Eco-disaster in Kodaikanal

eco-disaster Kodaikanal is a victim of eco-tourism. Apart from the infamous mercury poisoning incident, the hills are home to several problems from water shortage, pollution to deforestation, notes Divya Karnad

A thin figure bent over the broom greets us when we arrive at the gate of a quaint cottage near Kodaikanal. Ulrike, German-born and Indian by naturalisation, fell in love with the place when she came here over a decade ago. She even built herself a house, brick-by-brick. The property is framed by shola forest. 

“The tourists here are ruining everything,” she says. The Palni Hills recorded deficit rainfall this year, an additional worry. Already residents are facing water shortages. “It’s not just the noise and pollution, tourism is a real environmental disaster here,” says Ulrike.

Kodaikanal is no stranger to environmental problems; the ecosystem is still recovering from the effects of mercury poisoning. Starting in 1984, the mercury thermometer factory owned then by Ponds and subsequently bought over by Hindustan Lever, now Unilever, spewed dangerous levels of mercury into the air, water and soil. Until the expose following a study from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), a campaign by Greenpeace and a study by the Indian People’s tribunal headed by Justice SN Bhargava in 2003, when the factory was forced to shut down, more than 9.6 times the accepted levels of mercury was dumped into the environment.

The DAE study also confirmed the spread of mercury into pristine forests nearby and to lakes like Berijam and others, over 20 km away. The Supreme Court had ordered the company to remedy the situation by the construction of a hospital meant to specialise in treating the mercury afflicted. This is yet to materialise. “None of the doctors in town accept mercury poisoning as a cause for ailments here,” says Andy, a resident of Vattakanal.

Mercury-contaminated glass waste being packed at HLL's scrapyard for shipment to the United States, on the orders of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board in March 2003.

The famous ‘Kodai Lake’ contains dangerously high levels of mercury both in the water and the underlying silt. However, despite the SC directive, there has been no effort to combat the mercury poisoning. There are no signboards that display the dangers of the lake waters. In fact, there is no mention of mercury anywhere, except in hushed tones, within the homes of the chronically ill.  

Then, there is the question of deforestation. The land mafia converts any remaining forests into hotels and other tourism infrastructure. With no forested watersheds left, streams are drying up or being sucked into the borewells of hoteliers. With the centre of the town deemed too crowded, tourists are heading to the outskirts. “There is a new kind of tourism now, I think its called drug-induced-tourism,” says a resident of the village of Vattakanal.

“Rave parties have become the rage,” says Ulrike. “Tourists say Kodaikanal is better than Goa for the ‘stuff’”.  The area has experienced the worst of the new wave of Israeli tourists, with home stays dotting the landscape, garbage piling up and municipal facilities at an abysmal level. “Tourist vehicles have resulted in the road caving in. The authorities patched it up just a few months ago, and already the road is sinking. It will definitely wash away with the next rain,” say residents. Kodaikanal has a lot to offer the hallucinogenic thrill seeker, besides ganja. Ganja is sourced from far away in the plains, while mushrooms are locally grown, so drugs are an in-your-face part of life in this hill station. Touts openly solicit customers at the bus stand.  A study from the University of Exeter found that mosses, lichens and fungi are bio-indicators that accumulate heavy metals in their tissues.

Magic mushrooms, therefore, not only stimulate the mind but might also leave lasting neurotic effects if mercury-laced. The mushrooms and ‘grass’ are but drops in the ocean of heavy duty narcotics that flood Kodai. The hoteliers have been quick to realise that the gradual relocation of their business to the outskirts is necessary if they want continuing profits. Large tracts of forest land have been flattened in anticipation of tourism infrastructure, resulting in soil erosion and silting of nearby water sources. Residents have also had to increase the agricultural output to feed the burgeoning population. Hills have been cut and terraced into submission. Roads snake through, bringing with them loggers, poachers, more tourists and hoteliers. Residents have begun to notice an increase in temperatures and the lack of rain.

With a bleak future, many of those who found solace in the pristine Palnis have decided that the time has come to move away. But some people like Ulrike or Bob and Tanya of the Vattakanal Conservation Trust believe that there is still hope. “The power of nature to overcome the effects of such poisoning is great if we only give her a chance and enough time,” they say. Although the forest department is hesitant, the Vattakanal Conservation Trust has started a shola-grassland restoration programme in a 30-hectare plot with their help. Strangely the Palni hills do not have any earmarked protected areas for forests and wildlife despite being part of the Western Ghats Global Biodiversity Hotspot.

Hazardous wants and waste
As India readily agrees to become the world’s hazardous waste-dump through the watering down of the Hazardous Waste Rules (2008), more people are being threatened by a wider variety of dangerous substances.

What you can do as an eco-tourist
Until the authorities step-in to do their duties, it is important for tourists to protect themselves.
Research the location in which you plan to holiday. Find out the history of environmental disturbance in that area.
Research your hotel to find out if they practise fair trade and whether they are really eco-friendly.
Mercury can affect foetal development; therefore avoid mercury laden environments if you are pregnant or planning to have children in future.

From Deccan Herald

One Response to Eco-disaster in Kodaikanal

  1. Got Mercury says:

    An excellent tool to gauge how much potential mercury is in the fish you are eating is the free on-line calculator found at

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