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Helping the hills breathe easy

Tourist vehicles parked on a road in Kodaikanal on March 29, 2024.
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

Ooty and Kodaikanal, known respectively as the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ and the ‘Princess of Hill Stations’, in Tamil Nadu have been choking with traffic for some time now. Heavy and unregulated tourist movement has taken a heavy toll on these hills forcing the Madras High Court and the State government to step in and contemplate certain restrictions.

Nudged by a special Division Bench of Justices N. Sathish Kumar and D. Bharatha Chakravarthy, constituted to hear forest-related cases, the State government has in-principle agreed to control vehicular movement by fixing a ‘carrying capacity’ for the ghat roads after conducting scientific studies through IIT Madras and Anna University.

Advocate General P.S. Raman recently informed the court that the decision was taken at a high-level committee meeting chaired by Chief Secretary Shiv Das Meena. If the plan fructifies, the government will fix a cap on the number of motor vehicles that will be permitted to ply on the ghat roads every day.

The Bench was seized of a number of cases related to several issues in both Nilgiris and Dindigul districts, where the two hill stations are located. These include elephant poaching, electrocution of elephants, deaths of elephants on railway tracks, eradication of exotic and invasive species from forests, and the banning of plastics.

It was while hearing the plea to ban plastics in the hill stations that the Bench ordered the establishment of check posts at all the entry points to frisk tourists and disallow harmful plastics, including plastic water bottles. Alternatively, it promoted the establishment of paid water dispensers in the hill stations through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

On learning that glass pieces of empty liquor bottles left behind in the forests lead to serious injuries to the animals, the Bench prodded the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), which has a monopoly over wholesale retail and vending of alcoholic beverages in the State, to introduce a bottle buy-back scheme to encourage consumers to return empty bottles.

As part of the ongoing exercise to protect the forests, amicus curiae Chevanan Mohan and Rahul Balaji brought to the notice of the Bench an order passed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court, and followed up by the National Green Tribunal, fixing a cap on the number of motor vehicles allowed to ply between Manali and Rohtang Pass. The lawyers suggested that a similar cap could be fixed for the ghat roads leading to Ooty and Kodaikanal as well. The idea found favour with the Bench, which felt that increasing vehicular traffic to the hill stations, especially during the tourist seasons, had caused great damage to the flora and fauna.

On being asked to submit data on vehicular movement, Nilgiris Collector M. Aruna told the court that while on average, around 2,000 vehicles ply on the ghat roads every day, during tourist seasons the number increases to about 20,000 a day.

Providing a rough estimate of the accommodations available in the district, she said 1,035 commercial buildings had 5,620 rooms which could accommodate approximately 20,000 people at a time. However, a detailed scientific assessment would have to be carried out before fixing the carrying capacity for the ghat roads, she said.

After taking note of her submissions and finding that the ultimate decision on fixing carrying capacity could be taken only by the State government, the judges requested the Advocate General to assist the court in the matter by taking the issue to the notice of the Chief Secretary.

The Advocate General reverted saying the government had in-principle accepted the court’s suggestion on fixing a carrying capacity. He said scientific assessments would be carried out on the ghat roads leading to both Ooty and Kodaikanal and orders for commencing the work would be issued after the completion of the Lok Sabha polls.

This is a welcome initiative. The two popular hill stations, which are picturesque and boast of a pleasant climate, have been bursting at their seams and struggling to cope with the pressure on their infrastructure for a few decades now. What Ooty and Kodaikanal, which are tourism-dependent economies, urgently need are these measures that will ensure sustainable tourism and enable the protection of the environment.

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