THE CHECKPOSTS STORY All you ever wanted to know about Kerala road checkposts – and more!

Perhaps half a century ago there was an approximately 20km wide continuous natural forest belt along the Karnataka-Kerala border in Wayanad which was all part of prime elephant habitat. But by now this has become very attenuated and at least half of what remains has been replaced by monoculture teak plantations. The continuity on the Kerala side has been broken in one location for a width of more than 12km at a place called Pulpally. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Rajiv Gandhi National Park (earlier called Nagarhole National Park) in Karnataka share a common border with the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. But three all-weather roads cross the State boundary through these forests. They are the Sulthan Bathery – Gundalpet section of the National Highway (which passes through Muthanga) linking Calicut with Mysore and Bangalore, the Mananthavady-Mysore road through Tholpetty and the road through Bavali. There are a number of such routes linking Kerala Wayanad with the adjacent Gudalur part of Tamil Nadu but all except one is blocks elephant movement across. In fact there are four other roads linking Wayanad with the Kerala plains towards the west which have fragmented the elephant habitat but have not fully blocked all elephant movement. The Muthanga corridor is a most critical point in the elephant movement from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka through Kerala.

We are particularly concerned about the main inter-State highway passing through Muthanga and a number of government departments border checkposts near by. The present finance minister who ultimately controls all revenue checkposts has launched a programme to make them corruption free and people friendly. As in the case of most other things in India where the government authority directly confronts a citizen, there is a nest of corruption. Road check posts are one classical example.

On important inter-state roads there will be a road authority checkpost to collect vehicle tax which is different for different states. These are called RTO check posts. All inter-state roads will have a revenue check post to collect sales tax for material transported across the State border. Wayanad being a cash crop production area there is in addition an agricultural income tax check post. There is an excise checkpost to regulate movement of alcoholic material across state borders. If the road passes through a forest tract there is the forest check post. Sometimes there is also a police checkpost. The area adjacent to Wayanad in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have cattle diseases such as rinderpest. Since there is heavy movement of cattle into Kerala essentially for slaughter for meat, to prevent the ingress of disease affected cattle there is an animal husbandry department check post. It goes on and on. Exactly in the same manner on the other side of the border the adjacent state will have comparable departmental checkposts. Mind you this is only a partial list. But fortunately all vehicles need not stop at all these check posts.

The sum and substance is that if along the inter-state road there is a forest belt (in the case of Kerala because of geographical conditions forest is only along the interstate border which is along the Western Ghats) these checkposts alone can constitute a spreadout township. Because traditionally forest lands were never given any value, most of these check posts would be located inside the forests. Government land could be easily transferred from one department to another without incurring cost. Associated with these check posts there will be police personnel, officials and their families, often other people living illegally, eateries, shops and even places of worship. Because of the contorted formalities and paper work, vehicles especially lorries transporting goods will have to wait for very many hours creating long rows of parked vehicles. Automatically there is massive pollution and littering all around creating a terrible health hazard for the wild animals and of course for the people also. Most of the heavily laden trucks move at night to avoid the dense daytime traffic, so automatically the maximum number of lorries will pile up around check posts also at night. While waiting, people manning the vehicles will get into the forest for meeting all their physiological needs and so on.

The present Finance Minister has taken it upon himself to clean up the nexus of corruption around checkposts. He has set out to build new facilities in the check posts and make them customer friendly. In terms of volume of interstate traffic, Muthanga should be occupying the fourth or fifth position in Kerala, hence it occupies an important place in the minister’s plans for improving checkposts. At present the Kerala side of the narrow elephant corridor i.e. forest land, has scattered within it in at least three locations different checkposts.

When he visited Wayanad a few months ago for an inspection of the Muthanga check post he announced his decision to build a modern complex from which many different departmental check posts could function simultaneously. This is fine in principle but unfortunately at that time he chose the worst possible location. Removing all the different checkposts to a site outside the forest would be most welcome but the proposed move selected the most inappropriate location. Although superficially the forest land appears a few kilometres wide the elephants do not use the entire width. Their preferred path transects the road and reaches a river, the only perennial water supply source in that area and this exact location was unwittingly chosen for the new checkpost site.
This whole issue is a very appropriate entry point to bring local and wider attention on the state of the elephant and its habitat especially the extremely attenuated corridors passing through chicken’s neck of forests
In the absence of systematic study greatly inflated figures for the surviving elephant population is broadcast. These animals are extremely mobile especially now because most parts of their range cannot support any sizeable population for any length of time. Literally they are also running here and there in ‘desperation’. The same condition is true for all the so called available elephant range. The totalled up figure of government forests around the Nilgiris appear fairly large. But more than half of it is terrain that is totally unsuitable for elephant movement and of the rest, especially in summer, a high percentage of the area cannot support elephants for any length of time due to the absence of water and forage. Where there is water and forage, if the terrain is suitable, there is continuous human interference also either as cattle grazing, human movement for forest produce collection, vehicle movement, tourists and so on. So the elephants are forced to rush through even such favourable terrain.

The other two roads linking up Karnataka with Kerala through Wayanad forests are not so heavily used by vehicles but even there the usability of the corridors by elephants is being rapidly curtailed especially by the movement of tourist vehicles. Recently one route passing through Wayanad sanctuary into the adjacent Nagarhole in Karnataka was closed by the Karnataka government for a few hours during night time for safeguarding elephant movement. This created a massive hue and cry in Kerala. So the Muthanga check post issue provides an opportunity to bring out all the known facts and start a public debate on elephants and their conservation for some hopeful positive action.

In Muthanga we have a chance to improve the elephants’ situation. If a few of us can develop clearer and clearer pictures of the status of elephants and sustain the momentum of public outcry from within and without the country there is a chance of some corrective measures.

Concerning the different figures given for the total number of elephants in this habitat, of course numbers are not the most critical factor here but in the case of wildlife or forest or water in a river we tend to exaggerate terribly, what we assume there is, possibly because most of us must be secretly thinking there is still time and opportunities left for us to continue as it is.