PUCL report, 2002

PUCL (Tamil Nadu & Pondicherry)
Fact finding report into the land situation in Gudalur taluka, Nilgiris district

For several years now, the PUCL has been receiving a number of complaints alleging widespread and severe encroachment on forest and public lands in Gudalur Taluka of the Nilgiris District. The complainants have also alleged complicity by government officials, and further have claimed that some officials are involved in encroachment and 'land grabbing' themselves. In this context, the PUCL decided to constitute a Fact Finding team to look into the issue. The team visited the town of Gudalur between June 14th and June 18th, and interviewed officials in Chennai and Ooty on June 18th and June 20th.

The members of the Fact Finding team were:
1. Mr. C.R. Bijoy, Member , PUCL - Coimbatore District;
2. Mr. Kannan, Member, PUCL - Coimbatore District;
3. Mr. Murugavel, Advocate and Member, PUCL - Coimbatore District;
4. Ms. Aparna Nair, Journalist;
5. Mr. Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Member, PUCL - Dindigul District.

Individuals Interviewed During Investigation
While in Gudalur, the team members met a number of individuals and government officials in the course of their investigation. These included the following:

  • Mr. Selvaraj, President, PUCL - Gudalur, and several other members of PUCL - Gudalur (June 14th - 18th)
  • Several members of the Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam (VTMS), a local workers' rights and Dalit rights organisation (June 14th - 18th)
  • Mr. Chandramohan, Government Pleader (Forests), Gudalur (June 17th)
  • Mr. Koshy Baby, District President, Tamil Maanila Congress (June 17th)
  • Ms. Chinnu Seban, wife of Mr. P.S. Seban, Taluka Union President, All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (June 17th)
  • Mr. Jacob Matthews, Advocate, Gudalur (June 17th)
  • Mr.Jalabudeen, President, Parent teachers Association, Government Higher Secondary School, Gudalur
  • Several local officials, who requested anonymity. Unless otherwise specified, references in this report to 'local officials' should be construed as meaning this group.
  • Many local residents and concerned individuals, including estate workers, government officers, and adivasis.

On June 16th the team also visited areas of alleged land encroachment and forest destruction. On the afternoon of June 16th, the team met several local residents in Gudalur.

After their visit to Gudalur, the team also interviewed several other individuals. These included:
- Ms. Supriya Sahu, District Collector, Nilgiris District (June 20st, in Ooty)
- Mr. Jayaraman, Settlement Officer, Ooty (June 18th, Ooty)
- Mr.B.J. Krishnan, Advocate and a leader of the Save Nilgiris Campaign, (June 20th in Ooty)


The taluk of Gudalur lies within the Nilgiris mountain range and is the meeting point of the Eastern Ghats with the Western Ghats, at a lower altitude than Ooty and closer to the borders of Karnataka and Kerala. With extensive forest cover and at the meeting point of the two monsoons, the area receives a tremendous amount of rainfall - an estimated 1900 - 2000 mm per year. The town of Devala in Gudalur taluka is known as "the second Cherrapunji", for no other town in India - and possibly the world - rivals it for annual rainfall.

The average altitude in the Nilgiris is between 1500 and 2000 metres, with hill peaks reaching up to 2300 m. The native vegetation of the Nilgiris is grasslands on the mountain peaks, shola forests in the valleys between them, and evergreen forest on the middle slopes below. In the lower hills, this evergreen forests tapers off to open forest, and, near the plains, scrub jungle. According to 1997 statistics, roughly 61 percent of the Nilgiris' land area is covered by forest. Gudalur lies at the level of the evergreen forests, and in earlier years was a densely forested area.

The Nilgiris, and Gudalur taluka in particular, is the watershed for a large number of major rivers, including the Moyar, Chaliyar, Kabini, and the Pandiyar-Punnampuzha. Many of these go on to become tributaries for the river Kaveri. According to one local estimate, a total over 100 rivers or streams flow out of the Gudalur area. In addition, Gudalur forms a major part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, and borders Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nagarhole, Wayanad and Mukurthi. Local endangered species include the lion-tailed macaque and the Nilgiri tahr, and the Gudalur region is a migration route for elephants.

Gudalur's population is a mix of Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates (mostly Dalits), Malayalis, Tamils, and adivasi communities. Six adivasi communities, including the Paniyar, the Kurumbar, the Irula, the Mullukurumar, and the Kattunayakans, reside in the taluka's boundaries. The total population of the Nilgiri district was 7,10,214 with 25,048 Adivasis as on 1991. Gudalur Taluka has around 3,50,000, of which, approximately 2,50,000 are Dalits and adivasis.

Mr. Selvaraj stated that approximately 90% of the Dalit households in the taluka are landless. The adivasi communities have been largely marginalized and forced to live on the streets. They have largely been driven off their traditional lands and deprived of a livelihood.

History (1)
The total area of Gudalur and the neighboring town of Pandalur is approximately 124,800 acres. In medieval times, before the arrival of the British, the area was divided between three rulers: Vallavanoor, the leader of the Panniyas, Nelliarasi, another adivasi ruler, and the Nilambur Kovilagam, a kingdom based in present-day Kerala. Subsequently, the Kovilagam decided to expand its borders by conquering the other two areas. Vallavanoor was killed and Nelliarasi kidnapped and forced to hand over her lands. Despite some resistance from Vallavanoor's community, the Kovilagam succeeded in subjugating the area and taking approximately 100,000 acres under its control. In modern times, the recognized extent of the Kovilagam's holdings was 80,087 acres under the Malabar Tenancy Act, until 1969 (see below). This area is known as 'janmom' land.


On December 18, 1845, the Kovilagam leased part of this land to Manjushree Plantations(2) . Over the years, nine other major estates (and several smaller ones) were given leases on the rest of the land, so that by 1969, approximately 50,000 acres were leased out in this fashion. The leases given were perpetual (for 99 years), and as a result the Kovilagam retained direct control over only a small portion of the Janmom area. The estate lands were used for tea, coffee, and other cash crops, though a significant part (in most estates the majority) remained under forest and natural vegetation. At a later date, the breakdown of estate lands was as follows:

Table 1

Cultivated area

Underdeveloped area


Woodbriar Estate            381.68
Sussex Estate              744.10
Estate     57.01

Non Such Estate          701.18
Malayalam Plantation   733.65
Periya Sholai                 331.93
Co-op. CWS                 278.41
Estates India         1490.27
Manjushree Plantation  3673.73
Glenrock                       2895.33
Silvercloud                    428.98
Others                         7927.92

Total                         19644.19



Total 32,356.52


Total   52,000.71

Note: The figure is as on 27.11.1974


The Janmom Act
In 1969, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed the Janmom Lands (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act. The government waited until 1974 to notify it. On 07.08.1974, Parliament inserted the Act into the Ninth Schedule in order to prevent judicial examination of its constitutionality(3) .

The team was given a copy of the Janmom Act, and all our interviewees discussed it in considerable detail. There are four sections of this Act that are pertinent to us here. In brief, they read as follows:

  • Section 8: Under this section, jenmis (holders of the original Janmom land) are entitled to pattas for lands that they or their employees are cultivating.
  • Section 9: Under this section, tenants of the original jenmis are entitled to pattas for lands that they or their employees are cultivating. To receive these pattas, the tenants must show that they were enjoying the land in 1969 and had been doing so for a continuous period of three years before.
  • Section 17: This section, later to prove the most critical to Gudalur's land situation, empowers the government to renew or terminate leases that have been taken on Janmom land. However, there is no provision for the grant of pattas on land that comes under this section.
  • Section 53: This section empowers the Settlement Officer to decide whether an area in the Janmom lands should be included in government forests.

The power to grant pattas was given to the Assistant Settlement Officer.
Once the Act entered into force, local authorities in Gudalur surveyed the area to determine which areas came under which sections. On 27.11.1974(4) the settlement was completed. Of a total of 80,087.74 acres, 28,087.03 acres were settled while the remaining 52,000.71 acres are yet to be settled. As per information later furnished to the Supreme Court by local authorities (see table 2), the breakup was as follows:

Table 2

Ryotwari Patta granted U/s 8, 9 and 10

Poramboke U/s 8, 9 and 10 of the Act

Ryotwari Patta U/s 14 and 15 - Buildings

Plantation lease covered U/s 17 of the Act

Assessed waste, unassessed waste under process

Estate covered U/s 8

Forests U/s 53


7769.00 acres

1587.20 acres

230.40 acres

41,768.40 acres

6,650.76 acres

9,153.98 acres

12,928.00 acres



 As the table indicates, roughly half of the Janmom land was brought under Section 17, and pattas granted on approximately one tenth of the Janmom area. According to the report of the Supreme Court Expert Committee in Writ Petition 202/95 (see the section Environmental Consequences), the area that was brought under Section 53 is actually only a small fraction of the real forest area that existed at the time.

Supreme Court Cases on the Land Issue
CA 367-375/77
Almost immediately after its notification, the Janmom Act was challenged in court by the nine major leaseholders. They argued on two grounds: first, their lands should be considered under Section 9, and second the insertion of the Janmom Act into the Ninth Schedule was unconstitutional(5) . The Madras High Court dismissed the petitions, and in 1977 the parties appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court accepted the appeals, which were numbered as Civil Appeals 367 - 375/77.

During the proceedings, the nine appellants agreed to give an undertaking that the lands in question would not be alienated and that they would not expand the area under cultivation within their lands(7). On the basis of this undertaking, on 15.2.2002 the Supreme Court granted a stay on alienation of land and changes in cultivated area within the lands in question . In 1981, a Mr. Balagangadhar Nair and nine others filed an interim in the Supreme Court asking for clarification, and the Court clarified that grant of pattas to individual tenants was still permitted under its stay order(8).

This interim stay order was to stand for over twenty years. Arguments in the Supreme Court dragged on until 1999, when the nine parties jointly withdrew their petitions; on 18.8.99 the case was dismissed as withdrawn. In the dismissal order, the Court said the petitioners had filed applications with the State Government of Tamil Nadu, and ordered that they be allowed twelve weeks to appeal to higher authorities should the eventual order be against their wishes.

When asked why these cases had been withdrawn so abruptly, Mr. Jacob Matthews, Advocate, stated that Justice Kirpal Singh had informed the petitioners that their lands could not be considered under Section 9, but they were free to argue under Section 17. Seeing the futility of continuing their case, the petitioners therefore withdrew.

Only five of the original estates still have valid leases. The remaining leases have expired(9) .

Anti-Eviction Case(10)
In the wake of the Supreme Court stay in the above case, the police began operations to evict members of the public who were allegedly encroaching on to Section 17 lands. The first evictions were in 1978 and proceeded until 1981, when a landholder immolated himself in protest at eviction and a local uproar ensued. Mr. Cherian, a local advocate, filed a petition in the Supreme Court requesting a halt on evictions, and the Court stayed further evictions while the petition was pending. When the case was disposed in 1988, the Court ordered that the government consider these landholders' patta applications 'sympathetically.' (11)

Following the order, the District Collector issued a notice requesting patta applications within the next three months. 9,133 applications were received. In 1991, these applications were forwarded to the government for consideration. These applications were for lands falling under different sections and categories in the taluka. These applications are pending with the government, according to the District Collector(13) .


Following the 1974 notification of the Janmom Act and the subsequent Supreme Court stay, the huge area of land under Section 17 became the target of a large number of encroachers and 'land grabbers.' In all our interviews, the extent and scale of encroachment was cited as an issue of great local concern.

Forms and Methods of Encroachment
In general, all our interviewees distinguished between two kinds of encroachment that are occurring:

  • 'Small' encroachers: Typically, these are poor families that took over areas for direct cultivation or for their residence. These encroachers often only took a few acres of land. At one point, Mr. Selvaraj estimated that there could be half a lakh of such encroachers. He also stated that the majority of these individuals are Dalit landless families, now dependent on their plots for survival.
    In addition, the team was informed that Sri Lankan repatriates, unfamiliar with the law, were often duped on their arrival into buying small plots of land and were given fake documents. The government's failure to explain land laws or Section 17 clearly to these repatriates - or indeed, to anyone - was held to be responsible for this situation. In strict legal terms, these individuals are also encroachers.
  • 'Land grabbers': These individuals or groups took much larger areas, primarily for estate purposes. Typically, areas 'grabbed' could range from 25 acres to 500 or even 1,000 acres. It was alleged that these grabbers were generally outsiders and viewed the land as a business proposition, often parceling it into plots and selling it off rapidly(14) . Characteristically they were able to get the assistance of lawyers, officials, politicians and others to produce official documents, court orders etc to substantiate their claim over the lands grabbed unlike the small 'encorachers'.

In addition to these two broad categories, Mr. BJ Krishnan and Mr. Jacob Matthews stated that the original leaseholding estates have also increased their cultivated area (in violation of their undertaking to the Supreme Court) and encroached on surrounding lands. Agricultural tax assessments prepared by the local authorities indicated huge increases in some estates' cultivated area. For instance, according to the document, Manjushree Plantations increased its cultivated area by 1,304.77 acres between 1977 and 1997, and Tea Estates India increased its cultivated area by 2353.80 acres between 1977 and 1997 (i.e. an expansion of 250%)(15) . These acts clearly amount to contempt of court, as they are in violation of the Supreme Court orders and the undertaking given by the Estates who had approached the court.

As a demonstration of the scale of encroachment occurring, some of our interviewees described the state of an area known as Oucher Loney Valley (referred to locally as O'Valley). At the time of the Janmom Act, all of O'Valley came under the control of Manjushree Plantations and was given a single revenue number: 46B/1A1A3. According to a letter from the District Forest Officer to the Government Pleader (Forests), Ooty, in January 1999, Manjushree has also certified that there are no leaseholders or tenants on most of that land. At present, however, there are 24 villages and settlements in O'Valley, and the area now has a separate Panchayat. In addition, nine land grabbers are said to have grabbed almost 1000 acres in the O'Valley, and several other estate holders have grabbed smaller areas. In the strictest legal terms, the entire area still belongs to the government, as inheritor of the lease; but in practice it is a patchwork of private smallholders, estates, and forests.

Motivations for Land Grabbing
In monetary terms, the forests surrounding the town of Gudalur are extremely valuable, primarily because of the large numbers of rosewood and teak trees. Each of these trees may fetch several lakhs on the open market. Further, once the forests are clearcut, the land is fertile and can be used for tea and coffee estates. According to one estimate an undeveloped acre of land in Gudalur would sell for one lakh, while an acre planted with tea would go for four or more lakhs.

Given these realities, an individual who grabs a hundred acres of land has overnight become very wealthy. All our interviewees agreed that the result is that Gudalur is financially, politically and administratively dominated by the large-scale encroachers. We were informed that most political parties, many government officials, and the State Government have been directly bought off, bribed, or influenced by this ready flow of money.

Securing Legal Sanction
The process has been helped greatly by the apparently unclear legal context. In the wake of the Supreme Court clarification of its stay in CA 367-375/77, there has been a string of applications by local landholders requesting pattas for Section 17 land they claimed to own. The holders would claim they should come under Section 9, even though that classification cannot now be changed and hence the applications were in fact invalid even when they were made(16) . Many interviewees and several local officials told us the typical course of these applications is as follows:

  1. Applicant gathers documents to prove ownership and cultivation since 1969.
  2. Applicant files application with Assistant Settlement Officer. Such applications were almost never taken up, and in fact other than a controversial 1998 order (see below), to the team's knowledge no applicants have been granted pattas in the Section 17 areas.
  3. Some applicants then obtain possession certificates in Section 17 lands from officials (See a sample list of such alleged land grabbers).
  4. The landholder then approaches the local district court and uses these documents to claim that he or she is in de facto possession of the land. The court would be requested to provide an injunction against any interference in the landholder's 'enjoyment of the property.' These injunctions were generally granted(17) .
  5. Should the Forest Department or other authorities attempt to evict the landholder or take other action on their property (for instance, halting alleged tree felling), this injunction would be used to stop them.

Almost all of those we interviewed agreed that these injunction orders amounted to de facto regularization of encroachment. The landholders in question would obtain such an order and proceed to expand their cultivation area or clearcut forests; those who tried to stop them would be accused of being in contempt of court. It was alleged that corruption at the local court level was rampant.

Further, the officials informed us of a number of ways that fake applications could be made to appear legitimate. Typically, the landholder would produce a document, ostensibly an agreement with the Nilambur Kovilagam regarding the land, and use that document to prove ownership from 1969. This document would be written on frayed Kerala government stamp paper and appear aged. However, the officials claimed, a reader who looked closely at these documents could usually tell that they were forgeries. For instance, the team was shown one document where the first paragraph was written with 'classical' Malayalam characters (as would be expected), but the remaining text used more modern forms.

In order to prove cultivation, two methods were used. On the one hand, landholders would often transplant older tea and coffee saplings on to new lands to make it appear that the lands had been cultivated for a long time. To observers, and especially lay observers, after a point it becomes difficult to deduce the age of a plot from its appearance, and it is easy to fool them into believing that a plot with two year old transplants is ten or fifteen years old.
Meanwhile, the easier method is of course to buy off the inspecting official so that no inspection takes place at all. The officials alleged that this happens quite often.

According to everyone we spoke to, no action has been taken against those who produced forged documents, even when such forgeries were detected and discarded in the court. We note that our interviewees agreed that the small landholders do not use such tactics, since they lack the resources and the wherewithal. Generally it is the wealthy and the powerful who indulge in such efforts at defrauding the law.


Much of the team's conversations rapidly came around to the issue of officials' role in the ongoing land 'grabbing' process. All our interviewees alleged that official connivance is rampant, payoffs standard and the legal process regularly subverted in Gudalur.

Corruption and Selective Application of the Law
The most basic form of this was bribe-taking and a selective application of the law. For instance, at the June 16th meeting Mr. Kandayya of Chembalakodu told us how he had purchased 1.75 acres of land in 1978. In 1980, the Settlement Officer asked him to pay Rs. 600 to receive a patta for the land. He went to pay it in 1981, but the Village Administrative Officer told him it was too late. In early 1983, the Forest Department took control of the land, fenced it and drove Mr. Kandayya off it. Then, in late 1983, the Collector intervened and returned the land to Mr. Kandayya and removed the fence. But in 1999, the Department again destroyed Mr. Kandayya's crops, and only after much local resistance did they allow 0.25 acres to be farmed. Mr. Kandayya believes that the government has been targeting small farmers, especially when larger farmers were granted pattas in 1998 (see below).

Other than this individual incident, all of our conversations seemed to return to two areas of obvious official dereliction of duty. These are detailed below.

Patta Application S.R. 7/80: Grant of Pattas in 1998
In 1980, a Mr. Balagangadharan Nair and ten others filed applications with the Assistant Settlement Officer (Gudalur), requesting that they be granted pattas for their lands. The lands came within the O'Valley area, and all the applicants claimed they had been cultivating the lands since the early 1960's. On this basis they asked for pattas to be granted on their lands.

The applications subsequently went through a long and complex legal battle, and until 1998 no action was taken on them. In December 1998, the applications appeared before Mr. Pandurangan, the Assistant Settlement Officer (Dharapuram). In the last week of December, Mr. Pandurangan granted pattas to most of the applicants; Mr. Balagangadharan Nair was among them(18) . In his order, the ASO cited the 1981 Supreme Court clarification as a justification for granting pattas on the land. The ASO stated that his site visits had shown him that the land was being cultivated, and the applicants had shown him tax receipts and documents proving continuous ownership from the 1960's onwards. For instance, in the case of Mr. K.T Veerankutty Haji (an applicant), the ASO stated that he had proof of ownership from 1961 onwards. Finally, the ASO rejected a petition from the DFO, wherein the officer had requested the ASO not to grant pattas on grounds that the lands in question were notified as forests under the Tamil Nadu Protection of Private Forests Act. The ASO claimed that the very name of the Act - Protection of Private Forests - implies that the existence of forests on land is no bar to the grant of pattas on that land. The week after the order, the ASO retired.

On January 13th, 1999, the DFO (Gudalur) addressed a letter to the ASO, claiming that he had never received copies of this order and that the news of it had been deliberately kept from him (letter # 14350/1402). He stated that he only obtained copies of the order after he walked into the ASO's office on the same day and found the order on the dispatch desk. On January 27th, after an appeal by the DFO, the Director of Survey and Settlement (DoSS) in Chennai stayed the ASO's order (document # RC D3/1031/99). Meanwhile, the Settlement Officer (Thanjavur) had already recommended that the ASO's order be cancelled, since the site visit had not been done properly and the order was legally without basis.

The Forest Department then appealed the ASO's decision to the Janmom
Lands Settlement Tribunal in Ooty. In his appeal affidavit, the DFO claimed that the ASO's order violated the Forest Conservation Act, the Land Ceilings Act, the Supreme Court's orders in writ petition 202/95 (see below under Environmental Issues), and a Government Order halting the grant of new pattas in hill stations. He also stated that the ASO had claimed that the area claimed by Mr. Balagangadharan Nair was bounded by lands owned by four other individuals; but, in fact, all four of those owners claimed ownership of the area in question and had filed writ petitions in the High Court to that effect (WP #'s 20885/92, 8145/93, 8147/93, 4748/94). Further, the revenue numbers that supposedly described Mr. Nair's land were invalid, since there is only one valid survey number for the entire O'Valley (see above). Finally, the land in question was not cultivated.

The Janmom Tribunal stayed the ASO's order but also granted an interim order upholding the status quo. In other words, pattas would not be awarded for the moment and trees could not be felled on the land, but the Forest Department would also not be allowed to interfere with the applicants' enjoyment of the lands ostensibly possessed by them. This order has essentially given carte blanche to the nine landholders to destroy forest in these areas. On this point, local officials find the Tribunal's ruling suspect.

It was alleged that the ASO only granted pattas because he had been bribed with money and liquor, and that the land in question has never been cultivated. During our site visit on June 16th, we were shown the areas in question. The land was densely forested, and we could see no evidence of cultivation in most of it.

Finally, local residents and others whom we met stressed the issue of the 9,133 applications filed after Mr. Cherian's Supreme Court case (see above under 'Legal Context'). They said that no action had been taken on any of these applications, and that Mr. Pandurangan's decision to act on just these nine applications showed his bias.

Landholdings of Mr. P.S. Seban
In his ruling in S.R. 7/80, the ASO (Dharapuram) referred to Mr. Balagangadharan Nair as being represented by his agent, Mr. P.S. Seban. According to a local official, Mr. Seban was given power of attorney by Mr. Nair in 1996, though Ms. Chinnu Seban told us that the land had actually been bought by Mr. Seban from Mr. Nair around that time, and that he was the real owner. However, regardless of title, all of our interviewees agreed that Mr. Seban has been in effective control of the land Mr. Nair claims to possess. In addition, local officials alleged that Mr. Seban has also encroached on 43 acres in survey number 477/9 of Padanthurai.

By 1996, Mr Seban had already been involved in some land clashes. In our public meeting on June 16th, Mr. Narayanan of Anna Nagar stated that he had earlier owned land adjacent to an area in Mr. Seban's possession. When Mr. Seban sold his land, he allegedly sold half an acre of Mr. Narayanan's land along with it. Mr. Narayanan claims that he objected to this sale, but in response the local police filed a false IPC section 307 (attempt to murder) case against him. When Mr. Narayanan spoke to Mr. Seban about this, Mr. Seban promised to pay him Rs. 30,000 for the land. This amount has yet to be paid.
In addition, a Mr. Krishna alleged that a small landowner named Mr. Joji had planted moringa trees on his half an acre of property. Mr. Seban allegedly encroached on the adjacent 30 acres, felled the forest and planted 10,000 tea saplings. The Forest Department evicted Mr. Joji and cleared his moringa trees, but Mr. Seban's adjacent 30 acres were left untouched.

The third incident we were told of involved the Forest Department itself. In late 1999 (the date is not clear), the then DFO sent a letter to his GP alleging that Mr. Seban had begun felling trees and requesting a clarification of the Tribunal's order. Then, in early 2001 (following the appointment of a new DFO, for which see below), Forest Department officials directly clashed with Mr. P.S. Seban on his land. Mr. Seban, claims that the officials trespassed on his property, attacked his workers and disrupted their meal, and finally demolished a tin shed which he had constructed. When we spoke to Ms. Chinnu Seban, she concurred with this version, adding that it had been a traumatizing experience. The Department however claims that Mr. Seban was felling rosewood trees, an offence under several laws and further a violation of the Janmam Tribunal's stay order and the Supreme Court orders in WP 202/95 (for which see below). It accepts that the shed was demolished but says it was on forest land and was thus illegally constructed. Finally, the DFO had alleged that Mr. Seban threatened him with a 95-centimetre knife during the operation.
A police FIR was registered against Mr. Seban based on the DFO's complaint. To date no action has been taken on this FIR. The DFO also sent a letter to the Central Government Pleader in Delhi, asking him to initiate contempt proceedings against Mr. Seban. No action appears to have been taken on that request either.

Political Intervention and Pressure
A second common theme in our interviews was that the land grabbers wielded a great deal of political power, including direct influence over the government in Chennai. According to Mr. Koshy Baby and others, all local party units (including Mr. Baby's TMC unit(19) ) have land grabbers as prominent members if not leaders. This was held to be the reason for the government's lack of action on the encroachment and land grabbing issue.

The list of alleged land grabbers contained in Appendix I, which is compiled from information provided by local people and local officials, bears out some of this claim. Among the major parties, the TMC, the DMK and the ADMK all appear to have local leaders who are alleged land grabbers. The CPM seems to be an exception, but according to the sources for the list they too are under the indirect influence of the grabbers. The CPM in fact took out a rally against the former DFO Mr. Srivastava (see below), alleging that he was evicting smallholders.

In addition, A. Millar, a resident of Gudalur, has recently been appointed Minister of Tourism for the Government of Tamil Nadu. In our interviews with them Mr. Koshy Baby and Mr. Chandramohan hailed his appointment, stating that the presence of a local person at the top might help move matters forward. However, among most of the other interviewees there was a general impression that Mr. Millar is close to the land grabbers and that his elevation will only strengthen their position. Mr. Millar's is said to have close links with Mr. PS Seban (who was once his PA), and Ms. Chinnu Seban mentioned that Mr. Seban generally stays with Mr. Millar when he travels to Chennai. Local officials stated that Mr. Millar's father-in-law has grabbed approximately 40 acres in O'Valley.

As proof of their contentions, local officials showed the team a copy of a letter, dated 30.08.2001, allegedly from Mr. Millar and addressed to the Minister for Forests. The letter is on Mr. Millar's letterhead and appears to bear his signature. It asks the Minister to transfer three forest officials in Gudalur - Mr. Kundan, Mr. Prem Sagar, and Mr. Krishnakumar - on grounds that they 'are working against our government.' No further detail was supplied in the letter.
Mr. Kundan and Mr. Prem Sagar are rangers, and Mr. Krishnakumar is a stenographer at the Gudalur Forest Department office. In our interviews, members of the public had earlier supported these three officials and said that they were among the few Forest Department staff that were committed to their task. All three were allegedly also subject to pressure earlier by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in regard to their public positions on encroachment and land grabbing. They were informed that, while their statements about corruption in the Forest Department were to be praised, they might be subject to disciplinary action if they should make public statements about internal Department affairs again.

After our visit, one final report reached the team. The team was informed that, in the last week of June, the current DFO -in-charge (Mr. Ulaganathan, see below) and Mr. Seban together raided a ganja plantation. Mr. Seban is allegedly claiming that this plantation was planted by Mr. Kundan. The team has no further details on this incident but notes that the version we have received conforms to the general trend of our information.

Transfer and Appointment of Officials
A second issue that came up in several interviews was transfers based on ulterior motives and the deliberate appointment of pliable officials to critical posts. According to the officials we spoke to, this is a recent but very worrying development.

As with the corruption issue, two cases in particular kept coming up around this topic.

Mr. Deepak Srivastava, District Forest Officer, Gudalur; Transferred April 23rd, 2002
Shortly after Mr. Srivastava's appointment in mid 2000, he began to make a name for himself as a dedicated and committed official. All the interviewees we spoke to considered him an unusually committed officer, though they differed in the degree of their praise.

According to them Mr. Srivastava was unique among Gudalur's DFO's for focusing on the large land grabbers and not harassing the small family encroachers. He is also said to be the first DFO to take serious steps towards eviction of these large land grabbers(20) . According to the District Collector, between 1.8.2001 and 19.04.2002, illegal occupations on 663.35 acres of land were evicted. Mr. James Jacob, whom several of our interviewees described as a large-scale land grabber, and Mr. Seban were both evicted from part of their holdings during Mr. Srivastava's tenure. A table of evictions performed by Mr. Srivastava is attached as Appendix III.

Mr. Chandramohan and Mr. Koshy Baby both alleged that Mr. Srivastava had been selective in his evictions and, in particular, had not touched encroachments by several of the large land-grabbers (including Tea India Estates Limited). Local officials showed the team a copy of a list of evictions performed, which did not seem to bear out this allegation. Mr. Chandramohan additionally alleged that Mr. Srivastava did not pay attention to many of the cases pending before the district courts.

Mr. Srivastava allegedly started receiving death threats as soon as the evictions began. Further, in at least one instance Mr. Srivastava was gheraoed by those who opposed his eviction activities, including local CPM leaders. Mr. Srivastava was hence given police protection during the performance of his duties. However, according to the officials, this protection was rescinded soon after Mr. Millar became Minister of Tourism. The day it was rescinded, the Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association sent a representation to the Chief Minister demanding that protection be restored. The Association cited the case of a DFO who had been killed in Jharkhand by the stone quarry mafia and said that if something similar occurred in Gudalur, the government would be held responsible. That evening the police protection was restored.
On April 23rd, Mr. Srivastava was sent out of Gudalur on a three year deputation to Bhopal. According to the local officials we spoke to, Mr. Srivastava had earlier requested the same deputation and been refused. They therefore were of the opinion that Mr. Srivastava was being sent out now for ulterior reasons.

There has as yet been no formal replacement for Mr. Srivastava. Instead, Mr. Ulaganathan, former DFO of Gudalur and currently DFO of Ooty (North), has been appointed as the Acting Officer in charge until a new DFO is appointed. According to most of our interviewees, Mr. Ulaganathan is not a dedicated official and earlier overlooked land grabbing that was occurring. While they acknowledge that he took up the cases against Mr. Seban and followed up the issue of pattas in 1998, they claim that this is because of heavy pressure from both the public and Department staff. They state that during Mr. Ulaganathan's previous tenure, land grabbing had reached its highest levels ever and large areas were cleared of their natural vegetation. They also state that even in the past two months, the number of tea saplings entering Gudalur has reached around 2,00,000 a day, the sawmills processing wood from the forests have increased their activity, and the felling of silver oaks in the hills has greatly increased. Mr. BJ Krishnan further told us that furniture shops in Ooty have increased their trade in illegal wood furniture.

Unfortunately, the team was not able to reach Mr. Ulaganathan for his views on the issue. However, in general we note again that almost all members of the public we spoke to regarded Mr. Srivastava's departure as a great loss to Gudalur.

Mr. Chandramohan, current Government Pleader (Forests), Gudalur
Mr. Chandramohan, a practicing advocate in Gudalur, was appointed GP (Forests) on 20.1.2002 vide GO Ms No. 22, Environment and Forests Dept. His appointment was opposed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (vide letter WR2/10014/2002 dated 11.4.2002), the District Forest Officer (vide letter .954/2000/D2 dtd 31.2.02), the local unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties and the Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association (letter dtd 12.2.2002 to Chief Secretary).

In the letters, these groups and officers argue that Mr. Chandramohan is both a land grabber himself and is closely linked with other land grabbers. Evidence for these arguments is cited as follows:

  • The team was given a copy of a letter from the Tehsildar, Gudalur, to the District Forest Officer, Gudalur, in which the Tehsildar informs the DFO that Mr. Chandramohan is an encroacher and that his patta application had earlier been rejected. This was in response to a request from the DFO for information on Mr. Chandramohan.
  • In his father's name, Mr. Chandramohan allegedly applied (together with Mr. R.S. Nadar) for an injunction on grabbed land in Padanthurai. He was allegedly evicted from 150 acres of this land during Mr. Srivastava's tenure.
  • Mr. Chandramohan's brother Sundarajan is implicated in a case involving the clear felling of 125 acres of land in the Northern Hay Estates area. This case was registered with the Department on 25.5.2002.
  • Officials informed us that Mr. Chandramohan is the second accused in O.R. 1/2002, Devala, a case filed by the Forest Department ranger after he allegedly caught Mr. M.K. Gowda attempting to cut a road through rosewood forests (Survey # 303/1).
  • In 2001, Mr. Chandramohan filed a case (O.S. 178/2001) in the district court for an injunction barring interference in this land. In the petition, he named himself as 'joint plaintiff' with Mr. M.K. Gowda (though elsewhere he is named as Mr. Gowda's agent).
  • Mr. Chandramohan is alleged to have encroached on 250 acres of land in the same survey number, according to the Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association letter opposing his appointment.
  • During the meeting on June 16th, a Mr. Murugesan, son of Thekkan, alleged that Mr. Chandramohan had encroached on and attempted to place a fence on his land and on the land of 28 other families. When Mr. Murugesan objected, a police case was filed against him.
  • Mr. Chandramohan is alleged to have encroached on seven cents of land behind his house; the land is said to belong to the local secondary school. Mr. Chandramohan allegedly put up a fence on school property. When the headmaster and school children tore down the fence, a fight ensued and police cases were registered on both sides. The case against Mr. Chandramohan was dropped but that against the students and the headmaster is still being investigated, a fact attributed to Mr. Chandramohan's influence. The land in question is currently being contested in court(21) .
  • Mr. Chandramohan allegedly appeared for Mr. R.S.Nadar when the latter was seeking a court injunction to bar Forest Department 'interference' on land ostensibly in his possession. He will now be appearing for the Department in the same case.

Given that there were other advocates available, those who oppose Mr. Chandramohan's appointment say that there was no need to appoint someone with so many questionable antecedents.

When asked about these allegations, Mr. Chandramohan replied that the only qualifications required for being a GP (Forests) are that one should be a practicing advocate with a clean reputation and that one should not be accused in any forest cases. All other considerations are not directly relevant. With reference to O.R. 1/2002, Mr. Chandramohan said he knows Mr. M.K. Gowda but has no relationship to the land and was unaware that he was accused in that case. As regards the school incident, he took the team to the site and claimed he had only attempted to follow the original boundary. When asked about Mr. Murugesan's allegation, he said that the opposite was true: Mr. Murugesan and the other families, he said, had in fact been the encroachers. He was unclear about whether he meant that Mr. Murugesan was encroaching on his land or on forest land.

In regards to the potential conflict of interest, he accepted that he had appeared for Mr. R.S. Nadar but said that his appearance was purely in his professional capacity and that he had had handed over the case once he was appointed GP. He claimed to have only handled two to three land-related cases when in private practice.

Finally, Mr. Chandramohan attributed the allegations against him to jealousy, attempts to stir up anti-Tamil sentiment in an area inhabited by both Tamils and Malayalis, and to local troublemakers. Mr. Chandramohan also believes the Forest Department is responsible for the current situation, since it is fully aware of encroachments and has done nothing about them. It has instead harassed land owners and taken bribes. Mr. Chandramohan also informed the team that he has notified Mr. Selvaraj and a local reporter of Dina Malar that he intends to file defamation suits against them, but has not taken up the matter as yet.


All those that we interviewed agreed that the scale of encroachment and land grabbing in Gudalur has resulted in an increasing spiral of other problems in its wake. The area's extraordinary biodiversity, sensitive ecology and complex natural vegetation make it very vulnerable to small disturbances, leave alone such wholesale destruction in some areas. Gudalur also has a complex social system, as outlined in the introduction, and in several of our conversations we were told that there have been attempts to mobilize the population on ethnic and religious lines. Finally, the economic imbalance between a few very wealthy individuals (allegedly land grabbers) and a large population of landless or land-poor residents makes the issue even more pertinent.

Environmental Issues

Legal Context
In 1995 Godavarman Thirumalpad, a member of the Nilambur Kovilagam, filed a petition in the Supreme Court praying for the court's intervention to halt forest destruction in Gudalur. The petition was numbered WP 202/95. Subsequently the court joined this case to a number of other cases and took up the issue as a national one.

In 1996 the Supreme Court issued an interim order in the case. Recalling its previous judgments in a number of forest cases, it noted that the term 'forest' in the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 should be considered in its 'dictionary sense' and not as only referring to reserved forests and government owned lands. As a result, any activity in Gudalur's forests that does not accord with the FCA and is done without government permission - including tree felling, plantations, building construction etc. - is illegal. With specific reference to Janmom lands, the court ordered that all tree felling in all areas therein would be banned pending disposal of Civil Appeals 367-375 (see the section on Legal Issues). Though these appeals have now been disposed, the court's general ban on felling in forest areas presumably stands.

As part of its orders in 202/95, the court also appointed an expert committee to survey Tamil Nadu's lands and determine which areas were forests(22) . In its report, this committee identified survey number 46B/1A1A3 (the O'Valley area) as "natural rainforest"; this area also stands notified under the Tamil Nadu Protection of Private Forests Act. As such, any felling in the O'Valley area is expressly prohibited by the court order.

Further, in 1999 the Gudalur chapter of the Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association filed an interim application to the Supreme Court (after the order granting nine landholders pattas in the O'Valley). In its order in this IA (numbered IA 418/99) the court ordered that no pattas should be granted on forest land in Gudalur and no encroachments be regularized, pending a reply from the Tamil Nadu government. The issue has not come up again (as Tamil Nadu will be considered only later this year), and as such the IA order still stands(23) .

Ground Situation
According to the Supreme Court's Expert Committee, in Tamil Nadu Gudalur is the area where "the maximum damage to the environment is being caused." According to a representation of the Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association (dated 15.3.2002), over 3000 acres of forest in Gudalur have been destroyed since the Supreme Court order in 202/95. Most of our sources stated that forest destruction was continuing, particularly after Mr. Srivastava left for his new posting. It was claimed that at least a hundred loads of silver oak trees leave the Nilgiris district every day, much of them from Gudalur (it is legal to cut and transport silver oak, a soft wood, so long as a permit is obtained). Further, as said above, an official stated that 2,00,000 tea saplings enter Gudalur every day, presumably for planting on freshly cleared areas.

Gudalur's diverse and complex wildlife is also under threat. As their habitat shrinks, increasing numbers of wild animals are entering human habitations and being killed. According to Forest Department reports, many elephants have been shot or fallen victim to booby traps in recent months. Leopards and tigers have also been poached. The large landholders, including the land grabbers, use electric fences to 'protect' their lands; the team saw one such fence during its site visit on June 16th. Though such fences should be held at low voltages so as to administer a mild shock, these fences are allegedly given supply directly from the electric mains. The resulting shocks are powerful enough to kill elephants and other animals that may try to cross them(24) . Mr. Murugesan of O'Valley panchayat told us that elephants that have died in this manner have sometimes been classified as 'lightning deaths', often because of pressure on forest officials.

Further, rainfall in Gudalur has apparently fallen drastically. During the four days of the team's visit, rain showers were frequent but intermittent and generally brief. We were told that water flow to the rivers has become more variable, and that some formerly perennial streams now dry at certain times of year.

During the site visit the team saw visible environmental damage in some areas, including freshly cut stumps, roads running through forests, and a recently constructed large house (allegedly by Mr. James Jacob, an advocate from Calicut) in the middle of the O'Valley forests on the edge of the Pandiar river. There is a striking contrast between the Tamil Nadu and Kerala portions of the mountains.

Finally, Mr. Jacob Matthews informed us that contempt applications are pending before the Supreme Court and will be taken up when Tamil Nadu comes up for consideration in WP 202/95. He believes this will make a tremendous difference in the ground situation.

Social Issues
Mr. Murugesan, Vice Chairman of the O'Valley panchayat, told us that there had been 76 suicides in Gudalur in the previous six months. He alleged that land grabbing had created considerable emotional and social tension between Gudalur residents.

In addition, land grabbers are increasingly importing weapons and hiring goondas to threaten their opponents. Mr. Selvaraj told us of two murders that the grabbers are alleged to have committed. In the first case, a forest guard named Raju witnessed the killing of an elephant and registered a case, but he failed to arrive in court to testify. His body was found in the forest; he had apparently been hanged from a tree. The police registered the death as a suicide. In the second instance, a former RDO by the name of Suresh was poisoned when he was investigating illegal tree felling. Other interviewees mentioned that these are far from the only killings that have taken place.
Further, earlier this year, several Forest Department guns were apparently stolen in Namakkal district. We were told by local reporters that those guns have now shown up in Gudalur, and the police are investigating how they arrived in the area.

Mr. Selvaraj, the officials who spoke to us and some leaders of the VTMS have all apparently also received threats. Mr. Selvaraj stated that he has been followed, and he alleges that the tehsildar has spread false rumours that he has defaulted on loans and is being hunted by the police. He stated that false police complaints have been filed against him, which in one case resulted in his arrest and detention for a day.

We were also told that many Dalit smallholders have had their lands taken over by land grabbers, and in many other cases they have been evicted by the Forest Department. Smallholders' desperation for pattas or other forms of legal recognition has become extreme; during our visit the team was twice asked if we had come to issue pattas. Adivasi communities, meanwhile, find themselves similarly sandwiched between expanding land encroachments and the Forest Department, and they have been largely pushed off their lands. Many adivasi families been reduced to begging in the streets, and in some cases forced into commercial sex work.


Proposed Solutions
Several tentative interim solutions were proposed to the team. Before detailing them, we note briefly that all of these efforts would require an amendment of Section 17.

Grant of Pattas to Existing Cultivators
When asked for their suggestions, Mr. Chandramohan and Mr. Koshy Baby both argued that pattas should be granted to those who are currently cultivating the land and in de facto ownership. After the grant of pattas in this fashion, any encroachment should be halted. However, Mr. Chandramohan argued that any person who had encroached on to Section 53 lands should be evicted immediately.

Mr. Chandramohan also stated that Mr. Millar and other Ministers had held a high level meeting in Chennai on the issue on Tuesday, June 11th. At this meeting they apparently decided to go ahead with a solution on these lines, possibly by amending Section 17(25) .

Mr. Baby took the position that pattas should be granted to houseowners first, then landholders with less than 3 acres, and others should only be considered after those two processes were complete.

Grant of Pattas to Small Owners and Eviction of Land Grabbers
VTMS members and Mr. Murugesan of O'Valley panchayat favored a different proposal. They argued that the current crisis had been triggered not by general encroachment but by the activities of the land grabbers. Hence, they said that the government should grant pattas to small landholders so as to protect their lands from expropriation. This would also give these families a secure livelihood. However, they believed that the large-scale land-grabbers should be evicted from their property and that property either retained to government hands or redistributed to landless families. Mr. Murugesan stressed that a blanket grant of pattas on the basis of extant 'possession' would only benefit the land grabbers.

New Perambulation and Determination of Rights
The Collector, Ms. Supriya Sahu, and Mr. Jayaraman, Settlement Officer, Ooty, both argued that the first step should be a fresh survey and perambulation of the area so as to determine the exact status of the lands. Mr. Jayaraman stated that the June 11th meeting in Chennai had ordered that such a perambulation to take place. Following that, any fresh encroachments (esp. those after 2000) should be evicted and further encroachment prevented.

The Collector stated that her office is already taking a number of steps on this issue. Two battalions of the Tamil Nadu Special Police have been provided in order to protect the forests. These battalions had earlier been placed at the disposal of DFO Deepak Srivastava for his use during evictions; they are still waiting for the new DFO to be posted and, in the meanwhile, are being used by the district administration along with regular police. The forest, revenue and police officials have been told to strictly implement the Supreme Court interim orders in WP 202/95. The perambulation has begun and 4500 acres surveyed so far(26) . Meanwhile, a proposal has been sent to the State government to request that they amend the Janmom Act to convert Section 53 lands into reserved forests, and that they amend Section 17 to allow for a final settlement of the land problem by the district administration.

Adivasi Rights
Mr. B.J. Krishnan, Advocate, raised one issue with regard to the solution of the land issue. These lands were all originally under the control of the local adivasi communities before the land came under Nilambur Kovilagam, and, subsequently, the present estates. Thus the leaseholders of the Kovilagam, who are now arguing that their land claims should be given primary consideration, are not in fact the primary owners. Further they have themselves all encroached on surrounding lands and indulged in heavy deforestation and illegal felling. As such, the rights of the adivasi communities should be given primacy in any land settlement, and the large land grabbers, the estates and the plantations should all be evicted from the area.

Though this issue did not receive much importance in our other conversations, we regard it is as a major element in the problem. As mentioned in the Introduction, approximately 25,000 adivasis live in the Gudalur area, and according to Mr. BJ Krishnan their land rights have been totally ignored. According to a 1989 study of the Nilgiris district, 40 percent of adivasi households have lost 35 percent of their lands(28) . The complex battle over Section 17, leaseholdings, land grabbings, encroachment, forest lands, and so on seems to have left the adivasis out of the equation.

As an example, when preparing to leave Gudalur, the team almost accidentally met an adivasi family (headed by Mr. Ketan and residing near the village of Chalivaiyal) who allegedly had been forcibly evicted from their houses and farmlands three times in the last three months. The evictions were performed by a neighboring estate, which continually expanded its area and tried to take over their lands. Each time an eviction took place, the adivasis stated, they were beaten, their houses demolished and their property destroyed. One such eviction had taken place on the morning before we met them. Incidents such as this were common and frequently reported.


Given the complexity of the matter, our investigation produced data that broadly fits into three different categories: first, information about specific incidents or individuals, second, ground realities, and third, policy issues. The findings below are divided accordingly.

Findings related to specific incidents or individuals

  • The appointment of Mr. Chandramohan as Government Pleader (Forests), Gudalur, was made with ulterior motives and will be detrimental to efforts at halting forest destruction.
  • The grant of pattas to nine individuals by Mr. Pandurangan, former ASO (Dharapuram), was illegal and gave apparent legitimacy to large scale landgrabbing.
  • There have been efforts, both from within and outside the government, to silence committed officials in the Forest Department, including Mr. Prem Sagar, Mr. Kundan, Mr. Krishnakumar and the former DFO, Mr. Srivastava.
  • The appointment of Mr. Ulaganathan as the current in-charge for the Forest Department will be a hindrance to forest protection.
  • Those who have been raising the issues of land grabbing and deforestation, such as VTMS and honest officials, have been subjected to threats and intense pressure to halt their campaign for justice.
  • Mr. Millar, Minister of Tourism, has attempted to interfere in the functioning of the Forest Department.

Ground realities

  • There is extensive land grabbing in Gudalur, both by new individuals and by the old leaseholders.
  • There is a nexus between officials, political leaders, and land grabbers in Gudalur. This nexus extends to the State government and has not only shielded these offenders, but has allowed them to manipulate the legislative and administrative machinery in their favour.
  • The local government departments, including the Revenue Department, the Forest Department, and the police, have not only not fulfilled their mandated roles but also visibly charade as if they are themselves members of the land and forest mafias. There were some partial exceptions, such as Mr. Srivastava's period, but the general pattern is one of neglect.
  • District court injunction orders have played a major role in allowing land grabbing to continue.
  • Political parties have almost uniformly shielded the land grabbers.
  • Small land holders, whether the land is held legally or illegally, have been under pressure both from land grabbers and from the authorities.
  • Supreme Court orders in Writ Petition 202/95 have been ignored and violated.
  • There is extensive forest destruction occurring in Gudalur. This poses a severe threat to local livelihoods and to the farmers of the Kaveri basin. Local species and biodiversity are also being destroyed.
  • Local adivasi communities, and to a slightly lesser extent Sri Lankan repatriates and Dalits, have been marginalized and left with no means of livelihood. The constitution of reserved forests and the Janmom Act processes have all ignored the rights of adivasis to their lands.
  • Land grabbers have been involved in a rapidly rising crime wave in Gudalur, including murders and assaults.

Policy issues

  • The presence of Section 17 and the confusion surrounding it have severely exacerbated the land grabbing problem.
  • There are steps being taken at a State government level to produce a final settlement in favour of the land grabbers, probably sometime in the near future. The appointments of Mr. Chandramohan and Mr. Ulaganathan and the transfer of Mr. Srivastava are indicators of this.


As with the findings, our recommendations are split into two parts: issues concerning individuals and specific incidents and issues of wider policy.

Specific Incidents and Individuals

  • Mr. Chandramohan should be removed from the post of Government Pleader (Forests), Gudalur Division, as soon as possible. He should be replaced by an advocate who enjoys the support of all sections concerned.
  • The government should make every effort to have the grant of pattas by Mr. Pandurangan, ASO (Dharapuram), cancelled and to evict the landholders in question.
  • A new DFO should be appointed for the Gudalur region; this officer should have a proven track record in combating land and forest 'mafias'.
  • Efforts to pressure, silence or intimidate government (and especially forest) officers in Gudalur should be halted. Transfers should be undertaken only after a transparent process where the reason for the transfer is made known to the officer and the public.
  • Threats aimed at the former DFO, VTMS members, officials and others in the local area should be fully investigated and the individuals given protection if necessary.
  • On the same lines, the registration of false cases against poor families, officials, or social justice activists should be halted by administrative action. An inquiry into the number of such false cases and their origins should be initiated.
  • Criminal prosecution should be initiated in cases where bogus or false documents have been submitted to prove land ownership. Where this fraud was perpetrated with official assistance, enquiries and action should be initiated against the officials in question.
  • Public hearings should be conducted and complaints invited in regards to corrupt officials and dereliction of duty. Action should be taken against colluding and corrupt officials on the basis of these complaints and hearings.
  • Government pleaders should be asked to ensure that any application for an injunction in the district court is dismissed. If injunctions are granted, they should be vacated as soon as possible.

Wider Policy Issues
The findings of this investigation and the overall problem in Gudalur revolve around four interrelated but distinct foci. These are:

  • Right to livelihood: the right of landless families and farmers to have access to land for cultivation and for maintaining their livelihood. This applies particularly to the repatriates from Sri Lanka, who are already in a disadvantaged position.
  • Adivasi and community land rights: the rights of adivasi communities over their traditional lands.
  • Land ownership and title: the question of establishing who 'owns' these lands.
  • Environmental protection: the protection of Gudalur's unique environment and natural heritage, both for its intrinsic value and for its role as the watershed for large parts of Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring states of Kerala and Karnataka as well.

Given these interrelationships, the team feels strongly that this cannot simply be seen as an issue of land settlement. All four questions have to be addressed before Gudalur's problems will be any nearer to a solution.

Further, some of our interviewees suggested than a full implementation of 'the law as it stands' would itself supply the solution to the problem. We find ourselves unable to agree.

A very brief sketch of the legal position on each of these issues is as follows:

  • Right to livelihood: Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution guarantees all Indian citizens the right to a livelihood. According to the Supreme Court in Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Ltd. vs. Union of India(28) , this includes the right to cultivate for agriculturists. In the case of the Sri Lankan repatriates, the provisions of the Sirimavo - Shastri Pact will apply as well.
  • Adivasi and community land rights: Under Article 244(1) of the Constitution, all Scheduled Tribes (including the adivasis of Gudalur) should be governed in accordance with the Fifth Schedule. Paragraph 5(2) of the Fifth Schedule is clear that one of the Schedule's objects is the prevention of the alienation of adivasi lands and restoration of alienated lands. Though Tamil Nadu has yet to enact any law in this regard, and is in fact the only State that has not done so, the Constitutional provisions still apply.
  • Land ownership and title: Section 17 of the Janmom Act implies that much of Gudalur taluka is now under government ownership. Since all leases are expected to expire soon, under the law there will soon be no legitimate alternative claimants. The question of whether or not Section 17 should be amended therefore arises.
  • Environmental protection: the position on this issue has been detailed in the body of the report.

In terms of resolving the issue, a literal or unimaginative reading of the law is thus of little help. The law embodies several competing claims; we must find a democratic and just way to resolve all of them and to ensure that all individuals' rights are protected. Our recommendations are framed in light of this basic premise, and are as follows:

Adivasi Rights
Since Adivasis or Scheduled Tribes are the first settlers, it would be pertinent to provide them first priority in settling their rights, irrespective of whether they have any official records to prove their rights of possession of land or of other rights to their traditional territories for purposes of grazing, cultivation, collection of forest products etc. Further, we stress that their rights should be settled in line with the provisions of the Constitution, irrespective of whether their rights are claimed in Reserved Forests declared under the Tamilnadu Forest Act 1882, Sec.53 or Sec. 17 or any other sections of the Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act 1969, or notified under Sec 4 of The Tamilnadu Preservation of Private Forest Act 1949. This is because:

(a) The government (the district authorities and forest department) did not in all honesty and fairness follow the procedures as enjoined by law in recording their traditional rights or ensuring that the intensions of the procedures prescribed themselves were fulfilled. The STs were also not adequately informed and enabled to make use of the set procedures.

(b) Even where the authorities attempted to follow the laws and associated rules, the STs were not in a position to understand the laws and rules associated with this to ensure that their interests were protected and thus were unable to use them as well.

(c) It was the bounden duty of the government to extend special protection to ST interests, which it has failed to carry out either through appropriate administrative orders or legislations.

As such, the rights that have been hitherto restricted or completely extinguished should be restored fully. Further displacement of adivasis will be a gross violation of their rights and a hindrance to peace and good governance.
As we noted above, Article 244(1) further enjoins some specific requirements for the government. Though no area in Tamil Nadu has been declared a Scheduled Area (which is in itself a denial of adivasis' rights), the right of the Scheduled Tribes to self-rule and control over their affairs is an established legal fact. The provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996, which recognizes the right of village gram sabhas and community bodies to control resources and protect community rights, are a demonstration of that. So far this Act has remained a dead letter as far as this State is concerned. Implementing its provisions would be an excellent first step towards recognizing adivasis' rights in the State.

Thus we recommend that the following steps be taken:

  • The State Cabinet should pass a resolution requesting that a Scheduled Area be constituted in the State, encompassing all adivasi settlements in the State. Parliament can in turn empower the President to issue such a declaration.
  • Every process of land settlement or settlement of rights should take account of adivasi traditional and community rights as the first priority.
  • The Tamil Nadu government should take steps to pass legislation preventing the alienation of adivasi lands and restoration of alienated lands, as has every other State. Such legislation is implied by Article 244(1) and is a dire necessity.

Livelihood Rights
The issue of access to agricultural land is a critical one for the majority of Gudalur' s population. A simple decision to evict all encroachments on Section 17 would thus result in great harm to thousands of families in the taluka. We therefore recommend that the process of land rights settlement should proceed as follows:

  • As an initial step, there should be a publicity campaign explaining the provisions of Section 17, particularly how it bars the grant of pattas and the alienation of local land. This campaign should be supported by public statements from the highest levels of government, perhaps the Chief Minister herself. Residents should also be informed that deceiving people with fake documents is a criminal offense and they can initiate police proceedings if they are victims of such fraud.
  • If families have encroached on land for purposes of their livelihood or if the land is their main source of livelihood, such cases should be deemed to be a special category and sympathetically considered for settlement and guarantee of these families' legal rights to such lands. This is irrespective of any documentary evidence that may or may not exist. The team believes this recommendation would be largely applicable to sections such as Adivasis, Dalits, plantation labourers, agricultural labourers, small and marginal farmers and the poor. The team stresses that there should be no criminal action initiated against these individuals.
  • Encroachers who do not fall into the above category should be evicted and criminal cases registered against them.
  • Special consideration should be given to Mountaden Chettis and other disadvantaged communities in the local area.
  • The determination of which encroachers fall into which category should be done by a survey commission, as was done in neighboring Kerala. The commission should be composed of senior officials with experience in issues of Dalit rights, adivasi rights and the rights of the poor. Local bodies such as panchayats and local organisations should be given a primary role in gathering data and assisting the survey.
  • Across all of Tamil Nadu, similar procedures should be followed to settle the status of lands that come under analogous Ryotwari and Janmom Abolition Acts.

Sri Lankan Repatriates
Since Sri Lankan Repatriates form a sizeable section of the population and are often disadvantaged because of their origins, their situation should be considered separately. The Sirimavo - Shastri Pact under which these sections of people have been brought here should also be one specific base on which to formulate the needs for them. It would be relevant here to make an assessment of the provisions of the Pact to which the government is obliged to fulfill. What are the relevant provisions? To what extent have they been fulfilled? What are the areas where the provisions have either not been fulfilled or tardily fulfilled? These are to be considered while determining the issue of settlement of their rights.

We therefore recommend the following steps to the government:

  • An assessment of the provisions of the Sirimavo - Shastri Pact and the extent to which they have been implemented, especially in the context of Gudalur.
  • The release of all documentation, reports, internal documents, monitoring reports and so on that relate to this issue. A judicial inquiry into the conditions of the repatriates is also necessary.
  • Once this assessment and inquiry are complete, the repatriates' rights can be settled through a community process (see below) and with respect for their human rights, Constitutional rights and rights under the Pact. There should be no discrimination against repatriates in the settlement process.

Estates and Plantations
There remains the issue of the large non-individual landholders, including the leaseholders and the estates. The team believes that allowing the plantation and estate system to continue as now would be both inimical to social justice in the area and a major hindrance to efforts at halting encroachment and protection of the forests.

Hence we recommend:

  • A land ceiling legislation for land under the category of 'plantation' be enacted.
  • In Sec 17 lands, as all leases have either expired or about to expire, the government should not renew these leases. Instead the land should be taken over by the government and distributed to the landless, with the guarantee that the government will ensure that support will be provided to ensure the continued productivity of the land until the beneficiary family is self-sufficient. The beneficiaries may also be given the option of forming cooperatives if they so desire.
  • Labourers and lower level employees of such plantations should be given first consideration in land distribution.

Environmental Protection
The Forest Department and other government authorities have singularly failed to protect the forests of Gudalur. As long as Adivasis inhabited the forests with their sustainable lifestyles, the forests remained intact. The centralized government bureaucracy has been unable to effectively act in most cases and has become a haven of corruption and nepotism.

The activity of private and government estates has been a further problem. In particular, the dependency on tea as the primary crop has been a major factor in this destruction. Further, the ongoing tea crisis has caused a great deal of tension in the District as a whole and specifically in Gudalur. The large numbers of people who depend on wage labour have seen their jobs vanishing, the number of employment days per year falling, the wage rate dropping, mechanization leading to job losses, and the number of working hours and average workload increasing.

We therefore recommend that the following steps be taken:

  • The Supreme Court's orders in Writ Petition 202/95 should be strictly implemented. The Collector's steps in that direction should be supported by political and administrative steps from above.
  • Forest conservation should be handed over to a Community Forest Management system, with local forest councils and panchayats having powers to ensure conservation.
  • Tea and other cash/export-oriented crops should be phased out and replaced by food crops, especially those suitable for local consumption. Any steps at introducing other cash crops (vanilla was one example that was mentioned) should be halted.

Appendix I

This list was compiled based on names mentioned during our conversations. It should not be taken as an authoritative or final compilation of names, but is intended more as a suggestion for future investigation.



Panchayat Where Land Grabbed

Party Affiliation

Ponnaiya Nadar

25 acres




150 acres (along with M.K. Gounder)


President, Anna MGR Thottathozhilalar Sangam

K.P. Mohammed



Congress Taluka President; Gudalur Panchayat Union Chairman

“Brandy Shop” Babu

33 acres




228 acres

Padanthurai (477/1)


Marickar Haji

112 acres

Padanthurai (27/3)


Jose Kutty




Syed Mohammed




Unnipokkar Haji




“Karadi” Mohideen




Yella Hamsa








S. Hanifa




GowrishankarVijayan Master




700 acres






Elavankudi Poulose


PP Yakoob











300 acres







Mohammed Ali







Aimu Haji


Mohammed Haji
















Pappan alias  Thomas






O’Valley, Pandalur etc.


James Jacob

500 acres



Ashraf Moopan




Abu Baker




 On the basis of court injunctions, the following individuals have obtained possession certificates from local VAO’s.  All land that is listed comes under Section 17. 

Sl. No

O.S No

Name of plaintiffs

Posession certificates issued by whom and date

Survey number and name of village







































B.Rajkumar and Ravindran



K.P Babu


Syed Mohammed


M.T Kuriakose and 3 others




Aboobakker and Salim

Kunhikrishnan Kurup and Radhakrishnan

M.K Kareem

VAO – 1995


VAO – 20.7.89

VAO – 20.6.90

VAO – 15.6.77 and 10.6.80

VAO – 8.12.95

VAO – 8.2.95

VAO -  -


VAO – 14.7.91


VAO – 1.2.85

VAO – 16.8.91 and 21.8.91

Tahsildar – 27.9.83


VAO – 12.8.85

28 of Padanthurai



277/54 of Gudalur

121/1A1A of Gudalur


477/1 of Padanthurai

477/1 of Padanthurai

29 of O’Valley


46B/1A1A3A1 of O’Valley

301/1 of Devala

46B/1A1A3 of O’Valley

46B/1A1A3 of O’Valley


93/B1A1A of Devala





ASO Order No and Date

Claimant’s Name

Extent for which patta granted

Survey No. and Village

ROC B/1883/93 dated 09.11.1998


ROC B/498/98 dated 11.11.1998


S.R 7/80 dated 23.12.1998






S.R No.7/80 dated 30.12.1998



S.R No. 7/80 dated 23.12.1998



C. Marakkar s/o Channathmohan





Velayuthan Nair

Neelakandan Namboothiri

Vallikattu Raman

Krishnan Namboothiri

(Power agent K.A Joan)


Erranikkal Veerankutty

K.K Ithapiri



P.Balagangadharan Nair



K.T Veerankutty Haji

T.K Mohammad

Aloshi Augustine

Sali A. Sunny

-         do –

Sheeba Philip

112 acre



5.08 acres

28.78 acres


250 acres







77.65 acres

24.70 acres

26.88 acres


200 acres



128 acres

17.103 acres

3.335 acres

3.312 acres

3.335 acres

2.026 acres

27/3 Padanthurai




477/9  - do –


46B/1A1A3of O’Valley







571    - do -




556/1  - do –



-         do –

66/2 Mudumalai

-         do –

-         do-

66/1 Mudumalai







Name of the Village

Area evicted in acres





















  1. The contents of this section is based on an interview with Mr. Selvaraj on June 15th.
  2. Interview with Mr. Murugayyaesan, Vice PresidentChairman, O'Valley Panchayat.
  3. Interview with Ms. Supriya Sahu, June 20th, Ooty.
  4. Interview with Mr. BJ Krishnan, June 18th, Gudalur.
  5. Interview with Mr. Jacob Matthews, June 17th, Gudalur.
  6. Ibid. The team was shown a copy of this document.
  7. Interview with Ms. Supriya Sahu, District Collector, Ooty.
  8. As cited by Assistant Settlement Officer, Dharapuram, in his order in case S.R. 7/80 (see below).
  9. Interview with Ms. Supriya Sahu, District Collector, Ooty.
  10. Unless otherwise noted, information on this case comes from an interview with Ms. Supriya Sahu, held on June 20th In Ooty.
  11. Interview with Mr. Selvaraj, June 16th, Gudalur. Several other officials and members of the public concurred with this narrative.
  12. Ibid. and interview with Ms. Supriya Sahu, June 20th, Ooty.
  13. The issue of Section 17 and the subsequent land settlement problems are not unique to Gudalur. In their report, the Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court in WP 202/95 (see below under Environmental Issues) noted that "Though more than 20 to 45 years have passed since [the various Tamil Nadu ryotwari Acts] have been brought into force, the ryotwari settlement process has not been completed in a large part of the areas… This also results in encouraging encroachments in areas identified as forests in the hope of transfer of such lands for agriculture."
  14. Based on conversations with local residents the team drew up a tentative list of alleged land grabbers. This is given in Appendix II.
  15. A team member also spoke to an estate owner on this issue at a later date. The owner, who requested anonymity, said that the land records for the estates had all been destroyed by a fire in the Tehsildar's office and as such only tax records were available. The owner alleged that these records may be manipulated. We were unable to verify the information regarding a fire in the Tehsil office.
  16. This was stated by Mr. Jacob Matthews, Mr. Selvaraj, and local officials.
  17. According to Mr. Chandramohan, Government Pleader (Forests) - Gudalur, there are 186 such possession cases pending in the district court.
  18. A table showing the areas granted is attached as Appendix II.
  19. When asked about allegations that he himself was involved in land grabbing, Mr. Baby denied these allegations and said that the land in question belongs to his brother's brother-in-law.
  20. We note however that a list shown to our team indicated that many evictions were actually of quite small areas (down to 15 cents in some instances).
  21. The team attempted to meet Mr. Shankaran, headmaster at the time of the incident. However, he refused to comment on the matter, saying that it was in court and he could not comment on it. He requested that we see the Chief Education Officer about the matter. The team did however meet Mr. Jailabudeen, the President of Parent teachers Association of the School, whose view agreed with the broad outline we have presented here.
  22. Constituted vide GO MS No 15 Environment and Forests Dept dated 20.01.97. Members were K. Venkatakrishnan (Addl. CCF and the Chair), R. Sundarajan (CCF - Social Forestry), and Bhagwan Singh, Conservator of Forests.
  23. Interview with Mr. Jacob Matthews, Advocate, June 17th.
  24. To the knowledge of our official sources, so far no human being has fallen victim to these fences. The officials did however believe that it was entirely possible that that could occur.
  25. Mr. Jayaraman, SO, Ooty, confirmed that such a meeting had taken place but had a different view on its outcome. His view is reported below.
  26. Local residents and VTMS members who we met expressed concern over this survey work and said they were afraid that it was being influenced by the land grabbers. Ms. Sahu, however, stated that the survey was unrelated to the grant of pattas (which cannot be granted on Section 17 lands anyway), and was intended to get a better picture of the ground reality.
  27. Raghava Rao, D V and K Baskaradoss (1989): A Study on Alienation of Tribal Lands in Tamil Nadu, Tribal Research Centre, Udagamandalam.
  28. (1996) 10 SCC 104.

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