[Commentary] The disappearing grasslands of southern Tamil Nadu

Madras hedgehog. Photo by Thalavaipandi.

  • The grassland ecosystem in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts of southern Tamil Nadu have almost disappeared in the recent decades.
  • These districts historically had good grasslands since there are records of the cheetah, harriers, Madras hedgehogs and other grassland animals in the area.
  • Urbanisation, spread of agriculture, use of grasslands to grow softwood trees and the establishment of windfarms and special economic zones were the reason for the destruction of grasslands.
  • The authors of this commentary, who have researched these grassland ecosystems, argue that there is a need to stop considering grasslands as wastelands and the government should provide policy support for their protection.

The earliest record of grass and scrub jungle in south Tamil Nadu comes from the Sangam literature which termed them as Mullai and the drier parts as Paalai lands. In south Tamil Nadu on either side of the Tamiraparani river, this was a common landform until recently. Substantiating this are records from colonial times when pelts of cheetah, a savanna grassland species, were confiscated from Tirunelveli district indicating the presence of grasslands.

There were also other charismatic grassland species here like the bustards, now extinct, and the blackbuck which leads a precarious existence in the area. The grasslands also support several endemic and endangered plants such as Lindernia minima with close affinity to arid areas of Rajasthan.

Konars, the local pastoralists whose livestock is dependent on the grasslands, have unique cattle breeds adapted to the local arid and windy conditions. The existence of biodiversity, pastoralists, and livelihoods of people have become perilous with the loss of grassland, especially in the last couple of decades in south Tamil Nadu.

Grasslands in Paruthipadu in Tirunelveli district overgrown with eucalyptus. Photo by Thalavaipandi
Grasslands in Paruthipadu in Tirunelveli district overgrown with eucalyptus. Photo by Thalavaipandi.

What happened to grasslands and do we care?

The Mullai lands came under plough when the Pandiyan kings started building the canal network using anaicuts across the rivers, 500 years ago. Until 1990 there was no real threat to the grass and scrub savanna of the region. Satellite image analysis shows large patches of grasslands in 1992 and personally having travelled the landscape in the 1990s we can assure that there were still vast stretches of yellowing grass as we rode the bus or train in the area.

If we do that today the transformation is dramatic – we see houses, expanding irrigation networks growing paddy and banana, large industrial enclosures, plantations of eucalyptus or invasion by exotic Prosopis juliflora and Senna auriculata in the dry areas.  It is not surprising therefore that according to the Wasteland Atlas of India 2010, Tamil Nadu lost 974 ha of open scrub and 926 ha of pastureland between 2003 and 2006, much of it occurred in the districts of Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi.

What drove such rapid land-use change? By far the most devastating impacts were due to India’s policy on grasslands of treating them as disposable wastelands. The land transformation coincided with the liberalisation of the economy promoting industrialisation and establishment of tax-free special economic zones (SEZs) in wastelands harbouring prime grass and scrub habitats around Tirunelveli and Nanguneri towns. Many government schemes such as Samathuvapuram for housing also saw rapid urbanisation with many towns encroaching drylands and wetlands.

There are also no regulations on who can buy agricultural or other lands in Tamil Nadu unlike in other states. This has led to the acquisition of land by private well-to-do individuals from other states to establish large farms of teak and horticultural plants (Pandian 1996), casuarina, broiler chicken farms or for real estate escalation. All of this has taken a huge toll on natural drylands in the districts. Such purchases were done by owners from Kerala, and Tirunelveli district was targeted as a large expanse of land of not much agricultural use could be easily obtained cheaply from local farmers through middlemen.

The continuing onslaught on drylands took a different turn when the Tamil Nadu government decided to bring temples lands under monoculture plantation for making paper pulp. In Paruthipadu village a grassland of about 692.84 ha that belonged to the famous Nellaiappar Temple in Tirunelveli was leased out to Tamil Nadu Newsprints and Paper Limited (TNPL) for raising eucalyptus trees on 70:30 revenue sharing ratio.

The land was earlier given to the temple by kings and philanthropists for community use where the poor can farm cultivable lands on lease, and in drylands, local communities including Konars can graze their livestock. Today all this is gone; in most places, grazing areas that are termed as Meikal poromboke in state parlance, are converted to other uses or fenced reducing option for the grazing communities

Expansion of irrigation

A major driver of land use change has been in the development of tubewells associated with the expansion of drip irrigation in the area that facilitated cultivation of banana and paddy in dry semi-arid areas. Besides, bore wells are used to pump water to irrigate plantations as electricity was free for farmers and now solar pumps do the job given the huge subsidy for farmers.  All of this resulted in continuous pumping of groundwater, often storing them in open wells for irrigation and transforming the natural landscape.

As mentioned earlier, the districts are known for their network of irrigation tanks. A major change happened in 1958 when the Manimutharu dam built across the river Manimuthar channelled water into the 80 feet canal connecting tanks in the dry areas of Moolakaraipatti, Vijayanarayanam, Nanguneri and Radhapuram, harbouring prime grasslands which transform to farmlands when rains are good.

More recently, the on-going Tamiraparani Nambiar Karumeniar river interlinking project built at Rs. 8.72 billion is expected to take more water from the Tamiraparani river further into the dry areas mentioned above, to grow water-intensive crops. All of this has fragmented and reduced the Mullai and Pallai land even more.

Banana plantation grown on grasslands. Photo by Thalavaipandi.
Banana plantation grown on grasslands. Photo by Thalavaipandi.

Renewable energy

The renewable energy craze led to the development of extensive wind farms in the open grassland areas in Nanguneri and Radhapuram Taluk of Tirunelveli district and Kayathar Taluk in Thoothukudi district. Windmills are potential risk factors to large birds and can have cascading impacts on ecosystems across trophic levels. They not only prevent biodiversity to prevail in the area but livestock grazing gets restricted in windmill areas.

Many of these wind farms do not obtain permission from local panchayats and therefore are not legal. They may also expand as newer technology allows for exploiting low wind areas thereby increasing the density of windmills. In addition, solar farms are expected to increase further threatening grasslands.

Read more: Palani Hills – where have the grasslands gone?

Grassland conservation

Our analysis shows that savanna grass and scrubland have almost vanished from the Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi areas. The biodiversity adapted to such areas now exists in fallow uncultivated land that can transform into other land use anytime. While bustards have gone, harriers, an exclusively open country migratory raptor that roosts in grasslands are affected by the loss of grasslands and their counts have dropped in the last four years. Indian coursers, another grassland species once common, is now seen in very small numbers. The endemic Madras hedgehogs are getting rarer, and the story is the same for most grassland species.

The Konar pastoralists have local sheep breeds like Kilkaraisal, Vembur, Chevadu which are free-ranging animals and loss of grazing lands will make these native breeds go extinct. The Konars also find it difficult to navigate with their herds through the landscape for their annual migration between wet and dry areas. Most of their traditional routes have been fenced, built-up, taken over by stone quarry, or busy highways cut across it putting the herds at great risk of being run over.

The 2020-21 policy note from the Tamil Nadu animal husbandry department attributes the 6.36% decline in sheep population in the state to the rapid urbanisation of the state with a consequent decrease in grazing lands.

The Taskforce on Grasslands and Deserts of the Government of India has strongly recommended the protection of grasslands and associated flagship species. The Tamil Nadu Land Development Plan strongly advocates “Meikal poromboke (grazing lands) in the villages should be developed with the participation of the community. The villagers should be sensitized on the necessity to maintain the developed grazing lands and the importance of rotational grazing.”

It further adds, “The land developed can be handed over to the local bodies and the villagers can be permitted for grazing and conversion of Meikal poromboke land for other purposes has to be prevented”.

The Supreme Court order of 2011 states “the transfer of village community land for private and commercial use is illegal” and all state governments have been asked to prepare schemes for eviction of illegal occupants of village community land and restore them for the purpose it was originally meant. However, these only existed on paper and authorities have no clue of such lands on the ground. There is in general very little concern to conserve dry grasslands in Tamil Nadu.

The land where grass and scrub continue to linger in south Tamil Nadu is mostly under private ownership with few under state control. The conservation of these areas would need a partnership with farmers and pastoralists to make any meaningful impact on the ground. There is still some potential to revive these areas even if it’s small to support and sustain the biodiversity and livelihoods of pastoralists.

A ground-level identification of Meikal poromboke land in the state should be the first thing to do and the government should implement the court order of 2011. Such areas can also be brought under the Biodiversity Heritage Site which will empower the village to protect the land from misuse and get financial support from the National Biodiversity Authority.

As a last measure, one could also establish private reserves with regulated community grazing since many of the lands demarcated as real estate have no proper records and no takers in the area. Such lands often turn to good grasslands with some protection.

T. Ganesh is a senior fellow at ATREE; A. Saravanan works as a research associate at ATREE’s Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC), Manimutharu; and M. Mathivanan works as a senior research associate at ATREE’s Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC).  


Banner image: Madras hedgehogs are getting rarer in the grasslands of southern Tamil Nadu. Photo by Thalavaipandi.


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