“If Kerala state is facing predicament of rice shortage, you need not worry. We will give rice but will the state government take steps to protect the Nilgiri tahr (mountain goats) of Munnar?”
This was asked by Annasaheb Shinde, former union food minister having additional charge of forests, to the then Kerala Food and Forest Minister Baby John. C Achutha Menon was the Chief Minister at that time.
Eravikulam near Munnar is one of the splendid rolling grasslands of the Western Ghats. The only viable population was the highly endangered mountain goats. Other areas of the Ghats like Parambikulam, Silent Valley and Mukurthi have only pockets of tahr.
When the Kerala Govt passed the Forest Nationalisation Act in 1971, the grasslands and other forest areas, except the plantations like tea, got vested with the State Government. The State Government had already announced that such areas getting vested with the Govt will be distributed to the landless for cultivation.
The English Managers of the Kannnan Devan Company, who were in-charge of the grasslands earlier, had already initiated steps to protect the Mountain Goats as well as its environment. Now when the grasslands got vested with the state government, the Company Managers assured the Government that they will give all support if the area is declared a sanctuary or National Park to protect the goats.
Some of the company officials like Gouldsbury, Samar Singh and Changappa contacted the then Forest Secretary of the Union Government Dr M K Ranjith Singh. He came all the way from Delhi to Munnar and met Company officials as well as K K Nair, the Chief Forest Conservator of Kerala. All had been to the grassland areas.
They went on motorbike. There was only a bridle path. English managers went on horseback to the different parts of the high altitude. Ranjith Singh was fully convinced that there existed a pristine eco system that has to be preserved and the company officials held the stand that the entire eco system must be part of the national natural heritage.
He had occasion to meet the then Kerala Food and Forest Minister Baby John and apprised him of the grasssland areas. He patiently heard but told Ranjith Singh that the LDF Government had declared it as a bonanza for the landless. So let us wait and see.
Ranjith Singh returned to Delhi and contacted the Prime Minister's office. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrote a letter to Kerala Chief Minister C Achutha Menon requesting him to declare the area as a National Park. However, matters remained in limbo.
One day Ranjith Singh had gone to see Union Food and Agriculture Minister Annasaheb Shinde. As Forest Minister Prof Sher Singh was away on tour, Shinde was looking after forest.
Shinde told Ranjith Singh that Kerala Food Minister Baby John was to meet him shortly for more allocation of rice as the state had acute food shortage. Shinde asked Ranjith Singh whether any matter raised by him is pending with the Kerala Forest Ministry. Then he told Shinde about the rare and beautiful grasslands to be protected rather than leaving it to landless people for cultivation.
When Baby John met Shinde, he described about the state facing rice shortage. Shinde offered rice to Kerala but asked about the protection of grasslands in Munnar and formation of National Park for protecting the mountain goats and cited Indira Gandhi’s letter to Kerala chief minister. Ranjith Singh also participated in the discussion. The discussions Baby John had with Minister Shinde was fruitful. He assured that rice would be released immediately and the rest after the declaration of National Park.
Senior IAS officer Dr Ranjith Singh retired from the position of Union Forest Secretary more than 15 years back and is now settled in Delhi. In his latest book `A Life with Wild Life’ he recollects his interactions with the ministers and efforts he took for the protection of mountain goats.
He says, the barter system-- Tahr instead of rice - did happen.
In 1975, Eravikulam was declared a protected area for Mountain Goats. It is now adjudged as one of the most important wildlife havens in India, especially for the mountain goats and rolling grasslands.