At first sight, Neerkasi Mundh, a Toda hamlet about 15km south of Udhagamandalam (Ooty), near the Sandynallah reservoir is the epitome of pristine, montane beauty. The reservoir is among a series of interconnected lakes adjoining the Pykara lake, Mukurthi lake and the famous Ooty lake. The Moyar river originates from this reservoir and continues downstream into the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and beyond. The hamlet’s half-a-dozen houses overlook acres of vegetable farms, growing what the locals call ‘English vegetables’ — carrots, lettuce, broccoli, among others. The approach road is helmed by tall pines and even taller eucalyptus trees on both sides. The reservoir gleams in the distance and a few more Toda hamlets are visible in the faraway mountain slopes.

The Todas are a pastoral tribe who used to be entirely dependent on their buffaloes. While the community, like many other primitive tribes, has been affected by modernity over the last many decades, it still persists with its pastoral lifestyle to a large extent. Known to keep to themselves, living in the higher altitudes of the Nilgiris (above 2,000m), it is only in the last two decades that the Todas have taken up farming. Numbering just 2,000, they are among India’s particularly vulnerable tribal groups. And here, at Neerkasi Mundh, they appear to lead a prosperous agrarian lifestyle.

Pithe Kuttan, a 45-year-old resident, refutes this with a shake of his head. “For us Todas, our lives are centred on our buffaloes,” he says, seated outside his home, which is a modern construction far removed from the traditional oval Toda homes made of bamboo and stones. For the Todas, their buffaloes — a genetically isolated and unique breed — are sacrosanct. “We’re pastoralists, and until a few decades ago, this entire region — surrounded by pines and eucalyptus — was grazing ground for the buffaloes. In our village, we used to have more than 100 buffaloes, but now barely 30 remain. When these buffaloes feed on the grass near the reservoir, they suffer stomach ailments and reproductive diseases because of the chemicals dumped into the water from the nearby Sterling Biotech factory,” Kuttan says.

The contamination of the grazing ground near the reservoir has dealt a major blow to the pastoral lifestyle of nearly a dozen Toda hamlets. Functioning since 1976, the factory — earlier known as Protein Products of India — was shut down in the ’90s due to water pollution. It was reopened in 2004 after a new company, Sterling Bio, acquired it. The World Wide Fund for Nature’s water quality assessment over the last three years has found that in May 2016, the factory, which manufactures gelatine for capsules from animal bones, generated one MLD (million litres per day) of highly contaminated effluents. The Sandynallah reservoir, an artificial lake created in the ’60s, absorbs much of this.

Lerince Fernando, assistant executive engineer of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s (TNEB) hydroelectric power plant at the neighbouring dam in Singara, has some serious concerns — both professional and personal — that have long remained unaddressed. “The water coming into our powerhouse is heavily contaminated. When it flows through our equipment and pipeline, there is heavy corrosion, and we have to frequently replace the equipment,” he says. “Additionally, the 70-odd employees and their families suffer from health problems like kidney stones and nervous disorders because of the polluted water.”

Just outside the town of Gudalur, coffee estate manager Shanmuganathan N reveals more. “One farmer in this region is said to have only 10-20 cattle remaining from his herd of 130. He had moved to Thorapalli thinking his cattle was dying from the effects of pesticides in the Achakarai area, but soon realised that the real danger lay in the contaminated Moyar river flowing near both villages,” he says. “We’re also worried because we consume the same water.”

Water pollution is a serious worry in the Nilgiris today, although seemingly nothing is being done about it.

A water-rich ecosystem

At 1,920 mm, the 2,565 sqkm Nilgiris district receives more than twice the average rainfall in Tamil Nadu and nearly four times the national average. “There are some major catchment areas in the Nilgiris, and parts of the Mukurthi national park receive more than 6,500 mm of rainfall,” says K Mohanraj, long-time resident of Ooty and consultant to WWF.

Four major river basins criss-cross the Nilgiris — Bhavani, Moyar, Chaliyar and Kabini. While the Chaliyar and Kabini flow out of the district fairly quickly, the other two traverse large tracts of the Nilgiris before draining into the Bhavani Sagar dam and ultimately emptying into the Cauvery. Besides these river basins, the Nilgiris has an abundance of lakes, streams and, importantly, wetlands. This despite large-scale encroachment, primarily for tea plantations, which make up a whopping 600 sqkm of the district.

The strain on the Nilgiris’ natural environment is exacerbated by the growing needs of the region’s commercial farming sector, hotels and resorts, and the ever-expanding urbanisation in and around the major towns of Ooty, Coonoor and Kotagiri. Ooty town, for instance, generates about 10 MLD of sewage, but is equipped to treat only about seven MLD, and that too not very efficiently. Extremely high levels of coliform bacteria were found in Ooty lake as well — 1,675 cfu per 100 ml against the permissible 50 cfu per 100 ml.

“There are no official records, but our observations since 2006 show that there are at least 50-60 wetlands that still remain,” says T Balachander of the Keystone Foundation, an NGO working with the region’s indigenous communities since 1993. “All the water sources here are intimately linked to each other. Two centuries ago, every valley here had a wetland or stream of considerable size. The problem is that these links are overlooked, as also the relationship between water management and land use”, he adds.

Proving pollution

The WWF’s three-year study of the water quality in the upper reaches of the Moyar and Bhavani has pinpointed the primary polluters — untreated sewage from Ooty and Coonoor; and effluents from the Indian Ordnance Factory in Aruvankadu and Sterling Biotech in Sholur. The cordite factory in Aruvankadu drains effluents loaded with nitrates and aluminium that far exceed Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) limits. In February, the total nitrates was found to be 102 mg/l and aluminium 0.57 mg/l, against the permissible 45 mg/l and 0.05 mg/l, respectively.

Sanket Bhale, senior manager — water stewardship at WWF says, “Wildlife and communities living downstream from these pollution sources are most exposed to the risk of gastrointestinal diseases.” Coonoor town discharges five MLD of untreated sewage into the Kallar river, which flows down to Mettupalayam. The WWF study also found the presence of coliform bacteria 14 times higher than CPCB norms, indicating faecal matter.

“Industrial pollution in Pykara lake is already resulting in severe ecosystem degradation. The Pykara empties directly into Moyar river, and through underground piping into Singara river. Both these rivers are lifelines for the pristine habitats in the Mukurthi and Mudumalai national parks, and the Bandipur and Sathyamangalam tiger reserves. Moreover, Gudalur town gets a third of its water supply from the Moyar,” says Bhale.

P Sankar, district collector, admits there is a problem but insists the situation is largely under control. “Coonoor definitely needs a sewage treatment plant and we’re in the process of getting this done. Ooty, too, needs an upgrade of its sewage treatment plants, since it generates more waste than we can treat.”

Officials of the State pollution control board are yet to acknowledge the severity of the situation. “It depends upon seasonal rainfall. When there is good rain, the pollution load doesn’t show; it’s a problem only when it doesn’t rain,” says S Panneerselvam, district environmental engineer, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). “Apart from this, the Sterling Biotech and the cordite factory are within limits,” he says.

While officialdom appears far from ruffled, environmentalists are raising the red flag at the state of the Nilgiris. “You may not have anything like Bhopal,” says Mohanraj. “But the problem is that the waste generated from the towns here and effluents from industries are slowly poisoning this pristine ecosystem.”

Sibi Arasuis an independent journalist based in the Nilgiris