October 23, 2017

The ecological situation in Tamil Nadu

Review of: The Ecological Situation in Tamil Nadu and The Need For Amelioration. Report published by the State Planning Commission, Madras, 1973.


This very high quality report was presented to the State Planning Commission in Madras in December, 1973 by the working group on Ecological Balances.

Its Chairman, Dr. V. Shanmu-gasundram is actually a member of the Planning Commission—which suggests that it might influence public policy in Tamil Nadu—as indeed it should. The rapporteur was Professor B. M. Thirunaranan and the secretary Thiru D. Natarajan.

The report shows that, as in most of India, ecological deterioration has contributed a great deal to the poverty of the people of Tamil Nadu.

“The yields of almost all crops in India are among the lowest in the world. Continuous cultivation for centuries, without either manuring or crop rotation, has brought the soils to the verge of exhaustion. Studies of crop yields in some parts of North India have shown that yields have gone down further during the last few decades.”

In Tamil Nadu very serious soil erosion has occurred and is largely the result of over-grazing and felling trees for firewood—what is more the damage done is, on an historic timescale, largely irreversible. Thus: “Around most of our villages”, we read,

“the poramboke lands are almost barren due to overgrazing and trampling by the village cattle; the continuous lopping and fuel collection by the villagers, effectively removes the few surviving shrubs and bushes. On sloping ground, overgrazing and indiscriminate removal of the trees and shrubs completely exposes the soil, which erodes rapidly, leaving almost barren, boulder-covered hill masses that are so conspicuous everywhere in the landscape of Tamil Nadu. The damage thus caused is quite serious because the good red soils and dense forest cover were developed under the more rainy conditions that prevailed during Pleistocene times, and are unlikely to be restored, under the drier conditions now prevailing. These rocky ridges represent the final stage to which the land has been reduced by destructive natural agencies let loose by thoughtless human actions.”

Much of this area was once covered with dense forests which have been systematically destroyed and deprived of their protective forest cover.

“. . . the hillsides were bared to the full force of the monsoons, and it did not take long for the soil to be eroded and carried into the rivers, making their channels unnavigable and choking their mouths. Many of the small harbours near the mouths of the rivers of Peninsular India, have silted up during the last hundred years.”

These trends must inevitably affect groundwater conditions. Indeed the report confirms that these,

“have been worsening, in all districts in Tamil Nadu, but happily this has lately aroused a measure of public concern, and certain useful steps have been taken. A part of this deterioration is undoubtedly due to the decrease in percolation of rainwater and recharging of the water-table which have followed the removal of the natural plant cover and the soil mantle of the upland tracts.”

The problem has been aggravated by the planting of “economically desirable” exotics such as eucalyptus, to replace indigenous forests. When this occurs, the composition and extent of the undergrowth will change, and likewise the plant litter, which will in due course change into humus and get absorbed into the soil. These changes will also modify the fauna, and especially the small creatures and micro-organisms that dwell in the soil. All these changes will certainly influence the extent of percolation and the capacity of the soil to retain and hold moisture.

The wildlife of Tamil Nadu is “fast approaching extinction”. It has suffered from habitat encroachment, pesticides and poaching -which has worsened with the availability of firearms since the last war.

“The cheetah has been wiped out of existence from the whole of India. The tiger, the panther, the four-horned antelope, the Nilgiri langur, the lion-tailed macaque, the sloth bear, the sambhur, the gaur (bison), the tahr (Nilgiri ibex) have all become extremely rare.”

Even the spotted deer, the black buck, and the elephant have been greatly reduced in numbers, and the introduction of exotic species like eucalyptus and wattle tends to produce habitats unsuitable for our wildlife.

“When grazing inside forest areas is permitted, the villagers become directly interested in killing the wild animals which may prey on their herds. Pesticides like folidol and endrin are often used to poison the wild animals. Infectious diseases like rinderpest have also spread from the domestic herds to the forest animals like the bison and decimated their numbers.”

The growth of towns has also had its impact. “Around most towns” we read,

“and more especially around the larger urban centres, where the land tends to become more valuable, extensive areas are made unusable by dumping urban and industrial waste, or by quarrying and digging stone, earth and gravel for building and road making. These areas tend to become ill-drained and insanitary, the water accumulating in the depressions facilitates the breeding of mosquitoes and flies. Thus even a rapid review of the ecological situation shows that there is urgent need for remedial measures.”

Why is nothing done? The tragedy is that,

“there is very little active interest or concern—for that matter, there is very little awareness of the position—among the leaders of public opinion, or even among the intellectual elite of the population. The inadequacy of our education at all levels leaves us incapable of appreciating the significance of what we see in our surroundings. Soil conservation is now accepted as desirable, but water conservation, and conservation of areas to preserve plant species to ensure their survival and future availability, are hardly even mentioned in discussions and deliberations on our environmental problems. There is urgent need to arouse public awareness and public interest in the environmental damage going on all around.”

It is essential, as the report points out, that people should realise that:

Man’s activities constitute a perpetual source of disturbance of the environment, which would otherwise tend to reach a natural state of equilibrium. Modern technology and present-day human organisation enable men to interfere with the physical environment on a vastly larger scale than in the past, and there is therefore, great danger of causing immense harm by the misuse of these means. Actions taken without due consideration of the inherent dangers may start a series of irreversible changes or trends in the environment, culminating in a serious or even permanent impairment of its productive potential. It is one of the main purposes of this note to draw attention to this danger.

A very thorough programme of re-afforestation and in general of soil and water conservation is proposed allied to a massive re-education programme. It is to be hoped that this important report is being widely read in official circles.

“He is no apt pupil who will not build upon the foundations laid by his teacher for him. He only deserves a good teacher who would add to the legacy that the teacher has left him. I should be an unworthy son to my father if I should not add to my inheritance, and so I have always regarded it as a matter of pride that, thanks be to God, what I have learnt from Tolstoy has fructified a hundred-fold.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

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