Villagers in Chhattisgarh's Surguja refrain from voting due to rise in elephant attacks, allege govt apathy

Manish Soni

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Surguja: In a torrid summer afternoon in May, Ramlal is busy tilling his three-acre land in Udaipur in Surguja district in Chhattisgarh. In a month or so, he will sow rice here. This time, hopefully, the rice will fetch a good price in the market, and there will be some left to feed his family. Last year, he was not so lucky. A herd of elephants had marched into his field in the quiet of the night, stomped over the standing crop and left.

Ramlal was not the only one to lose his crops. For several years, farmers in Surguja and other neighbouring districts have been at the centre of the man-animal conflicts that play out every few days in these parts. The nod to bauxite mining, coal excavation and the resultant decrease in forest cover has given rise to a jumbo problem in several districts of Chhattisgarh where man-animal conflict is now rife. These include districts of Raigarh, Korba as well as five districts €" Surguja, Balrampur, Surajpur, Jashpur and Koriya €" that fall under the Surguja administrative division.

The numbers are glaring.

According to data with the forest department, 42 people had died in 2017-18 in five districts of Surguja region in incidents related to man-elephant conflicts. At least 1,743 houses were damaged in elephant attacks in the same period. In 2016-17, 50 people had died in elephant attacks in the region and 1,860 houses were damaged.

Elephant attacks have become increasingly common in Chhattisgarh's Surguja. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Elephant attacks have become increasingly common in Chhattisgarh's Surguja. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

The residents allege that with the government turning a blind eye to their situation, they have been left to fend for themselves. Ramlal says that he received only a few thousand rupees as compensation from the forest department after his crop was destroyed.

In the run-up to the polls, just like every election year in the past, the Surguja Lok Sabha constituency witnessed a fleet of politicians, with their bags full of promises, says Ramlal. "What can we do except believe that this time, it would be different and our problem will be addressed?" he says. Others do not share Ramlal's optimism. Many angry residents in villages in Surguja region did not cast their ballot this election. Then, there were those who wanted to exercise their franchise but were scared of elephant attacks on the way to polling booths.

The residents, however, do not blame the animals, but the authorities for snatching away the habitats of the animals. The elephants themselves are migrants, who made coal-rich jungles in Chhattisgarh their home after they were displaced in the 1990s when mines came up in their forests in Odisha and Jharkhand.

Awadh Narayan Pandey, a farmer from Surajpur, says, "The habitat of the elephants has been encroached upon everywhere, leaving them with insufficient resources and space. They are forced to enter villages every now and then in search of food and water."

Allowing coal mining in dense forests in Chhattisgarh has been a political hot potato, with the BJP-led central government and Chhattisgarh's Congress government often sparring over the issue. Residents say that before the forests were opened for coal mining, they co-existed peacefully with elephants. Non-tribes were not permitted to occupy leased lands in the jungles. After mines were allowed to operate in forest areas of Surguja and Surajpur districts since 2011, lakhs of trees were cut down. In the past, the Union environment ministry had granted forest clearance to coal mines in the area, such as Tara Mines.

More recently, the forest department had objected to the Centre's nod to diverting more than 840 hectares of forestland for mining coal in forest areas of Surguja and Surajpur districts. The mining is to be done by Rajasthan Collieries Limited, a subsidiary of Adani Enterprises. The officials had said that the proposed mining site was an important wildlife corridor and railway tracks being laid down to transport coal would disrupt the movement of elephants in the area. Some experts say that migration of elephants from neighbouring states of Odisha and Jharkhand still continues and sometimes, the elephants stray into residential areas.

Prabhat Dubey, from Ambikapur, a behavioural expert on elephants who has assisted the forest department with research on the pachyderms, says that continuous displacement poses a threat to the existence of elephants, whose numbers are continuously dwindling. "There are only about 200 Asian elephants left in Chhattisgarh now," he says.

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The authorities claim that they have initiated projects to rehabilitate elephants. The forest department officials said that in the last month, 40 elephants have been moved to Tamore Pingla National Park in Surajpur district, which spans an area of over 60,000 hectares. Elephants will also find sanctuary in Semarsot National Park in Balrampur district and Badalkhol National Park in Jashpur district, the officials say.

In another unique initiative, five Kumki elephants (trained captive Asian elephants) named Duryodhan, Teerthram, Parashuram and Ganga and Yoglakshmi have been brought from Karnataka to the rescue centre of Tamore Pingla National Park to keep a watch on wild elephants.

The forest department has also suggested burning chilli power to keep elephants away from fields, but many villagers are opposed to it, calling it an "insensitive and cruel measure".

To track the activity of elephants in the wild, at least five elephants in different herds have been fitted with radio collars. According to forest officer Sobaran Singh, they now alert villages of an approaching herd which has helped curb casualties in elephant attacks.

(The author is a Ambikapur-based freelance author and a member of 101Reporters)

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