Kurangini is a small village in one of the valleys of the Bodi range, in Theni district. Small estates along with tourism serve as its lifelines. A jeep path connects it to the world’s highest tea plantations at Kolukkumalai.
There is another road, made of compacted soil, unmotorable, and lined with plantations that connects the two places. A few metres down, a log tied across the road draws attention to two boards displayed by the forest department. One names the place and mentions Rs 200 as the trekking fee while the other admonishes him for trespassing.
Most of the time, a person can fill his name and emergency contact, pay the money at the desk and continue along the road. At other times, the desk would be unmanned and the villagers would direct him to the officers in the village square itself.
A trail to the left leads to more plantations and then to great stretches of grass. If the rainfall had been good, the grass would grow shoulder-high to engulf everyone. A lone tree signals more grass, switchbacks, dense forests and finally, tea plantations with the unique flavour of high altitude in their leaves.
Kolukkumalai tea estate can also be reached from Munnar by road. Tourists can then trek down to Kurangini along with the cyclists who zip up and down the trekking path. A quick Google search opens up blogs of people who have trekked here throughout the year, including in March 2017. City slickers get their much-needed grounding and the tribals use the extra money to make their lives a little easier.
March 11 2018, however, turned out to be a fatal exception to this merry exchange. A fire, believed by experts to be man-made, swept up the slopes of the hill powered by an unusually strong wind. It reached the 39 trekkers – 27 from Chennai and 12 from Erode who were gathered around the lone tree on their way back to Kurangini. Four days from that moment, 14 of them would be declared dead and many would be left fighting for their lives. (The latest reported fatality count in the tragedy stands at 18)
At about 13:00 hours that Sunday, an hour before the trekkers reached this spot, the light recording instrument on board a NASA satellite sensed an abnormal increase in temperature in Kurangini north and south beats. A few minutes later, a radiometer on board another satellite recorded the same for Kurangini south beat.
Both the signals were analysed by the Forest Survey of India, FSI, and transformed into two email and SMS alerts at 13:57 and 13:59 that were sent to registered users. Although the alerts could be sent up to the beat level (Kurangini north and south), only upto district level (Theni) officers were registered in the state. FSI had sent 34 alerts for the Bodi range that week before these two alerts.
Forest officials have claimed that there is a big time lapse between FSI issuing alerts and its vendor getting them delivered. Despite the alleged lapses in the FSI system, villagers had been aware of the fires all week, but no action was taken till 4:30 PM on the day of the accident.
Alert or no alert, once a fire starts in dry grass, both the trekkers and the crisis management personnel have to overcome slow reaction times, low visibility due to smoke and time of day, panic and challenges in negotiating difficult terrain. The only way damage could be mitigated is by taking swift action, denying entry permission to tourists and blocking all entry points. The last measure is complicated by the understaffing in the forest department – 40% of lower cadre posts has been reported to be vacant.
Passing the buck
Even before a comprehensive investigation could be launched on the causes of the deaths, senior officials of the forest department found it necessary to shift blame away from themselves. A forest officer declared to reporters that no one has trekked in Kurangini before and whoever did, certainly did not have their permission.
The organiser of the team from Erode who had survived the fire was able to submit proof of the permission obtained by his group. The Chennai Trekking Club, CTC, and its organisers, who lead those from Chennai and died saving lives, came again under fire. They were blamed by police, press and public not only for not obtaining permission but also for greed and un-preparedness.
CTC, a non-profit volunteer-based platform, was called a Belgian racketeering agency by commercial tour operators. The facts: 4 of 12 trekkers dead in the Erode group which could prove that it had obtained permission and 9 of 27 dead in CTC, question every assumption made in these accusations.
The organisers and support group
Vibin Dhamodharan, with his lively eyes and childlike expression, was the darling of everyone he has spoken to. He joined CTC five years back and immediately connected to its passion and simplicity. He could read elephant dung with amazing precision and once survived a violent snowstorm by hiding all night in a bunker with a lighter for warmth.Three months before his wedding, he went on a 60 day backpacking trip armed with a borrowed bicycle and all of 6000 rupees in his wallet. His wife, Dhivya Viswanathan, is said to have remarked, “We have told him the date. If he arrives, there will be a wedding”.
Vibin saved 72 lives single handedly during the Chennai floods, with a rope, a person to watch the rope and a broken Sintex tank. Survivors remember how Vibin and Arun saved lives in Kurangini that day and kept walking back into the fire to save more.
Staring at the same fire, Dhivya refused to budge from the burning mountain without her husband. A lover of nature, she had joined CTC 4 years back and participated in treks and cleanups. The couple moved to Coimbatore after their wedding, went on frequent trips and had plans to make the city more active. The unnatural fire had other plans for them. Dhivya succumbed to her wounds 4 days after being separated from Vibin.
Her namesake and one of the organisers, Dhivya Muthukumar, was known for her crisp opinions and open personality. The successful event manager helped CTC get sponsors for its Chennai Coastal Cleanup year after year. She was always the first person to arrive in the Pallavaram hills every Wednesday, helping to organise the weekly fitness tests. An hour later, she would be seen escorting the first timers who had fainted on their way up. A survivor recalls how Dhiviya helped her up the rescue copter along with another trekker before running back to help the third. When the aircraft returned, she wasn’t alive.
Two more of the gang that called themselves “Bakoda boys” were lost to the fire that day. Arun Prabahar is the proud Limca record holder for the fastest motorcycle ride from Leh to Kanyakumari and an embodiment of everything that entails – surveying, careful planning, strategizing and perseverance. He was able to manage trekking teams in unusual terrains quite beautifully. Arun was notorious for talking seriously and then merging seamlessly into a joke.
Nisha Tamiloli, on the other hand, wouldn’t talk at all. Fiercely single, she guarded her space and let others have theirs. However, when a person got into a problem, she would go to any lengths to help them. She trained hard to lead a group of any size single-handedly into the forest and bring them back safely.
Akila, Subha, Punitha, Hemalatha and Anu Vidya also lost their lives to the forest fire that week. They were all conscientious souls with incurable wanderlust. Brought together by CTC, they breathed their last holding up all the values of a CTCian. Those injured and battling for their lives in the hospitals have to be braver and face a long and painful recovery. Each of them is an exceptional woman of an exceptional club.
Chennai Trekking Club
And finally, a thought for the CTC itself. Founded in 2008 by Peter Van Geit, “born in Belgium, rooted in Chennai”, the Chennai Trekking Club is a platform for like minded people to come together and make themselves and their surroundings a little better. Peter believed men and women who are close to nature made socially responsible citizens.
While CTC provided multiple avenues to strengthen body and mind – trekking, ultra running, biking, motorcycling and swimming, every CTCian invariably gets drawn to its socially and environmentally responsible core. They dig into trash, build schools, clean coasts, plant trees, rescue people, campaign against plastics and transform lives.
Though it is guided by Peter and other senior members, CTC is shaped by each and every member. There is no hierarchy, costs are shared by organisers and participants equally and surplus is diverted to zero-waste communities and tribal schools or used for nursery maintenance. All members have the opportunity to learn navigation and other survival skills both on and off field. CTC is low on gadgetry, high on skills and most importantly, it focuses on going forward together.
Chennai Trekking Club, for all its commendable virtues, might not have been blameless on the day of the Kurangini fire; CTC did take a huge group into the mountains. At the same time, the forest department did not act on the fires a whole week and someone did set fire to the grass.
Other factors that are unseen now can come out in a thorough investigation and might be the ones to be blamed. But those in power chose to turn their wrath unjustly on CTC in particular, and trekking in general.
CTC has helped shape hundreds of responsible citizens who use what is available to improve the systems in place and enrich lives. It is time for the government and its auxiliary units to stop harassing organisations like this and start working with them, taking their responsibility towards the citizen’s physical and mental well being seriously. Instead, having invested heavily in urbanisation, poured concrete over every inch of soil and polluted every citizen’s breath, they now propose to cut off his access to nature by closing the forests and banning good organisations, and thus, push him towards malls, cinema halls, Tasmac shops and inevitably, multi speciality hospitals.
This could be a good time to recall Vivekananda’s words: “Any man, or class, or institution, or nation which bars free thought and action of an individual — even so long as that power does not injure others — is devilish and must go down”.