We drove all night to Valparai from Nelliyampathy till the break of dawn. With vales of jade unfurling in the mist, the hills shone bright in the lingering flames of amber. Dew drops glistened in the sun as the forest received its first rays of morning light. And, somewhere in the depths of enfolding mountains, a cluster of florets bloomed its last.
Traversing 40 hair pin bends en route, we entered the heart of the Sholayar Forest Ranges. The synchronised rhythm of crickets broke the silence of the forests as we drove through dim passes of light and shade. Open paddy fields on vast stretches of land soon paved way to the thick jungles. Little streams and rivulets flowed down the hills as we entered Athirappally — home to one of the most thriving riparian ecosystems in Kerala. The welcoming sight of the Charpa Falls foaming over high rocks into a shallow pool beckoned us to stop there for a while.
Considered as a terrestrial biome, the Athirappally forests that form an integral part of the Western Ghats are home to four different kinds of endangered hornbill species – the great hornbill, Malabar pied hornbill, Malabar grey hornbill and Indian grey hornbill. A thriving biodiversity hotspot, its natural habitat has been profoundly degraded over the years owing to mining and the pursuance of hydroelectric projects.
In 1982, the Kerala State Electricity Board proposed the set up of Athirappally Hydro Electric Project at 120 MW capacity which required the construction of a dam 75ft high and 1,020 feet wide on the Chalakudy river basin within the limits of the Vazhachal Forest Division. Fearing brutal damage to the environment and massive violation of human rights, environmentalists strongly condemned the project. Moreover, numerous concerns were raised on whether it would lead to displacement and gradual extinction of the Kadar tribe. The area was then declared as one of the 18 eco-sensitive localities (ESL) in the state. The lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act for the protection of the tribal community also led to activists severely opposing the hydro-electric project.
Rock-laden river beds and cascading waterfalls originating from River Chalakady, through the foothills of the Anamudi Mountains, provide a striking view of the landscape. Popularly known as the ‘Niagara of India’, the Athirappally Falls situated a few miles away tumble into three separate plumes that join the turbulent river flowing underneath. The falls encompass 14,850 hectares of tropical wet, evergreen, semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forest ranges along the river margins and banks.
As we drove through the woods, we crossed paths with a group of Nilgiri Langurs jumping from one tree to another, some blaring their teeth at us others just quietly observing. We heard birds whistling tunes familiar to them. And yet, distant to us. At almost every hairpin bend, there was elephant dung scattered all over the roads.
We stopped at a few tiny waterfalls to freshen up. We sat there in silence amidst trees and ancient rocks. And, in that moment, we lost all sense of time and space. While a mechanised settlement entrapped in an urban realm may seek solitude within the periphery of a world outside, in nature’s humble abode all the answers seem to spring from within.
We followed the paths that led to Valparai. Most of the hills in and around the region were deforested by the British in the mid to late 19th century. The denuding of forest ranges happened at an exponential pace which led to a complete devastation of the natural habitat of wildlife. As a result, most of the animals encroach human settlements in search of food and shelter. The number of animal attacks in the region have augmented over the years. And, this has resulted in several families fleeing Valparai and migrating to other areas.
According to the 2001 census, the population of Valparai Municipality was 95,107. In 2011, it was 70,771. The rise in the number of animal attacks aren’t solely responsible for rapid migration of the hillside folks to the plains. Minimum wages paid to labourers working in the tea estates could no longer earn them a decent living. As a result, many moved to bigger cities in search of better job opportunities.
A few years before independence majority of the estates in the region was purchased by Tata and other private enterprises. It was in fact in the year 1864 when Ramasamy Mudaliyar first started coffee plantation in the hills. Years later, W Wintil and Nordan purchased huge portions of land which were cleared for planting tea and coffee.
Scattered all over the rolling hills, the tea estates make for an extraordinary sight in Valparai. But it also serves as a haunting reminder of the hills being stripped of their verdure for profitable ventures. We stopped at a junction to catch a glimpse of a few plantation workers plucking tea leaves and dropping them into a basket. The women burst into a fit of giggles as we approached them to click a few photographs. One of them jokingly remarked, “Go closer to that woman. You can only spot her behind from here.”
We then drove towards town to have a quick meal and decide the course of our journey. We were running low on funds. Our delayed payments and unexpected expenditure in Nelliyampathy proved to be heavy on our pockets. On our way to town, we stopped briefly at the Sholayar Dam to soak in the beauty of the hills. We went to the banks of the reservoir caressing the foothills through a small town where resided a small Christian community. Beneath the copper sun, the tranquil sea of silver lay still that cold evening as birds took flight in the pale blue skies.
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.
Through #RestofMyFamily, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….
Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502