By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 13th July 19
After defeating and killing Tipu Sultan in the Third Mysore War in 1799, the East India Company consolidated itself in the Deccan. From their administrative headquarters in Coimbatore, bored and sweaty British officials longingly eyed the inviting hills visible to the northwest – the Nilgiris (blue mountains) that Mysore had just ceded to the British. Soon, junior officials began foraying into the hitherto unexplored hills, bringing back glowing reports of teeming wildlife and “downs” in the upper reaches that were reminiscent of Scotland. In 1819, John Sullivan, the visionary Collector of Coimbatore District, led an expedition into the Nilgiris, and quickly earmarked its gentle climate and rolling hills for an English settlement, and a sanatorium for wounded soldiers. Marking Sullivan’s entry, the Nilgiris commemorates its bicentennial this year.
In contrast to the dreary, over-crowded, barely regulated hill stations of North India, such as Shimla, Manali, Nainital and Mussoorie, the Nilgiris – which became a full-fledged district in 1882 – remains a leafy, tea garden paradise with an old-style flavour. Getting there requires a flight to Coimbatore from where it is a two-hour drive to Coonoor or Kotagiri. The third urban centre – the district headquarters of Udhagamandalam (Ooty) -- is another 45 minutes away. Alternatively, there is the six-hour drive from Bengaluru, via Mysore, through the scenic Mudumalai National Park, which has the highest tiger density of any Indian sanctuary and teems with deer, elephants and the magnificent Indian gaur.
Toda buffalo at the Mukurthi National Park
The Nilgiris shares borders with Kerala and Karnataka. On three sides of the district lie some of India’s foremost national parks – Aralam, Mudumalai, Mukurthi, Nagarhole, Bandipur and Silent Valley – and the Wayanad and Sathyamangalam wildlife sanctuaries. Together, these form the Western Ghats Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Numerous animals transit through the Nilgiris as they migrate between these sanctuaries, making it commonplace to encounter a leopard, elephant, bison or, if one is lucky, a tiger. Pet dogs cannot be left out at night; a leopard would snap them up in quick time. A couple of years ago, a herd of elephants, with their calves, walked into Coonoor town, posing a new challenge to the laidback traffic department. Herds of bison browse through the tea gardens; when they cross the road, drivers agreeably give right of way to these moody, one-and-a-half tonne beasts. Mutual accommodation is essential, since “biosphere reserves” are normally free of human habitation. In the Nilgiris, 750,000 people live cheek-by-jowl with the wildlife.
Large herds of one-and-a-half tonne bisons browse for weeds amidst the tea bushes
Unlike most hill stations, where residents must ship in supplies from the plains, the Nilgiris is the most stylish of resorts. The markets in Coonoor and Ooty are stocked with fancy vegetables like asparagus and broccoli, boutique chocolates, excellent homemade cheeses and branded, high grown Nilgiri teas. Inevitably, the smart set from Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai and now Delhi is moving to the Nilgiris in numbers. Businessmen like Azim Premji and Nandan Nilekani have residences in the Nilgiris and many others are making it their full-time home. Coonoor’s most famous former resident, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, was amongst the first of many military officers to have retired to the Nilgiris, given the medical facilities and spectacular golf course at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, near Coonoor. Tamil Nadu’s former chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, too, built her home in the Nilgiris, administering the state from there for months at a stretch while her senior officials shuttled back and forth from Chennai.
People from Coimbatore, Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai are buying up century-old bungalows
While the Nilgiris’ outstanding roads and governance are ascribed with a wink and a nudge to Jayalalithaa’s influence, the mountain district’s tradition of excellent administration dates back to Sullivan. Currently, the Collector (as Tamil Nadu designates its District Magistrates) is the dynamic J Innocent Divya, whose gentle presence belies the fear she has struck into the hearts of polluters and irregular builders. Obtaining a sanction to build in the Nilgiris invites an exacting multi-layer scrutiny from the forest, geology and agriculture departments. Excavating stone is banned and earthmoving machinery strictly regulated.
A view from Kodanad, looking out over the Deccan plateau
Meeting me in her elegant colonial bungalow in Ooty, Divya said she believed her primary duty was to maintain the Nilgiris in the pristine shape that she first encountered as a visiting schoolgirl from Tuticorin. “Tourism is good for local livelihoods, but too much tourism can kill tourism”, she told me firmly. With two million visitors per year, the bulk of them during the prestigious Ooty Dog Show and Ooty Flower Show each May, Divya has moved to ban plastic packaging from her district. From August 15, even mineral water bottles will be taboo. To cater for thirsty visitors, the administration is establishing “Water ATMs” along the highways and at tourist spots like Dodabetta – the highest peak in the Nilgiris.
Displaying an unusual cultural sensitivity, Divya says her administration has a moral responsibility towards the indigenous adivasis – the Toda, Kota, Kurumba, Katunayakar, Irula and Paniya tribes – which had safeguarded the fragile Nilgiri environment for centuries before the British colonized the hill district and began growing tea here. The very existence of these tribes is now threatened with their numbers down to just 35,000 people. With fertility declining, so are those numbers.
An old temple of the Toda tribal community
One of the signature features of the Nilgiris is the tea garden landscape, the hills covered by a seemingly endless green carpet of manicured bushes. For the locals, however, tea is serious business that, alongside tourism, underpins livelihoods. Tea growing began in the mid-nineteenth century, but gained momentum in the 1860s after the British brought in a group of Chinese prisoners from the Opium War to teach tea growing in the Nilgiris. During the Great Depression of 1930-1933, coffee exports collapsed, providing impetus to tea instead. In the 1980s, after tea was included in the list of products eligible for export to the Soviet Union under the rupee trade agreement, every farmer became a tea grower. To help those 20,000 small growers sell their tea, the Tamil Nadu government set up 15 cooperative tea factories that still buy plucked leaf from small farmers. At the turn of the century, the tea bubble burst due to a combination of factors, especially the collapse of the Russian export market. Today the Nilgiri tea industry is struggling to survive, its 70,000 hectares of gardens reeling under rising labour costs, as well as new competition from growers in Sri Lanka and Kenya.
Tea gardens are increasingly under threat as labour costs rise
Winding its way through tea gardens and forests is the quaint Nilgiri Mountain Railway, which Unesco designated a World Heritage Site in 2005. This is regarded as one of the world’s most authentic and original “rack and adhesion” railways with its stations, signalling, locomotives and rolling stock unchanged from when it was completed in September 1908.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a Unesco World Heritage site, climbs from 1,700 feet to 7,300 feet in just 46 km
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway from Siliguri to Darjeeling is India’s oldest mountain railway, built in 1880. The longest is the 96 kilometre-long Kalka-Simla Railway, built in 1903. The shortest one is the Matheran Hill Railway, built in 1907, a 21-kilometre stretch that connects the little hill station to Mumbai. And the Nilgiri Mountain Railway is the steepest, not just in India but in all of Asia. Starting from Mettupalayam at an altitude of 1,700 feet, it climbs in just 46 kilometres to Ooty at 7,300 feet.
For the parched plains of Tamil Nadu, the Nilgiris – which catches 150 to 300 centimetres of rainfall from both the southwest and northeast monsoons – is an ecological mother lode of water and electricity. In a marvellous feat of British-era engineering, the district’s mountain rivers have been harnessed into an interlinked series of dams and hydro-electric power stations. Water from lakes at higher elevations is released through tunnels or natural waterways into lakes at a lower altitude, with power generated from the drop. By channelizing water from one basin to another, the Nilgiris generates 661 megawatts of power – one-third of Tamil Nadu’s installed hydel capacity.
Each of these mountain lakes, such as Pykara, is a visual delight. A half-hour speedboat ride on Pykara Lake takes one into virgin forests, from where elephants, deer and wild boar tentatively emerge to drink from the lake.
Ralliah Dam lake supplies drinking water to Coonoor
Notwithstanding the bounty of its natural riches, the Nilgiris lack facilities like good hospitals or a functional intensive care unit. Hope flared in 2017 when Christian Medical College, Vellore took over one of the only functional private hospitals: the Kotagiri Medical Foundation (KMF), Meanwhile, a local joke about the rude good health of Nilgiri residents still does the rounds: “In Ooty, they live to eighty; in Coonoor, it’s till ninety; and in Kotagiri, they have to shoot them to kill them.”