeing when they see this species called Tourist. The Assistant Wild Life Warden at Munnar says “ The behaviourial pattern of the Nilgiri Tahr that live near the edge of the sanctuary have undergone considerable change. They are no longer afraid of human beings.”
Another grey animal, the elephant freely roams around the tea plantations and sometimes a small herd invades a Planter’s vegetable garden to toss cabbages and generally throw their weight around. “Only yesterday,” says a Planter “there were 3-4 elephants not far from here.” That sounds very familiar coz every time I go up to Munnar I hear that line. The saying goes it is good luck to spot an elephant on your first visit. No such luck for me then or now.
Sometimes the roofs elope with the Wicked, wicked wind.
At Surianalle (where there is no sun) the wind does not gently whisper to the trees but howls and rages even during the day. The howling intensifies at night like the rumbling of a huge truck madly dashing over the road and occasionally crashing onto the road banks. Most houses here have heavy polythene bags on the rooftops. No the people of Surianalle are not drying anything on the rooftops nor is it some kind of queer architectural design. These are just sand bags- a small measure to ensure that the roofs do not elope with the wicked, wicked wind.
A decade ago only few hotels graced these hills but today garish forts and gaudy palaces have sprung up all over to cater to the tourists. Most of these hotels are solid, ugly structures with no sand bags on their rooftops or any fear of flying roofs. The RDO of the three taluks (Devikulam, Udambanchola and Peermade) said the unbridled mushrooming of the hotels was the sole concern of the District Promotion Council and not his problem. In Munnar Panchayat a high number of hotels and private buildings are just popping up every year. The environmental degradation of Munnar town in recent years has been rapid. The High Range Wild Life and Environment Preservation Association had filed a writ petition in the High Court of Kerala in 1995 that there was total absence of any effective law or regulation for the protection and conservation of the High Ranges in the state of Kerala unlike the other states. But nothing has come out of it.
Soon Munnar will go the Ooty way. Perhaps there will be sufficient number of Malls to entertain the tourists that go there. Another hill station gets vandalized. But who cares?
Hanging in a corner of the Wild Life Warden’s Office at Munnar is the environmentalist J.C.Goldsbury’s plea “None who has visited this haven, can deny that this is one of the world’s most beautiful places. Please let it remain so. Cannot the tide of destruction be diverted to flow around and leave unwasted still this small island of tranquility? Let it be a haven for the Nilgiri Tahr found nowhere else in the world but the mountains of South India. The tiger and the panther through man’s greed are near extinction. And the mighty Gaur, whose very size brings out the LUST in man.”