Column | Kerala’s 19th-century development dilemma

Cleghorn was appreciative of the teak plantations in Nilambur that were set up by Henry Valentine Conolly. Nilambur Nedumkayam Forest. Photo: Fahad Muneer K M/Manorama

As we witness the rampant destruction of forests in modern India in the name of development and progress, it’s important to accept that many urban areas in the country were once part of a thick jungle.

Kerala, which is prone to terrible floods almost every year now, was far greener and forested in centuries past than it is now. When it came to protecting nature and the environment, a dilemma existed in the state even back in the middle of the 19th century, as is revealed in a book published in 1861.

Titled 'The Forests and Gardens of South India', the book written by Scottish physician and forester Hugh Cleghorn, gives us a rare glimpse into Kerala at the time of the advent of the Indian Railway system and the boom in the plantation and resource-extraction industries.

“I travelled through the most wooded portions along the chain of ghats, ascending and descending via the following mountain passes, Anisy, Arbyle, Bun, Sampajee, Perambady, Sispara, Tambacherry, Palghat, Sigur, Kunur, from the Bombay frontier down to Ponany,” Cleghorn, who was the first Conservator of Forests for the Madras Presidency, wrote. “I afterwards went across the Anamalai Hills and round the slopes of the Nilgiri Hills. I also made a circuit of Wainad, and twice visited the Conolly plantations at Nellambur, being altogether eight months absent from the presidency.”

The Madras-born Cleghorn undertook these travels in 1857-58. The Kerala he described is simply hard to imagine in 2024.

The construction of a railway line from Vaniyambadi to Palakkad led to major deforestation and a destruction of the habitat of elephants. “In the Official Road Book, published by Major Scott not many years ago, opposite Waliar, we find this remark ‘Dense jungle, beware of elephants;’ but in looking from the staging bungalow, the traveller sees several tentative lines of rail, each 200 yards broad, and so extensive a clearing of the neighbouring forest, that no elephant could easily find a cover,” Cleghorn wrote. “The encircling hills, formerly crowned with timber, are now to a considerable degree laid bare. These changes, so far as I can learn, have been the gradual result of unrestricted cutting, but much aggravated, during the last few years, in connection with the enormous demand for railway sleepers, and for the department of public works.”

The Palani Hills were also devastated by the forming of plantain gardens. “The green hills have been stripped of their woods, and much of their beauty has departed,” Cleghorn wrote. “The reckless cutting there, however, has been vigorously checked by the collector, under orders from the government.”

Such was the demand for teakwood that teak trees were being felled at an extremely alarming rate. “Along the whole length of the Malabar Coast from Goa to Cochin, there is now very little of this wood in a ripe state on government land below the ghats, and there are only three localities above the ghats where I found teak in abundance and of good size, viz- 1) The Annamalai Forest in Coimbatore, 2) Vainad and Heggadevankota (partly in dispute between Mysore and Malabar), 3) Gund Plateau, North Canara, near Dandelli,” Cleghorn wrote.

He added, “I am also anxious that the use of this timber should be disallowed for common purposes, as camp furniture, hospital almirahs, accoutrement boxes and the like.”

Cleghorn was appreciative of the teak plantations in Nilambur that were set up by Henry Valentine Conolly and wrote in praise of one Chatu Menon, who was managing them at that time.

In his travels In Kerala, the Scottish forester paid particular attention to certain species and one that repeatedly caught his attention was sappan wood, “It appears to grow with great luxuriance in South Malabar, and is cultivated rather extensively by the Moplahs, who plant a number of the seeds at the birth of a daughter,” he wrote. “The trees require fourteen or fifteen years to come to maturity, and then become her dowry.”

Cleghorn said he noticed more sappan wood on the banks of the Nilambur River than anywhere else. “Why it should be there in particular is not obvious, as Malabar is genuinely uniform in its character,” he wrote. “A better system of cutting and cultivating the sappan is desirable; and the dyewood is damaged, I believe, by being allowed to float in salt water.”

Even in the 1850s, when the British Empire was extracting resources at a lightning pace, officials like Cleghorn spoke of preservation of forests and nature. “In the beginning of this century, an immense, almost unbroken, forest covered the Western Ghats, from near the watershed to the most elevated ridges, - left to nature, thinly peopled, abounding in wild animals, and all the higher portions, without exceptions, covered with timber,” he wrote. “Now the passing traveller, without looking down from the higher peaks of Coorg or Malabar, conceives that an inexhaustible forest lies below him; but as he descends the ghats, he finds that the best timber has been cut away, and the wood-contractor is felling in more remote localities.”

We are faced with a similar dilemma in 2024. How much development is enough? Where do we draw the line on mega projects and constructions, while ensuring that people genuinely have higher living standards and a better quality of life?
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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