Over the last one week alone, four families of tea estate workers who had been living and working in the tea estates that abound the rolling, lush green hills of Valparai in Coimbatore district, vacated their homes to settle down in the plains. Two more families from the Mudis Estates, a few kilometers away from Valparai town are packing their belongings to relocate out of the scenic hill station known for its cool climate and breathtaking vistas.
Locked homes and fleeing families are not an anomaly in Valparai but indicators of a disturbing trend. According to the census of 2011, the population of Valparai Municipality, which includes 21 wards, is 70,771. The population during the 2001 national census was 95,107 signifying an alarming dip over just a
decade. “If the trend continues, we will hardly have 50,000-odd residents in Valparai by the next census and our municipality might lose its status and could be reverted back to a village panchayat,” says a municipality official on condition of anonymity.
Locals point out that this reversal in population began only a few years ago and attribute two factors to the dwindling numbers. “Wild animal population has significantly increased and public fear that this land might be converted into a forest area following the declaration of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve a few years ago. Besides, the wages of casual labourers is approximately Rs. 150/-, which is much lesser than the wages earned by even a construction worker in the plains below,” says Subramaniam (57), a resident of Thonimudi estate.
Subramaniam is one of those few persons who has first hand experience of the perils of Valparai. On January 10,2010, he was playing with his grandson Mukesh (4) in the portico of his home at Third Division, Thonimudi estate when a leopard snatched the child away from him. “When the leopard attacked, it was 5.30 pm and I was right there. The leopard grabbed my grandson by his neck and dragged him around 200 meters into the plantations where he is body was recovered,” Subramaniam says. He still gets shivers when he thinks of the incident. “All the residents here are afraid to let our children play outside.”
Over the past few years alone, atleast six children have been killed in leopard attacks while an adult was killed by a wild bear recently. “Elephant and leopard attacks are common and quite frequent here,”says a forest offical in Valparai.
Low wages, lack of income sources are a cause for concern
While the increase in animal attacks and the threat of the region surounding Valaparai being declared as a forest reserve is apparent, municipality officials point out that one of the main causes for the migration was the wage limit of the casual labourers.
“Valparai is full of tea estates and a vast majority of our residents are estate workers or their progeny. Even now, an estate worker earns anywhere between Rs. 145/- and Rs. 160/- for a full day’s work while their contemporaries in the plains earn anywhere between Rs. 300/- and Rs. 500/- even doing construction work,” says Ms. V. Sathyavani Muthu, chairman of the Valparai municipality.
This wage difference between estate labour and other work is the main driving force behind the migrations, according Ms. Sathyavani. “Also, most youngsters here are now educated and do no prefer estate labour. Instead, the find jobs and settle down in the plains causing the decline in population at Valparai,” she said.
The municipality officials lament that there is not much they could do about arrested the declining populations. “Apart from the town centre that stretches approximately 1.5 kilometers, all the remaining lands here have either been leased out to the tea estate owners or belong to the forest department. Hence, we are unable to take up any major developmental activity or bring about new industry and employment sources,” said another senior municipality official.
He pointed out that the Government Arts College that had recently come up had played a significant role in retaining the youngsters from moving out for higher studies. “Employment needs to be generated for locals to revive the population here but it is an ardrous task,”says the offical.
Meanwhile, wilderness lovers and activists cheer that while there as been a general worry of overcrowding across the globe, atleast isolated spots like Valparai are returning to the wild.