Coonoor citizens join hands to conserve wetlands and waterways

  • Shocked by the level of garbage in their small mountain town, the citizens of Coonoor started a movement to clean their town, its waterways and wetlands.
  • With a drainage and sewage system designed for a tenth of the town’s present population, Coonoor’s system goes under as the floating tourist population also adds to the stress on the system.
  • The recent Madras High Court order directing the district administration of the Nilgiris to remove encroachments from the boundaries of water bodies and wetlands will help Coonoor citizens’ efforts to conserve these ecosystems.

The recent Madras High Court order to evict encroachers from the banks of water bodies in the Nilgiris came as a shot in the arm for the citizens of Coonoor, in their efforts for reclaiming their water bodies and wetlands. The citizens of this small town in the Nilgiris, in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, have adopted a multi-pronged approach to clean and rejuvenate their water bodies, aided by the district administration and the elected bodies.

Over the past 40 years, the people of Coonoor with its present population of over 50,000 (during 2011 census it was 45,494) have watched with dread as the town and the hills around were being systematically destroyed by tourism, construction, congestion and garbage. In addition to these problems is the perennial water problem the residents suffer from.

“It began in 2014: one fine Diwali day, on noticing the amount of litter left behind by tourists near Sim’s Park, a Coonoor-based dentist, Bhavana Iniyan posted a few pictures on Facebook and a status message that she was going to try and clear up the mess by herself,” said Samantha Iyanna, the founder of the Clean Coonoor initiative.

“The post had its desired effect. The next day, a few like-minded individuals joined her in her efforts and the place was free of trash. On this very day was born, ‘Clean Coonoor’ an informal citizen’s group of individuals, filled with one singular purpose: to keep the town clean,” Iyanna added.

Garbage at Laws Falls near Coonoor. Photo by Panchavarnam Vasanthan.

Pick up trash as you jog or walk

Since then, this citizen’s group has been cleaning up various parts of the town, creating awareness among the townspeople and school children. Slowly, the town awakened to the need of preserving the environment and more people joined the movement. Clean Coonoor’s work gained momentum as more people joined in. A plogging (jogging plus picking up trash) heritage walk along the tracks of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway was successful thanks largely to the large number of people who turned up. Cleaning the storm water drains and culverts (the tunnels which channel water under roads) seemed to be the next logical step.

Panchavarnam Vasanthan, a retired government doctor and active member of Clean Coonoor said, “The storm drains and culverts are more than adequate, provided they are not allowed to clog up. However, the sewerage system, which has undergone no great change over the years, is totally inadequate being designed for a population of around 5000 individuals. The population of the town has now crossed the 50,000 mark. It is a fact that many homesteads and business establishments now discharge, both sewage and sullage, directly into the many rivulets which ultimately empties into the Coonoor River.”

The Coonoor Municipality was constituted in 1866 and the first mention of culverts which were either simple stone or wooden structures is seen in the 1847 report on the survey of the district made by Colonel Ouchterlony. These were later replaced with regular cut stone box culverts when the existing roads were partially metalled in the 1880s. A few of these box culverts still survive, but most have been replaced with concrete pipe culverts, Vasanthan said.

Volunteers cleaning a culvert in Coonoor. Photo by Panchavarnam Vasanthan.

Untreated sewage let into the river

The first sewerage system came into place only in 1891, with the drainage area being divided into two areas: Mission Hill and Bazaar Hill, each drained by two covered main sewers which finally discharged into the Coonoor River. The old idea of discharging sewage into rivers has now proved to be a big problem — not just in the Nilgiris but all over the country — with the dark and murky Coonoor River being totally contaminated. Younger residents say that they did not know it was a river and always thought it was a gutter.

A three-year World Wide Fund for Nature study on ‘Water Quality Assessment in the Upper Reaches of the Bhavani and Moyar in the Nilgiris’ released in 2017 states five million litres per day (MLD) of untreated sewage from Coonoor was discharged into the Coonoor River which eventually joins the Kallar River. The Coonoor Municipality does not have a sewage treatment plant. The findings further reveal that coliform bacteria present in the Coonoor River water is 10 times higher than the norm set by the Central Pollution Control Board.

Vasanthan said that the real challenge in cleaning the Coonoor River lies in the transportation and disposal of the garbage collected even with the Municipality trucks transporting the waste. The river is estimated to hold around 75-100 tons of plastic and other trash in dry weight along its entire five km stretch.

Though the Clean Coonoor volunteers have been doing a great service, the time has come for corporate and government help. Vasanthan said a group of 50 volunteers can be expected to collect around 1.5 tons of trash per day which works out 50 – 70 trips from the site of collection to the dump yard. The cost of preventing further accumulation of garbage such as barriers, mechanical separators and such, needs further evaluation, he said.

The Coonoor Municipality has identified 20 bulk waste generators in the town; this includes the Pasteur Institute, schools and hotels. The Municipality has helped these establishments install biodigesters on their premises to dispose of the wet waste, J. Raghunathan, municipal health officer said; this includes biodigesters for the 60 onsite residences of Pasteur Institute. Other households in town have been advised to set up pipe composters. The government has sanctioned Rs. 1.15 million (Rs. 11.5 lakh) to set up 660 pipe composters, he said.

Nikhil Suresh, the managing director of Vivek Tourist Home, one of the larger hotels in town, said, “We manage our own waste – segregate and dispose the biodegradable waste by way of four chambers of biodigester septic tanks, which are basically Syntex tanks with the bottom cut out. The Municipality helped us with the technology and provided us with the enzymes required to decompose the waste. The hotel has its own sewerage treatment plant (STP).”

The collector of the Nilgiris district, J. Innocent Divya, said that the Government planned to set up six decentralised sewage treatment plants (STPs) in Coonoor because of the gradient and the topography of the town. One large STP will not work in Coonoor as the town is spread over a series of hills.

The Aravalla stream running through Coonoor town. Photo by Panchavarnam Vasanthan.

Court order on evicting encroachments will help

The Madras High Court order asking the district collector and the district administration to evict those encroaching on the wetlands will help in the process of cleaning the wetlands and waterways. As per the Madras High Court order, the administration will be starting the eviction process, Divya told Mongabay-India.

The dwellings and commercial establishments along the banks of the river have been given notices to vacate, according to the district collector. Eighty seven families in the low lying areas have been identified and will be shifted to the new 172 tenements coming up in Prakashapuram, near Coonoor.

The town’s main water supply is from Ralliah Dam, which was commissioned in 1941. The dam has a catchment of 310 acres and a depth of around 50 ft. Contrary to popular belief, the Ralliah dam and other catchment areas receive sufficient rain.

Vasanthan said that though rainfall patterns have differed over the years, a study of rainfall since 1850 shows that the collection in Ralliah has been the same. The town’s water woes stem from poor distribution and wastage. The answer to this, he said, is that the entire distribution system has to be revamped and storage of water installed at various parts of the town.

Simultaneously, Clean Coonoor has started a project to reclaim wetlands around Coonoor town. Studies conducted by Keystone Foundation identified wetlands, which are by definition common property resources (CPR), in different categories and in most cases, fall under the jurisdiction of the panchayats. The first type is the encroached CPR wherein the wetland has been encroached upon for construction or has been tapped for water supply for the town or panchayat. The second type of wetland is the direct access CPR that is found largely in the valleys where agriculture is carried out. Lastly, there are wetlands on private land, mainly tea estates, some which are reasonably well managed, the Keystone Foundation study said.

Clean Coonoor has identified four wetlands close to Coonoor — Ottupatarai, Fernhill, Yedapalli and Brooklands. Vasanthan said that these marshes are now “dried up and are a sorry sight. These invaluable water sources have vanished because of human activity while large tracts have been converted into wattle and blue gum plantations. The remaining areas have been taken over by exotic grass and the lantana scrub.”

Iyanna said that rejuvenating these wetlands would partially address the long term water shortage problem faced by Coonoor town. Vasanthan added that Clean Coonoor will clear the marshes of garbage and replant the exotic grasses with native varieties of grass. Clean Coonoor, along with upstream ecology, has just received a grant of Rs. 100,000 from the district administration to replant 0.9 acres along the wetland in Yedapalli, a small village near Coonoor. The grant is being funded from the green tax (Rs. 20 per vehicle) levied on tourist vehicles entering the Nilgiris.

Restoring shola-grasslands

Godwin Vasanth Bosco of Upstream Ecology said most of the Nilgiris plateau was once covered by the shola-grassland vegetation but there is hardly any grassland left. Construction, exotic trees, vegetable farms and tea plantations have replaced it. The native grasses, Bosco said, were systematically removed over the years.

Upstream Ecology , an organisation for ecological restoration in the Nilgiris, along with volunteers from Clean Coonoor has initiated a programme plant native grass in appropriate locations. Native tussock grass species such as Chrysopogon nodulbarbis, which the Todas called kub, will be planted. This is the largest of all tussock grasses, which in its native habitat grows in swathes and helps to retain the moisture and rainwater in the soil. Bosco said that this variety will support the presence of a number of native shrubs and plants such as the Strobilanthes kunthiana or the neela kurinji and protect the slopes and water flow.

The Nilgiris upper plateau has many such wetland swamps that provide water into the streams and rivers. Photo by S. Gopikrishna Warrier / Mongabay.
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