Haathi Mere Saathi

The ongoing Rengali left bank canal irrigation project on the Brahmani river, in Odisha, is seriously disrupting traditional elephant migration routes, leading to an escalation in man-elephant conflicts.

T he ongoing Rengali left bank   canal irrigation project on the Brahmani river in Odisha may bring agricultural prosperity to the state. But for the nearly 360 villages in Dhenkanal and the adjoining districts it is a battle for survival. The final stages of work on the canal have exposed the villagers to a bitter man-elephant conflict. Funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and implemented by the state government, the project is slated for completion in June 2011.

                According to official figures, of the average human death toll of 65 across the state, in the last six-seven years, 30-35 cases have been reported from Dhenkanal alone.

                The Rengali left bank project has destroyed the traditional habitat of elephants passing through the reserve forests of Dhenkanal, Kapilash and Anantpur, in Dhenkanal forest division. When I visited some of the villages on the Rengali left canal, villagers expressed surprise at the changing behaviour of the animals. “We always lived peacefully with the elephants,” said a village elder in Brahmani village. “Until around five to six years ago, before work on the project commenced, elephants never attacked the village, killed humans, destroyed our fields or trampled through our houses and courtyards.”

                Wildlife experts say the reason for this is construction of the irrigation canal and its distributaries in the heart of tusker habitat. Traditional paths are now totally cut off due to steep-walled canals on either side of the Brahmani river, creating insurmountable obstacles for elephant migration.

                The left bank canal is about 70-80 feet deep for most of its length. Along with its distributaries, it has significantly carved up the area. Experts point out that Kapilash was the terminal point of habitat for the entire elephant population stretching from Dhenkanal, Keonjhar, West and East Singhbhum district of Jharkhand up to the Dalma forests, covering a distance of 430 km.

                The rich and diverse forests of Dhenkanal offered an ideal transit path for passing elephants, providing them an abundance of food, shelter and water. However, lack of continuity and fragmentation of their habitat by the canal and its distributaries has put the elephant population under severe stress, experts say.

                According to official data obtained from JICA, work on 71.313 km of the proposed 141 km of the left bank canal has been completed in two phases. The international agency has funded the second phase of work, from 29.177 km to 71.313 km, largely covering the district of Dhenkanal. Rs 472 crore has already been given; another instalment of Rs 150 crore is expected soon. The total area of irrigable land proposed to be covered is around 40,000 hectares.

                Official sources at JICA categorically deny that construction of the left bank canal is responsible for increased man-elephant conflicts in the region. “We had acquired all environmental clearances prior to the funding of the project and accordingly paid Rs 44 crore to the state forest department for wildlife management.” According to them, eight elephant-friendly ramps have been built along the length of the Bhairpur distributary canal, at a cost of Rs 10 lakh each; 26 more will be completed by June this year. They add that an elephant corridor costing around Rs 6 crore has also been constructed for the elephants.

                Locally called ‘Haati Bridge’, and built along the length of the canal, the route aims at re-orienting the path of the animals. Instead, wild herds of pachyderms are entering the villages and going berserk.

                Around 55 km along the canal there is a slab indicating the artificial elephant corridor near Brahmania village. The 50 metre wide path has been stripped of forest cover that comprised a rich mix of nearly 48 different tree species including kumbhi, sal, asan, dhaura, bija, haldu, bamboo, atendi, bel, etc. Now, acacia plantations line both sides of the so-called corridor. Villagers told me elephants have not been using the route for the past five years!

                “It is not surprising that the elephants do not ever use this route. It looks more like a bridge with acacia plantations along the sides,” says Kisor Chaudhuri, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London and state-appointed elephant expert for the Rengali project. Elephants are basically cautious animals; they will never use a path unless they are absolutely sure of it. They usually avoid entering artificial or man-made environments, he adds.

                The villagers of Brahmania, along side the artificial corridor, pointed out: “Our lives have become so uncertain. We never know when we will be confronted by wild herds that may have five-six elephants or more.” Bikas Kumar Naik, a village youth, said that no one dared venture out of the village after dusk.

                Even if the villagers do manage to brave the wrath of the tuskers, it’s not always easy to appease the babus for compensation for damage to property or lives. “After our houses are damaged or crops eaten by the tuskers we have to run from pillar to post for compensation. It is so difficult to get the signature of the revenue inspector that is required to certify the damage,” the villagers complained.

                The villagers of Surat, in the vicinity of the left canal, had another alarming story. “For the past five to six years, our paddy fields are being regularly damaged by elephants. So we have stopped cultivation altogether,” said Sadanand Behera. While some grow green gram, potato, maize, etc, on an intermittent basis, many have been forced to become migrant labourers.

                Kalopoi, a remote village in Dhenkanal, was in a state of shock following the recent brutal killing of 55-year-old Prafulla Sahu. “This single tusker had come into our field at around 9 pm, on the fateful day… When we tried to chase it away, it simply picked up the man with its trunk, wrapped it around him and crushed him to death,” said his brother Lambodar. “We tried to chase it away but instead it charged us… Though we are from the Gaja gotra and worship elephants, the bread-earner of our family got killed by a tusker,” he lamented.

                Chaudhri points out that water is one of the important reasons for man-animal conflicts in the region. According to him, 78 per cent of human deaths occur during the dry season. He dismisses the notion that elephants eat paddy, saying that they are actually looking for their foraging ground and water, through the fields. He claims the elephants traverse the same path during the paddy season and during the non-paddy season; the only thing is they are not tracked when the fields do not have crops. Further, Chaudhri maintains, elephants seldom eat crops. Only occasionally do calves munch standing crops. Under normal circumstances they pass through the fields in single file; it is only when they are chased that they run amuck causing maximum damage to crops.

                With Chaudhri’s help, the project has built eight elephant-friendly ramps, with a favourable 12-degree gradient, along the distributary canals. “This will provide easy passage to the animals,” he says.

                Acknowledging the severity of the problem, Chief Wildlife Warden PN Padhi explained that cabinet had recently approved increasing the compensation amount and simplifying the compensation process. Though awaiting notification, it was learnt that compensation in case of death has been doubled to Rs 2 lakh while damage to crops has increased five-fold from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000. The signature of the revenue inspector, which stopped many villagers from getting their rightful compensation, will no longer be required.

                Further, the government has drawn up a Rs 64 crore multi-pronged strategy to check the growing conflict. An important measure is restoring corridors and fragmented elephant habitats. The forest department has engaged experts to study the land use plan in 14 corridors across the state, and local villagers are being trained and engaged as trackers in elephant squads. Solar-powered fences around cultivated fields are being tested in certain villages. The department is also using kunki haati (captive elephants) to drive away wild herds, says the PCCF.

How far the forest department succeeds in bringing relief to the troubled villagers, remains to be seen. But a local non-profit organisation, the Wildlife Society of Odisha, has begun spreading awareness amongst the villagers; we saw large bright yellow wall writings—part of the ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ campaign—in Surat and Kaduamada villages.

                Biswajit Mohanty, secretary of the organisation, says: “Our purpose is to revive the peaceful existence of man and elephants in the region.” The cutting of forests must be stopped both for the safety of humans and elephants. “Our slogan reads ‘Save forests, save elephants, and let humans be safe’.”

                In a memorandum submitted to the elephant task force constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, Mohanty said the left canal of the Rengali irrigation project, which starts at Samal barrage on the Brahmani river, had disrupted traditional elephant migration corridors. He added that the state government had completed only one crossing path at Brahmania village, near Kamakhyanagar. Pointing to the futility of the corridor, he stressed that elephant-friendly corridors were the need of the hour.

                Mohanty has written to Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh for withdrawal of environment and forest clearance to the project. He has also asked the JICA to stop funding the state government until the situation has been resolved. (Infochange)

By Kalpita Dutta

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