Malaysia: Protecting Batu Caves - It’s a matter of political will

Bavani M and Vincent Tan The Star 22 Jul 13;

Devotees and tourists thronging the main chamber of Batu Caves during Thaipusam. The annual Hindu festival fulfils the culture and tradition criterion that is required of Batu Caves to be a heritage site. — filepic

Devotees and tourists thronging the main chamber of Batu Caves during Thaipusam. The annual Hindu festival fulfils the culture and tradition criterion that is required of Batu Caves to be a heritage site. — filepic

THE Friends of Batu Caves Coalition says political will is needed to preserve the Batu Caves reserve and its eco-system, which is in danger of extinction.

The coalition, comprising the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and several non-governmental organisations, are concerned over the conservation of the limestone flora and fauna of the Batu Caves reserve area.

The group, which is working on implementing a law for the protection of hills and caves, is also pushing for the Selangor government to implement a law for the management of hills and caves.

“It is just a matter of political will because there is more than enough cultural, geological and ecological significance to justify an application to Unesco,” said its scientific adviser, Lim Teck Wyn, in an email to StarMetro.

He said Thaipusam could fulfil the culture and tradition criterion of the caves while the monolithic limestone karst outcrop of the reserve area could fulfil the criterion of natural beauty and aesthetics.

In addition, the caves’ marble rock-base was also representative of major stages of evolution, while the caves itself was a significant habitat for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including the trap-door spider.

On July 18, StarMetro reported that the National Heritage Depart-ment will not be nominating Batu Caves for consideration as a Unesco Heritage Site as it did not fulfil any of the 10 criteria listed.

“I was shocked to read the views of the National Heritage Department. How can they say they are not interested in the impact of the cable car on the site when the department itself had declared it to be a national heritage?

“Also, how can they say the site does not meet the criteria set by Unesco when there is a strong case for Batu Caves to meet many of the criteria,” he said.

The biological and ecological features of Batu Caves, in particular, have been documented as being of supreme and unique international value.”

Lim said the Batu Caves Trapdoor Spider, a species endemic to the area, had undergone a population collapse since the 1950s, according to a scientific paper studying the flora and fauna of Batu Caves.

Jointly authored by Teck Wyn, Max Moseley and Lim Tze Shen and published in the August 2012 issue of the British research journal Cave and Karst Science, the paper listed about 350 animal species that could be found in the Batu Caves complex.

These included the rare, endemic trapdoor spider, which could be found in the Dark Cave (Gua Gelap).

Similarly, a New York Times report in Oct 9 last year, titled “In the Dark Cave, Fearsome Living Fossils”, noted that the rare arachnid, evolved some 300 million years ago.

The paper noted that human activity in the caves, including guano (bat excrement) mining and the drainage of natural pools during the mid-20th century had caused some species endemic to the caves to disappear.

Limestone quarrying had also affected their habitat.

Officially known as Batu Caves Reserve, the 11ha area (including the temple complex) was gazetted in 1930 and is under the control of the State Secretary as no overall managing agency was ever designated.

In 2010, MNS began managing the Dark Cave under lease in an effort to help conservation efforts.

At present, Cave Management Group Sdn Bhd manages educational eco-tours through the cave, and it is hoped that a more thorough assessment of Batu Cave’s biodiversity and the extent of human impact can be conducted one day.

However, the overall management of the reserve is still fragmented, with the main temple cave (and development outside) managed separately by the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple Devasthanam, the Dark Cave under MNS, while a settlement known as “Kampung Gombak Indah” is located on the northeast of the reserve.

In 2011, MNS had submitted a document to the Selangor government proposing the set-up of a Batu Caves Management Committee to oversee management of the reserve, as there was no common platform for the existing parties to coordinate their activities. Such a situation remains until today.

NGOs seek change in running of Batu Caves temple
The Star 22 Jul 13;

SEVERAL Indian non-governmental organisations are calling for a change in how three important Hindu temples in the Klang Valley are run.

The Sri Maha Mariamman Temple Dhevasthanam or committee currently manages the Sri Subramaniar Temple in Batu Caves, Kortumalai Pillaiyar Temple in Pudu and Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Jalan Tun H.S. Lee.

The committee’s existence and its functions and roles are governed by a 1930 court order.

The NGOs claim that a change is needed to promote good governance and better transparency in the management of Batu Caves.

The Malaysia Hindu Sangam said it was willing to work with other NGOs to make this happen.

“It time to re-look at the management, which is governed by archaic laws, for the betterment and future of Batu Caves.

“Batu Caves is our treasure and national pride, but the way things are being run now, maybe it is time to change; what was good in the old days may no longer be relevant today.

Hindu Sangam is willing to work with any other NGOs to make this happen as many parties are unhappy with the way the current committee is running things,’’ said its president, Datuk Mohan Shan.

He explained that Thaipusam was an important religious festival for Hindus. Today, however, the annual festival in Batu Caves has taken on a carnival-like atmosphere due to over-commercialisation

As Batu Caves was public property that belonged to the community, he said it needed to be managed by a professional body with relevant expertise.

“Apart from revamping the temple committee, Hindu Sangam also agrees with calls by environmental organisations to set up a permanent management committee to oversee the development and conservation of the iconic Batu Caves,” Mohan Shan said.

The Selangor Action Team, an Indian cultural organisation, is also in agreement with Mohan Shan, saying the time has come to revamp the way Batu Caves’ temple committee operates.

“The way things are being managed, such as projects being approved without proper documents, no public consultation and now, the news that Batu Caves may not make it to Unesco’s World Heritage list saddens me.

“All these prove that we need to re-look at the old court order and try to get it set aside to make way for a more transparent system that is open to public scrutiny,’’ its president L. Segaran.

He added that even simple things such as rubbish management during Thaipusam was not managed well; this year alone, a whopping RM158,000 was spent to clean up 450 tonnes of rubbish in Batu Caves folowing the festival.

“If things are managed in a professional manner, this would not happen,’’ said Segaran.

A former long-serving temple committee member, who sat on the board from 1954 to 1994, S. Panchacharam, said the powers of the temple committee are governed by a 1930 court order.

“The temple’s management committee is elected by the 66 committee members. The appointment of the board of management members is elected by ‘ubayakarars’ (contributors of the special prayers) biennially,’’ said the 85-year-old Pancha-charam.

“These ubayakarars comprise representatives from government bodies and the private sector, such as merchants, writers, masons and milkmen. Back then, they were considered the who’s who of society,’’ said Panchacharam.

“These men form the board of management by electing the chairman, temple trustees, secretary and treasurer, who then serve a three-year term,’’ he added.

According to Panchacharam, at the end of the three-year period, new trustees are appointed by the board of management following an election through ballot.

“Only committee members have access to temple accounts, which is why the old way of doing things is no longer suitable today.

“It would be better to amend the court order to limit the president to just a term or two instead of allowing people to stay on for years, which can lead to abuse of power,’’ said Panchacharam, who is a founding member of MIC.

“Alternatively, the 1930 court order can be set aside and a Hindu endowment board like in Penang or Singapore can be formed,’’ he said.

The current board of management of the temple is led by Datuk R. Nadarajah, who is the longest-serving chairman, having been in the position since 1991.

Lawyer Derek Fernandez said it was a norm back then, in the absence of a Societies Act, for a court order to establish temple trustees.

However, according to Fernandez, such a court order can be set aside, as in the case involving the Bukit Gasing Sivan temple trustees T. Maharathan and Datin Seri Indrani Samy Vellu.

“If circumstances are such that the trustees are not acting in the interest of the worshippers, new trustees can be appointed under existing laws and the court order revisited.

“The Attorney-General also has power as custodian of public interest to set aside the court order,’’ said Fernandez.

StarMetro earlier reported that several buildings and structures in the temple grounds had been erected without prior approval from the authorities.