Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The unbridled growth of Coimbatore threatens the Nilgiri ecosystem

Sanjeev Sanyal: Of dead rivers and stranded elephants

All discussions about urbanisation in India tend to focus on mega-cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. However, in states like Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, smaller urban centres are also seeing rapid growth. At one level, this is a good thing because it spreads economic activity and reduces pressure on the big cities. However, we need to be extra-sensitive when such disaggregated urban expansion occurs near ecologically vulnerable areas like the Nilgiris. The growth of the urban network around Coimbatore is an illustration of the dangers of expansion without proper regulation. It raises broader questions about how we manage our “commons”.
Historical background
Coimbatore is today an industrial town in the shadow of the Nilgiri mountains with a population of over 1.5 million. However, a settlement on the banks of the Noyyal river has existed for almost two thousand years and was part of the trade route through the Palghat Gap. In the late medieval period, it also became an agricultural hub and local chieftains built a network of tanks along the Noyyal river to store water. In the 19th century, Coimbatore became a local administrative centre under British rule. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it had developed a major textile cluster.
his textile cluster continued to grow in independent India till, in the late 1990s, part of the industry shifted to the nearby town of Tiruppur (in the same district). Coimbatore town itself moved up the value chain into the engineering sector as well as into services such as education and transportation. At the same time, the city found itself at the heart of a network of towns, including Connoor, Ooty, Palakkad, Tiruppur and Polachi. Over time, there was urban growth along the roads linking these towns. Ribbons of unregulated construction now stretch along the highways. Thus, the impact of today’s Coimbatore is not just about the town alone but the broader urban web that feeds it.
Impact of rapid urbanisation
The growth of Coimbatore and the surrounding network of towns has undoubtedly brought some economic prosperity. It is home to several wealthy industrial groups and has generated thousands of jobs for local and migrant workers. Population of Coimbatore town jumped from a mere 0.36 million in 1971 to over 1.5 million today, but this understates the expansion as it does not include the wider network. However, the long-term environmental cost of this growth is now becoming evident. Here is just a sample of three inter-related issues:
  • The Noyyal river and its network of tanks once provided the area with both drinking and irrigation water. A colonial-era survey map from 1906 suggests that the Noyyal, unusually for southern India, was a perennial river. Today, the river is almost completely dry by the time it reaches Coimbatore town. This is the result of the degradation of the mountain catchments, overuse for irrigation in the upper reaches, pumping of groundwater by bottling plants and so on.
  • The Nilgiris and its foothills are some of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world. Coimbatore’s urban system is surrounded by wildlife sanctuaries such as Annamali, Madhumalai, Bandipur and so on. There are forest areas within a few kilometres of Coimbatore town. These forests contain endangered species such as tigers, Asian elephants and the hornbill. Urban expansion is threatening their habitat, even ignoring encroachments and other illegal activities. Elephant migration corridors provide a good illustration of the problem. There are now busy highways that cut through these corridors. Brick kilns, residential homes, educational institutes and even theme parks are being built right up to the edge of the forest. As a result, the elephants are finding themselves stranded in scattered enclaves with inadequate water, food and mating opportunities. It is common to see a confused group of elephants in the middle of a highway without an escape route. Not surprisingly, man-animal conflict has spiralled out and people are being killed often by enraged pachyderms. Locals are responding by raising illegal and deadly electric fences.
  • Urban growth and industrialisation generates both solid waste and sewage. The popular lake in Ooty is now full of sewage despite several clean-up initiatives. Similarly, plastic bags and packaging are now scattered across the urban and rural landscape, and can now be found blowing deep inside the forests. In the few places that solid waste is collected, the disposal system mainly consists of open burning — which merely transfers the toxins into the air. Coimbatore is not unique in having this problem, but the dispersed nature of urban growth makes it difficult to solve this with a centralised disposal system.
What can we do?
Urbanisation is not necessarily bad for the environment. What matters is urban form and the management of the commons. Coimbatore’s urban web is based on sprawling along major roads. As more roads are built, the sprawl grows. This is not just environmentally harmful but is also economically inefficient. The solution lies in creating a network of dense urban hubs. One way to encourage this is by investing in rail rather than road links. A rail-based transport system would force denser clustering around the train stops unlike a road-based system. A colonial-era railway network already exists and should be modernised. The old hill train to Ooty, for instance, should not just be seen as a relic for tourists but as a practical and modern means of transport.
More broadly, we need to create mechanisms to manage the remaining “commons”. At the very least, we need to stop all illegal encroachments on forest land. However, we may also need to create buffer zones around water catchments and ecologically sensitive areas where land use is carefully managed. This is not a simple issue because it directly impinges upon private property rights. How does one convince a legitimate land-owner that she cannot build a wall around her property — especially when there is a risk that wild elephants could come rampaging through? Perhaps one should look at a compensation mechanism funded by rationally pricing residential and industrial water use in the urban areas. Such a system has been successfully used by New York to preserve watersheds in the Catskill mountains. Another mechanism could be the creation of tradable development rights.
To conclude, the growth of small cities like Coimbatore is economically beneficial but still needs to be actively managed. This is especially true when it creates an urban sprawl near environmentally sensitive areas. Both the physical and regulatory infrastructure needs to be primed to guide urbanisation along a sustainable path.The author is president of the Sustainable Planet Institute and senior fellow of WWF

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