Pambar Shola : A Success Story in Conservation-V - Profit from Waste

(R.W. Stewart and Tanya Balcar)

Our previous report (Shola No 25: 308-309. 2000) focused on the cleaning of Pambar Ravine from mountains of rubbish. Successful as this was, the big rains of the North East monsoon brought down heaps more from the settlements upstream, and a follow-up cleaning was deemed necessary. It was clear that we couldn't keep "our patch" clean without a generalised solution for the whole township.

At the VOYCE meeting of 25.1.2000 the news that Ooty was tackling its waste with some success was discussed and it was decided that someone should go and investigate. By chance we were personally heading that way, so the job fell to us and together with Francis of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association (NWEA) we proceeded to Ooty. Here we met Geeta Srinivasan, President, and Mr Mahesh amongst others of HOPE, who responded warmly to our request for information.

They opened their files to us, from which we photocopied a selection of leaflets, newspaper reports, and a project proposal to recycle Ooty's waste dump into plastic scrap and compost together with the "rehabilitation" of the town's rag-pickers. Other campaigns enlisted the support of the traders in creating "litter free zones" around the town. In the afternoon we visited the dump where we witnessed the 14-acre hell now shrunk by 2 acres in only a couple of months.

Back home we duplicated our data into 5 information packs and distributed them to key individuals and organisations in town that we knew would have an interest. Our hope was that this simultaneous exposure would galvanise these elements into a united and clearly focused force. By this time of writing, we were expecting to report on some organisational developments and plans for future action, but we have been overtaken by events after co-ordinating meetings of VOYCE together with Kodaikanal Lake Protection Council (KLPC), Tamil Nadu Environment Council (TNEC), and Equations.

On 24.4.2000, "Earthday" was celebrated at the Boat Club with "Ban on Plastics in Kodai" its focus. This meeting, attended by, amongst others, senior academics, town officials, politicians, N.G.O.'s and the already activated Forest Department, provided the forum for action. A week later VIPs joined a publicity oriented cleaning programme around the lake-side. The D.F.O. among them extended his duties to personally helping clean tourist spots adjacent to forest areas at Pillar Rocks and Silver Cascade. At the Flower Show two weeks later, VOYCE was joined by the TNEC and KLPC as well as the young women activists of Vattakanal, and presented a large photo display of Kodai's "plastic hotspots" along with newspaper articles. Many local people were dismayed to see such degradation all over the township. The exhibit drew criticism from some of the judges of the Flower show for showing Kodai in a bad light !

A week later VOYCE members, of whom many are small traders, began to re-lobby their fellow colleagues in the trade to pledge that they would not use plastic bags. This activity was then taken up by the township authorities, eventually even the police, with enlightened leadership, joined in the act, bringing litterers to book. The problem of what to replace plastic bags with was previously taken up by VOYCE, by producing, via the tailoring group, cheap cloth bags with the logo "Plastic Kills Kodai I-Ells" and "Say no to Plastics". A few hundred of these have been sponsored by people, including the "Green Circle" of St. Peter's School. Meanwhile the Consumer Protection Association of Kodaikanal have moved on mass producing paper bags. Finally the ban on poly-bags and plastic disposable cups was "written into law by" the Collector after successful lobbying by all involved.

One outstanding question to be addressed was the town's waste dump, its proposed relocation and/or recycling its produce, hopefully eventually from collected waste separated at source. This was taken up in July by Kodaikanal Educational Development Society at a meeting of the United Citizen!s Council of Kodaikanal, and they are now orally committed to the project which includes the rehabilitation of the rag pickers encamped by the road side at Shembaganur. The biggest remaining problem is spillage into forest areas like Bombay Shola and private waste heaps kept in public space, the latter of which should be easy to tackle, given the will. The increasing tendency for non-biodegradable packaging of domestic consumables makes this -imperative.

The speed of events over the summer was breathtaking and this necessarily brief account is bound to have omitted salient details as well as the contribution of many individuals and organisations. Our township is palpably cleaner, the camel's back is broken and we should all look forward to further improvement. Our recent visit to Ooty revealed that the situation there had further improved over the months, but restricted use of poly-bags still relies on voluntarism and the indiscriminate dumping of rubbish by hotels is worse than in Kodai.

While in Ooty we met members of the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environment Association and plans for an illustrated "Nilgiri Flora" were tentatively pursued. The Indian Institute for Science, Bangalore have expressed an interest. Also while there we visited the highland Mukurti National Park and saw for the first time an extensive tract of an unviolated Shola/grassland eco-system which brought home so acutely what has been lost in the Palnis. Previously we were introduced to the High Ranges Wildlife and Environment Association president and hence to Tata Tea who have embarked on an ambitious Shola regeneration programme within their tea estates. We were able to help them with plant identification which was useful in organising their planting regime. We look forward to further co-operation in the future.

Our trip to Ooty was originally to track down the elusive Alchemilla indica for re-introduction to the Palnis (Pambar Shola). It is now gaining strength in the nursery alongside a cutting of Impatiens tangachee from Munnar which was also lost to the Palni Hills (Tiger Shola) in recent years. A late seed collection of the very showy Vernonia arborea from high altitude in the Nilgiris failed and will have to wait for re-introduction next year.

Other recent discoveries in the Pambar area include a Eulophia-like orchid (BSTB 212, flower) with a single yellow-flowered inflorescence and narrow grass-like leaves, and the fern Pellaea boivini not previously reported from the Palnis. Perhaps our most exciting and satisfying discovery, made by T. John with his ever sharp eyes, was the tree, Elaeocarpus blascoi (BSTI3 215), only once collected from a single known specimen, and presumed extinct for many years. For over a decade we have not given up hope that it would turn up one day, and for all that time it was right here in Vattakanal. In the early 90s ,ve wrote of this area being a "botanical treasure house". With hindsight we can safely say that was not an exaggeration.

Meanwhile Hoya wightii ssp. palniensis at last put forth a flower in the Vattakanal nursery. The planting programme for the regeneration of Pambar Sholas degraded areas remains on hold due to technical hitches, as does the Shola garden at Bryant Park. Our hopes for the Cultural and Environment Education Centre, though still without formal funding, are being realised. The Cafe therein provides a source of books, publications and wall displays. The women of the tailoring group also work with the children in the evenings and holidays and have now decided to form themselves into a Young Woman's, Sangham affiliated to VOYCE. They, having attended a Leadership course at the Anglade Institute, in addition to a day's training in mounting herbarium specimens, are keen to learn about and know the plants around them. This is the first time local women of the village have involved themselves directly in affairs of the local environment; they also among others take a great interest in the newly installed computer.

To return to Pambar Shola and its environs there is much to report. The Forest Department fenced the upper area most vulnerable to human intrusion. Three U.K. students from Students Partnership Worldwide were received by VOYCE who directed their financial contribution to our sister village of Thiruvalluvar Nagar, a much neglected community of Sri Lankan repatriates who were settled here in the 1980s. The money was used to deliver water from local water sources to households via a collection tank and pipe system. We hope this inter communal co-operation will further cement the bonds of friendship, a necessary pre-requisite of any further improvement in the condition of our natural environment. A commitment to restoring what we believe to be Falconer's Shola in the form of a sacred grove has been given. The Shola runs more or less through the heart of the colony. This joint proposal needs to be worked on.

If all this paints a rosy picture we should say that not all "developments" here are to our liking. Work On the long sanctioned paving of our village track has commenced, raising fears that damaging developments will follow in its wake. Though VOYCE made a number of representations to ensure the work was carried out in a proper manner, they and others of the "environmental establishment" in the village, have received strong criticism from some quarters for not actively opposing the road improvements which are wholly popular with the majority of people. To oppose would create a massive rift within the community and would be unwinnable. We conclude that it is not possible to stand in the way of legitimate aspirations on the basis of what may happen in the future. This we must take in our stride. Nevertheless the further concreting of the path adjacent to Pambar Shola raises the prospect of it becoming motorable in the future. This would be a disaster for the Shola environs as the Shola would be directly linked to the major tourist circuit. Given that this path was ceded by the Forest Department after community representation, on the principle of it being only a pedestrian right of way, it should be ensured it remains as such for perpetuity.

Source : Shola - Environmentla Newsletter, The Anglade Institute of Natural History, Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur, Kodaikanal 624104, India, pp318-319, No. 26, December 2000.