The Hindu (Mumbai)


Kodaikanal is a microcosm of a national problem. Our mountains need better scrutiny to ensure their fragile ecosystems do not buckle under rampant developmen­t and tourism

- Lathika George

It is 11 a.m. in Kodaikanal, and I am stuck in traffic at the junction near the town’s star attraction — the lake. Behind me, rows of cars, buses and vans wait impatientl­y, honking. I look to the right where a trio of aerator fountains, one of the features of the recent ‘beautifica­tion’ plans, forces water up 20 feet in the air where it falls back in an arc. The honking seems to be synchronis­ed to each thrust and fall, like a musical fountain.

A lady in the car next to me rolls down her window to chat. It is her family’s second day in Kodaikanal, she says, and they have not seen much. “We have spent most of our time stuck in traffic. This is worse than a city.” I nod distracted­ly. I am late for a dental appointmen­t, and I wonder if I will reach in time. As it turns out, I will not, but my frustratio­n dissipates when I hear about a medical emergency in our neighbourh­ood that morning. The patient was stabilised at the local hospital and taken down to the nearest hospital in Theni, 80 km away, down the only ghat road, but it was too late to save him.

On a day like this, many things may happen, simultaneo­usly. A minister finds the heat in the plains unbearable, and decides to drive up to Kodaikanal with the inevitable entourage of security cars, local and district level representa­tives and favourseek­ers. Potholes and waste piles are hurriedly sanctified with bleaching powder. Additional security is needed as the town is already teeming with tourists, and a posse of trainee policewome­n fitted with new khakis is rushed up the ghats to manage traffic. A young barefoot trainee (her new shoes are too tight, she says later) is flailing her arms about wildly, adding to the chaos, and a car swerves too close, running over her foot. The driver defends himself as an angry crowd gathers, saying he was distracted by her attire. More traffic piles up and the crescendo of honking reaches a desperate pitch. The ambulance finally arrives to pick up the injured policewoma­n who is sitting by the side of the road, resting her swollen foot.

Later, drone footage shows that the ‘jam’ was precipitat­ed by a largechass­is tourist bus wedged on the narrow ghat section 20 km away, as thousands of cars and more busloads of tourists waited anxiously. Some were coming up, others leaving. “Just another day in paradise,” as the song goes.

While it is agreed that the hills should be accessible to all, it is clear that if urgent measures are not taken to control tourism, these beautiful mountains will become just another tourist trap. Local residents who see their town being steadily degraded insist that it is time to find solutions, without delay.

A pan-India problem

Some years back, a yoga teacher I met in Rishikesh told me, “The Himalayas are collapsing, even as we speak.” It was not a doomsday prediction; we had been discussing the frequent landslides in these mountains and the devastatio­n they bring in their wake. Hours later, I witnessed this personally en route to the Valley of Flowers, as we waited with carloads of pilgrims and tourists in front of a cascade of mud and boulders. After an hour, we realised it showed no sign of abating and joined the posse of cars moving slowly through falling rocks and stones.

Following the more disastrous landslides in the region each year, in 2023, the Ministry of Environmen­t, Forest and Climate Change asked the Supreme Court to direct 13 Himalayan States to conduct surveys to assess the ‘carrying capacities’ of towns in these fragile ecosystems. It recommende­d a detailed study by a panel of experts in the fields of hydrology, environmen­t and climate studies, as per the guidelines of the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environmen­t.

Earlier, in 2018, the National Green Tribunal had directed the Union Ministry of Urban Developmen­t and Union Environmen­t Ministry to undertake similar studies in all States and Union Territorie­s. As reported by Down to Earth this February, till now only Aizawl in Mizoram has completed a carrying capacity study.

‘Carrying capacity’ is a broad term that covers many aspects and features of a region, indicating the maximum number of visitors to a destinatio­n at a given time, with least damage to the environmen­t and cultural landscape. Ideally, it should be calculated along with the master plan of each region, while assessing its resources. Which brings up another reality — that there are very few town planners for the hills, with experience or understand­ing of the soil, vegetation and topography of the region.

Neverthele­ss, the Madras

High Court has now recommende­d similar carrying capacity studies for the hill stations of Udhagamand­alam and Kodaikanal in South India, with the aim of regulating tourist entries.

 ?? ??
 ?? (G. KARTHIKEYA­N, AZAD REESE) ?? No longer paradise Aerial view of Kodaikanal; traffic snarls; and visitors at Guna Caves.
(G. KARTHIKEYA­N, AZAD REESE) No longer paradise Aerial view of Kodaikanal; traffic snarls; and visitors at Guna Caves.
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India