If it was permitted to function by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Indus College of Engineering at Alandurai would have had the dubious distinction of being a rare educational institution campus where both students and wildlife can roam around, if not co-exist. However, the higher education authority withdrew its approval to the college situated on the eastern forest fringes of Coimbatore City, citing violations of rules prescribed by Tamil Nadu’s Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) and Directorate of Town and Country Planning (DTCP). The college was accused of encroaching into the elephant corridors of the Western Ghats as well as violating construction rules.
“This is an unholy nexus between bureaucrats, corporates and politicians,” says K Mohanraj of Tamil Nadu Green Movement (TNGM). “Indus College of Engineering being a small fish, got caught, while the big fishes continue to flout laws and reap benefits at the cost of lives of innocent people and animals. The damage they have done to that part of the Western Ghats is unfathomable and unpardonable,” added Mohanraj. In Coimbatore, known as an educational hub, a number of educational, religious and social institutions have come up in the recent past on traditional migratory routes of elephants by influencing those in power, causing enormous damage to the vulnerable environment of the Western Ghats. Coimbatore may be the only major city in the country where elephant herds move into gated communities and busy bazaars unmindful of the protest of local communities. Last week, a tusker blocked the traffic in the busy Coimbatore-Palakkad national highway at Madukkarai for more than four hours.
Both environmentalists and government authorities confirm that at least two dozen institutions have come up in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Coimbatore district, encroaching on traditional migratory paths of wild elephants. These include the Amrita University (spread over 364 hectares) owned by spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi at Ettimadai village in the Boluvampatti range, the Karunya University (283 hectares) owned by evangelist Paul Dinakaran and surrounded by the Western Ghats on three sides at Siruvani, the Isha Yoga Centre of godman Jaggi Vasudev at Velliangiri Hills, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University’s Forest College and Research Institute (200 hectares) in reserved forest at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills on Kotagiri Road, the Karl Kubel Institute for Development Education, the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History near Anakatty, the CRPF’s Central Training College-II at Sanjeevi Hills, the Sachidananda Jothi Niketan Matriculation School near Mettupalayam, the Chinmaya International Residential School at Sirumugai, the Sri Krishna College of Engineering and Technology and the ACC Madhukarai Cement Works.
The list keeps on growing. Latest is the CS Academy, a posh residential international school founded by the grandchildren of former union minister C Subrahmanyam at Arivoli Nagar in Coimbatore. Elephants wandering on the nearby hills is a common sight. A huge residential complex named RakIndo with elephant-proof walls has also came up close to CS Academy.
All the educational institutions have been built on land which has patta (a legal document issued by the Government in the name of the actual owner of the land). Apart from writing to AICTE, the tngm activists are planning to write to the concerned boards of education, asking them to de-recognise the instituions for violating the rules. The celebrated committees headed by Madhav Gadgil and K Kasthurirangan which recommended that the entire Western Ghats be declared as an ecologically sensitive area, had warned against the misuse of the elephant corridors in Coimbatore for nonforest purposes. Roughly 37 percent of the total area defined as the boundary of the Western Ghats is ecologically sensitive. “The Western Ghats is a biological treasure trove that is endangered, and it needs to be protected and regenerated, indeed celebrated for its enormous wealth of endemic species and natural beauty,” the report says. However, religious and political bodies are still violating the rules to reap huge profits at minimal investment.
The issues concerning ecology in Coimbatore region are unique because 70 percent of the forests are in the hill slopes. It is a narrow corridor that connects the Sathyamangalam forest in Tamil Nadu with the Silent Valley in the neighbouring Palakkad district of Kerala. This is a traditional migratory path for elephants. Any disturbance leads to elephants venturing out of the forests. Interestingly, there existed a tale of co-habitation of these elephants with the farmers until two decades ago. Experts feel human wildlife conflicts in Coimbatore region turned more acute in the last 15 years after the illegal buildings started coming up in forest environs. The tales of gruesome deaths of helpless farmers and hapless elephants are getting normalised. Nearly 100 people have died in elephant attacks between 2001 and 2015 in the area under Coimbatore Forest Division. Ironically, violators like Jaggi Vasudev pose as environmentalists and distribute lakhs of tree saplings on World Environment Day
Recently, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) filed a case against Sri Krishna College of Engineering and Technology in the region for violation of building rules. When approached by Tehelka for the details of the case, the tnpcb officials showed an internal circular signed by the director of TNPCB saying that the employees should not divulge any information to the media. As usual, attempts to contact officials from forest department and other concerned offices ended in vain. Directorate of Town and Country Planning (DTCP) Commissioner, Kirlosh Kumar, who assumed office recently, was an exception to the media hostile nature of officials. “We will take action against all violators in the region soon,” he said.
“It is suspicious why Indus College was singled out by AICTE. Many big fishes are here and they continue to admit students despite constructing buildings violative of norms,’’ alleges Indus College chairman VP Prabhakaran.
“Many other institutions in Coimbatore are facing similar charges. But the newspapers report only about my college. This news at the time of admissions will affect the future of the college. This is a planned attack,’’ says Prabhakaran.
K Jayachandran, noted environmentalist, says, “Most encroachers in Coimbatore are wealthy and powerful. Whenever they encroach on precious forests, poor people have to suffer. They construct huge compound walls and ensure security for themselves from animal attacks while the animals stray into the poor man’s houses and wreak havoc to life, property and livelihood. These encroachments in the name of development are indirectly killing humans, animals and destroying ecology which in the long run threatens the existence of this planet.”
As powerful institutions engage in encroachments, the government is often silent over the issue. Then there are people like Jaggi Vasudev, who combine spirituality, secularism and environmental advocacy to prepare a heady mixture that can divert public attention from the real dangers they pose to the Western Ghats.