- Collector of Nilgiris district, J. Innocent Divya is making headlines for stellar administrative decisions made to safeguard the environment in the ecologically sensitive district.
- The fragile ecosystem of Ooty and the pressure the Nilgiris district faces from increasing tourism made Divya realise the need for decisions safeguarding the environment.
- She began her crusade for environment protection with Unnadha Udhagai or Sublime Udhagai (Ooty) programme that won the administration the Green Award for the year 2018 from the Tamil Nadu government.
- A complete ban on plastic and borewells and streamlining solid waste management through waste segregation are some of the measures she took to keep the district ecologically sound.
When it comes to taking crucial decisions, J. Innocent Divya, an administrative officer of the mountainous Nilgiris district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, goes by the mantra — be the change that you want to see.
Opportunities to implement this mantra were plenty three years ago when she was appointed as the district collector of the ecologically rich but fragile Nilgiris district.
The Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges, is located at the tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka states. The Nilgiris is a part of the Western Ghats and also the first UNESCO-declared biosphere reserve in India. The mountain range is not just a beautiful sight to behold, it is also a crucial habitat for native biodiversity and is home to many indigenous communities.
“When I took charge of the district, the two things that struck me as high priorities were environment protection and developing basic amenities for the tribals who are the lords of this land,” said 44-year-old Divya.
The fragile ecosystem and the pressure that the district faces from increasing tourism (the district has a population of 7.5 lakhs but receives a tourist inflow of 50 lakh people annually) made her realise the need for decisions safeguarding the environment.
She quotes actor-environmental activist Ed Begley to emphasise the need for taking stern actions to protect our dwindling environment health: “When we destroy something created by man, it is called vandalism but when we destroy something by nature we call it progress and development”.
Beginning her crusade for environment protection, she launched a programme Unnadha Udhagai (Sublime Udhagai/Ooty) that won the administration the Green Award for the year 2018 from the Tamil Nadu government and the Skoch Silver award 2019.
Green measure to save the Nilgiris
Launched in 2017, the aim of Unnadha Udhagai was to plug all gaps present in keeping Ooty’s environment healthy and sustainable. Soon, the 10-point approach to environment protection became a talking point in the entire state. Unnadha Udhagai encompasses a complete ban on plastic and plastic products and a community-driven sanitation programme that includes meticulous waste segregation and solid waste management.
The participation of the local community is encouraged by giving them the responsibility to ensure no littering or spitting in public in the district as well as through initiatives like SBM or Sweep Blue Mountain Thursdays when one habitation per local body is cleaned by officials and the community members every Thursday.
A major environmental menace is the indiscriminate and unregulated construction across the district. To put a stop to this, a relook at the landslide vulnerable areas was done with the help of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), resulting in earmarking 283 vulnerable locations as no-construction zones or green zones.
Considering the district is a horticultural hub for various vegetables and cash crops, the district administration is striving to make the Nilgiris district an “organic district” in three years (starting end of 2019). All local bodies have passed resolutions and the process of conversion is on, said Divya.
Another significant step the administration has taken is to replace exotic species of trees in the district with native species in a phased manner. For this, those who have received tree-cutting permissions from the district committee are asked to plant half as many native saplings procured from the forest department nursery. Moreover, a green tax of Rs 30 is levied on all vehicles plying into the Nilgiris district and is used for greening activities like creating parks, public toilets, etc.
Plastic ban and after
Among all these steps taken, the complete ban on plastic in the district stands out as stellar. Divya admits it as one that was the most difficult to execute. The ban was initiated in 2001 by the then district collector Supriya Sahu but took on traction during Divya’s tenure. Not one or two but 19 types of plastic products were banned in the district from January 2018 by passing a resolution in all local bodies and levying fines for those who refuse to obey.
Taking inspiration from what this small district has achieved, the entire state of Tamil Nadu has banned 15 types of plastic products from January 2019. “We banned plastic pet bottles too from September 2019 and installed water ATMs across the district so people are not troubled. The entry of plastic is checked at all nine checkposts of the district,” she said. Flying squads to check the usage of banned items and heavy fines for violation has garnered good results, she informed.
While the district made good strides in the plastic ban, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the increased usage of plastic items in Personal Protective Equipment and other protective gears have set the district’s efforts back but Divya is confident that this is a temporary set back. The administration, she says, is making all efforts to not dispose of any of these plastic items in the district since they don’t have the facility to safely discard them.
They are instead sent to neighbouring districts that are better equipped to handle bio-waste. “This waste is collected by a bio-medical waste company with whom we have an agreement and is being disposed of in the neighbouring district, following TNPCB (Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board) protocol,” she assured.
Divya realised early on that the plastic ban alone will not take care of the mounting waste problem the district faces. She embarked on streamlining solid waste management through waste segregation. Ooty and Coonoor, the two largest municipalities in the district with the biggest dumping yards, were converted into efficient waste management parks.
“Now there is no dumping taking place in the dump yards. They are segregated, compostable waste is being processed into co-compost, and sold to farmers on subsidised rates. Non-degradable waste is segregated and tin cans, plastic cans, and cardboards are sold separately.”
All other wastes are baled and sent to cement industries. The sanitary waste is incinerated following the pollution control board guidelines. The amount generated by such activities is given to the conservancy staff as an incentive,” she said.
The district has been selected as the model district in faecal sludge treatment by Niti Aayog and the model has been circulated among chief secretaries of all states for replication.
Green steps become people’s movement
It’s not often easy to bring about radical changes in places where people are used to a certain way of life. Talking about people’s response to these changes, Divya observed the response was mixed in the initial stages.
“It was initially difficult where we faced a lot of criticism stating it was unilaterally done. But the ban was announced after rounds of deliberations and discussions with various stakeholders. The surprise element for people was that the decision was immediate. But when the effects of the ban percolated through the masses there was collective appreciation. It became a ‘people’s movement’,” she said.
She received a similar response when she banned borewells in the district. In 2017, the district faced severe drought due to failure of rains in 2016. A number of borewells were indiscriminately dug to tide over the water crisis, of which 70 percent of them were defunct.
“We did research along with the GSI officials to find out what went wrong and based on the learning, we banned borewells. Instead, we took up water conservation measures and sinking [sic] open wells which have yielded very good results. Water recharge structures have been created to leverage the monsoon rains,” she added.
Divya’s work garnered multiple laurels and recognitions over the years. “The need of the hour is to take firm decisions because environmental issues are sensitive and cannot afford to be brushed aside or procrastinated for other considerations,” Divya said.
Despite several decisions taken to protect the environment in the Nilgiris district, Divya had recently come under fire for the new medical college and government hospital project that demands diversion of forest land and the Sillahalla hydroelectric pumped storage project in the district. Divya says the medical college has been a necessity in the Nilgiris as the local residents now have to travel for at least three hours before they reach the neighbouring district or state for treatment.
“The area chosen was already used by a defunct factory and we have resumed 292 acres and handed it over to the forest department for further management[sic]. Out of this, only 25 acres is to be used for the medical project for which double the land has been declared as Reserved Forest and the amount for compensatory afforestation has also been deposited,” she clarifies. As for the Sillahalla project, she says it is now in the Environmental Impact Assessment stage and if people have concerns, they can raise it.
Has her gender ever limited her pursuit of good work? A fisheries science graduate from Thoothukudi, Divya asserted gender has never come in the way of what she wanted to be in her life. With supportive parents, Divya has found her status as a woman favouring her decision making in an official capacity.
“Being a woman, I feel the tinge of sensitivity and the flavour of empathy added on to the decision-making process is an advantage in itself. When the objective is for the larger good and benefits a wider group, tough decisions need to be taken and courage is the only tool that can augment such enforcement,” she said.
As the administrator, Divya said going forward she won’t allow development at the cost of conservation and that the local residents should realise that this is not just their home but it is home to a variety of flora and fauna.
“People have to realise that the direct effect of their own action or inaction will be felt in the imminent future and not far away. So a sense of alarm and urgency has to encourage the people to protect this landscape from being exploited by unscrupulous elements. The answer lies in ‘community ownership,” she signed-off.
Banner image: Nilgiris Collector J. Innocent Divya is making headlines for stellar administrative decisions made to safeguard the environment in the ecologically sensitive Nilgiris district. Photo by Office of the District Collector.
(This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network’s LEDE grant)