The Vaigai river is truly India’s ‘heritage river’. For centuries, it has seen the rise and fall of human civilisation. However, today, it is beset with problems similar to any river in the world. But that could change with the declaration early this year of a tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu.
How did things deteriorate for the Vaigai River?
- It happened at the end of the 18th century when the British started deforesting the Megamalai region which acts as a major catchment for Vaigai.
- Large parts of virgin forest were destroyed to free land for commercial plantations of cash crops like tea, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, etc.
- Consequently, the water flow in the river reduced gradually. As a result, the people who depended on the river for their livelihood, faced innumerable hardships.
- Some 200,000 people died in this region during the Great Famine of 1876-77.
- Following the famine, the British Crown proposed diverting water from the Periyar and feeding it to the Vaigai through a tunnel.
- The Vaigai presently gets about 80 per cent of its water from the Periyar dam. The balance 20 per cent is obtained from the major watershed of the Megamalai region during the northeast monsoon season.
- The Megamalai forests are in a very bad shape currently, interspersed with numerous encroachments and many private plantations.
Restoration of Vaigai River
- Though Megamalai was a Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS), the thin staff could not withstand the undue pressure exerted by the encroachers and the money-minded private estate owners, which resulted in degradation of the existing forests.
- Once the tiger reserve gets operational, poaching and encroachments are expected to end and grazing, which also threatens the ecosystem, would not be allowed.
- One of the new tiger reserve advantages is its location as it is contiguous to Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, one of the well-protected reserves across India.
- The best way to rejuvenate the river and the tiger reserve is the removal of encroachments. The Forest Conservation Act, 1980, calls for the protection of the landscape at all costs.
- Formation of tiger reserves have helped make rivers perennial. The major example is river Tamirabarani supported by Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve.
- The existing squirrel sanctuary has one of the best-preserved forests south of the Palghat gap. This sanctuary forms an essential landscape for elephant conservation in the Periyar tiger reserve.
About Vaigai River
- The Vaigai river that flowed through the fabled city of Madurai, the capital of the ancient and prosperous Pandya kingdom located in southern Tamil Nadu. The river finds a mention in Sangam literature dated to 300 before Common Era.
- The river originates in the Western Ghats. It travels through the Pandya Nadu region of Tamil Nadu. Its main tributaries are Suruliyaru, Mullaiyaru, Varaganadhi, Manjalaru, Kottagudi, Kridhumaal and Upparu.
- The Vaigai is 258 kilometres long and finally empties into the Palk Strait near the Pamban Bridge in Ramanathapuram district.
Cause of Concern
- Several local people grow a native cattle breed called Malai Madu. They demand grazing passes for 100 cattle of each farmer for meeting the daily fodder requirement. As per the Wildlife Protection Act, cattle grazing inside the wildlife sanctuary is prohibited.
- Recurring wildfires are another matter of concern.
- Irresponsible tourism is another issue.
Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve (SMTR)
- It was jointly declared by the Centre and Tamil Nadu governments as 51st tiger reserve of India and 5th tiger reserve of Tamil Nadu.
- The Srivilliputhur Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary and Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary have been combined to create the tiger reserve.
- The Grizzled Giant Squirrel Sanctuary has one of the best preserved forests south of Palghat gap.
- It forms an important landscape for elephant conservation in Periyar tiger reserve.
- The significant parts of the Meghamalai landscape encompassing Varushanad hills, Cumbam Valley and a portion of the northern slopes of the landscape together with the Madurai forest division were declared as the Meghamalai wildlife sanctuary.
- ln Tamil Nadu, Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR) provides one of the largest habitats for the tigers and other co-predators.
- Other Tiger Reserves in Tamilnadu
- Anamalai tiger reserve
- Kalakkad – Mundanthurai tiger reserve
- Mudumalai tiger reserve
- Sathyamangalam tiger reserve
- The logic that making the area around Megamalai protected will ensure more water for the Vaigai has a precedent: India’s southernmost reserve, the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR).
- During 1970 and the subsequent years, large numbers of trees were felled in the Mundanthurai forests which act as the catchment for the Thamiraparani river.
- Once the tiger reserve is operational, security will be beefed up. In the case of enhancing the quality of the forests, there will be a higher flow of resources, particularly funds from the National Tiger Conservation Authority which manages Project Tiger. It will incentivise relocation for residents, and without cultivation in the estates, the source of the Vaigai too can be safeguarded.
- The tiger reserve can provide employment opportunities to the tribals to become anti-poaching watchers.
- After the formation of the SMTR, the people of the five districts through which the Vaigai flows — Theni, Madurai, Ramnathapuram, Sivagangai and Dindigul — are hopeful of enjoying similar unlimited ecosystem benefits, including increasing the waters of the Vaigai.
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