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Community conservation in Tamil Nadu
Shantha BhushanAuthors note: This study was carried out with the help of several individuals and groups in Tamil Nadu. The paucity of information on coastal conservation in this chapter does not indicate that there is no community-based conservation here, but only that documentation is insufficient.
1. Background1.1. Geographic profile
Covering 130,058 sq km of south-east India, the state of Tamil Nadu is blessed with a tremendous diversity of natural resources. The principal crops grown in the state are paddy, millets, cereals, pulses, sugarcane and groundnut. Tamil Nadu receives rainfall from the north-east monsoon between the months of October and December, and some parts of the state such as the Nilgiris benefit from the south-west monsoon in the months of May and June.
1.2. Ecological profileThe state is characterised by three distinct ecoregions:
The Eastern coastal plains, a long and wide stretch of land lying between the Eastern Ghats and the Bay of Bengal, are dissected by broad valleys and deltas of major rivers such as Cauvery that flow through the state. The 1,067 km coastline comprises 13 coastal districts and 591 marine fishing villages. Rainfall in the region varies between 100 to 300 cm annually.
The Eastern Ghats have rugged, hilly terrain, run parallel to the east coast and cover Dharamapuri, North Arcot, Salem and parts of Nilgiri district. The western and eastern flanks receive annual rainfall between 80 and 200 cm while the central parts are quite dry. The uplands of the Eastern Ghats are comprised mainly of the hill ranges of Javadi, Shevaroy, Kalrayan, Pachchamalai and Kanjanmalai. The hill ranges form a chain of low, flat hills dissected by the Ponnaiyar, Cauvery and Vellar rivers. The high mountains of Nilgiri district rise at the tail end of the Eastern Ghats and mark the meeting point of the Eastern and Western Ghats. This region is the watershed of perennial rivers like the Cauvery, Amaravathi, Vaigai and Tamaraparini.
The Western Ghats constitute a narrow but long range of hills running from the north to south along the western coast of India. These hills separate the western coastal plains from the drier parts of the Deccan plateau. The ecologically rich Western Ghats extend from Nilgiri District into Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli districts.
1.3. Socio-economic profileTamil Nadu has a population (2001) of about 62.5 million, with about 35 million in rural and 27.5
million in urban areas. The population is predominantly Hindu, comprising about 88 per cent, while Muslims and Christians comprise about 5-6 per cent each.1
In the past the economy was largely agriculture- and fisheriesbased. The population was mainly rural in the erstwhile Madras Presidency (which also had some parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka
Pelicans and other waterbirds at Koonthakulam, Tirunelveli district Photo: S. Subramanya
644 Community Conserved Areas in India - a directory
and Kerala ), of which Chennai (earlier called Madras) was the capital. Post-independence, the nature of the economy changed to one based on industry and agriculture. High levels of education and industrialization in the inland areas have led to increased urbanization, and a reduction in dependence on wild biodiversity. Over the last five decades there has been a boom in the number of small towns. Thus the need to protect natural resources, especially habitats containing wild biodiversity, has not been strongly felt by people in the inland areas.
The other ecosystem-dependent community is that of fisherfolk along the eastern coast. As in other coastal areas of India, there are problems due to mechanisation, trawling, and increasing human population, leading to depletion of fish stock and marine life. The Gulf of Mannar (a Biosphere Reserve) is one such example where the population and diversity of marine life is reported to be declining. In spite of intense conflicts between traditional fishing practices and modern trawling, there is scope for communities to conserve their areas proactively, as demonstrated by fisherfolk at Pulicat lagoon. Here, fisherfolk practice a sustainable form of fishing but their traditional systems of fishing are currently under threat from development projects (See Case Studies).
2. A Brief history of administrative control over land and resources2.1. The pre-colonial era
Village sabhas (assemblies) enjoyed considerable local autonomy in Tamil Nadu during the Pallava and Chola periods (600-1300 AD). These sabhas appointed several committees or variyam with distinct responsibilities: for instance, the yeri variyam was responsible for the village lake or tank, and the thotam variayam looked after the village gardens. Tanks, streams, channels and pastures were considered common property. There are records dating back to the Pallava era which indicate that misuse of common property was punished. According to Dharampal,2 villages (through the village accountant or karnam) maintained land records.
Dams were built across river Cauvery to divert water for cultivation in the Chola period. Though the planning and building of dams was considered a central responsibility, their maintenance was entrusted to local communities.3
2.2. The colonial eraThe decline of the gram sabhas began with the British takeover of revenue control. In 1860,
the British established that the land revenue should on the average be equal to half the net produce and 33 per cent of the gross produce for dry lands and 40 per cent for wetlands. The consequence of this was economic depression and wholesale desertion of land and breakdown of traditional institutions. There were repeated famines and an unprecedented rise in prices. This led to the almost complete destruction of the village systems. Land management systems such as Samudhayam (community ownership of land and equitable sharing of its yield) almost disappeared by the mid-20th century.4 Under British Dominion, the Madras Presidency appointed a Conservator of Forests as early as 1806. The first Conservator went about surveying the state of forests and demarcated commercially viable forests. Later, a variety of protection regimes of forests were introduced. In 1823, Governor Thomas Munro abolished the position of Conservator in the belief that supply and demand would stimulate private afforestation if timber supplies ran low.5 In the years following this, there was considerable exploitation of forests for railway construction and consequent degradation of forests, both under government control as well as under private ownership.6
Large expanses of forests were also converted into plantations of coffee, tea and cardamom, especially in the Nilgiris in the early 19th century, contributing to habitat fragmentation. This has been particularly problematic for elephants. Much degradation was also caused by the forest department policy of encouraging plantations of exotic fast-growing species such as pine, eucalyptus, and wattle (often in the face of massive opposition by the local populace that depended on these forests for survival). In the Nilgiris, such plantations affected the grasslandshola ecosystem and had ecological impacts such as the drying-up of streams and increased soil erosion. The Madras Forest Act was enacted in 1882.
2.3. Post-IndependenceThe enactment of the Madras Panchayat Bill of 1958 was an attempt at reviving local self-
governing bodies, but this did not succeed. As Ramachandra Guha7 points out, destruction of
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ecological resource base has rendered the once possibly highly adaptive organization of caste society largely maladaptive. The change in ownership of land and resources and the resultant change in the institutions and institutional structures seems almost irreversible.
The forest department traditionally concentrated on conserving the rich evergreen and moist deciduous forests of the Western Ghats. Till the 1980s, of a total of 2,112 sq km of Protected Areas in Tamil Nadu, about 2,027 sq km (95.97 per cent) were located in this ecoregion.8 After the mid 1980s, conservation emphasis has been on natural forest for improving and enhancing intangible benefits. The forest department also started research on understanding population dynamics of flora and fauna in representative forest types. Importance was also given to augment produce of NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Produce) within and outside protected areas (PAs).
It is estimated that about 7,000 sq km of forest land, interfacing with about 3,100 villages, was under various stages of degradation.9 This was mainly due to excessive cattle grazing, illicit felling, recurrent forest fires and encroachment. Social forestry programmes were started in 1982 to address these problems. In the second phase of the Social Forestry project in 1988, an innovative component called Interface Forestry Programme was introduced. This programme was not very successful, partly because of a standardised rather than a site-specific implementation approach. In a critique of the social foresty process in Tamil Nadu, K. Balsaubramanian10 has pointed out that peoples participation cannot be programmed. Social Forestry and natural resource management is an extensive intricate task that requires location specific approach. According to him, the issues of natural resource management are of such magnitude that even a macro-level institution like the government will not be in a position to address issues at the appropriate time. In terms of economics also such an approach may not be cost-effective. In his opinion, sustainability of such programme