Pachyderm Panic In Assam
Rampant habitat destruction has forced Assam’s elephants into close contact with humans. It is now all-out war between hungry elephants and angry tea estate workers. And still the forest department, the tea authorities and the district administration keep passing the buck
There was a time when elephants were considered fun. Children would run after them and the elderly offered prayers to ‘Ganesh Baba’ at the sight of the pachyderm. Pallab Lochan Das, the young general secretary of the All-Assam Tea Tribe Students Association (AATTSA) has memories of elephants visiting his peaceful Pabhoi tea estate near Biswanath Chariali, in Assam’s Sonitpur district. “We used to feed them bananas and other fruits. We used to even enjoy short rides on them. It was an exciting moment for us,” he says.
As he grew up, he began to witness the conflict between these peace-loving animals and human beings. By the time he was in high school in the early-1990s, Das and his friends were active participants in bursting crackers and carrying lighted lamps across the tea estate to scare away rampaging elephants.
Gradually, the destruction caused by the animals left him pained and angry. Not at the elephants but at the authorities for turning a blind eye to the cause—the rampant depletion of forest cover that had destroyed the elephants’ traditional habitat and food sources and had forced them to seek food and water inside tea estates.
Over the years, the conflict between man and elephant has intensified; it has now become a virtual war between hungry elephants and angry tea estate workers. Estates located on the fringe of the forests, on the Assam-Arunachal border on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, are the main targets of herds of elephants that have lost their natural habitat to deforestation. The animals prefer to stay inside the tea estates during the day because of the shade; at night they invade the paddy fields in neighbouring villages.
In earlier days, the elephants
would move from Arunachal Pradesh to the nearest waterbody—usually the Brahmaputra. Today, their movement is restricted with man-made encroachments on their habitat and corridors, in the form of brick kilns, tea estates, even residential dwellings. This has resulted in animals going on the rampage in the adjoining tea estates and villages.
Das expresses anguish at the heartrending cries of Sulung Munda, mother of three children who were crushed to death by a herd of wild elephants in the Monabarie tea estate in November 2008. At first the elephants destroyed the house and killed two children who were sleeping; they then returned and killed her third child. The parents, Nakul and Sulung, managed to flee with their youngest son. Both of them were injured.
“I am pained by her plight. She seemed so helpless and the authorities seemed equally helpless. She has been crying inconsolably,” Das says. Unlike his own carefree childhood in the tea gardens, parents now are reluctant to allow their children to go out and play. Who knows? They could be crushed to death by a herd of wild pachyderms…
Das and his associates from AATTSA, who have been running from the district administration’s office to the forest department asking for relief for victims of marauding herds of elephants in the tea estates of Assam, decided that enough was enough. The powerful students’ body has now issued a diktat to the concerned authorities: implement an effective control mechanism or face a lock-up at the tea estates. He says: “Five people were killed in the past one month, including three children. We want to ask the authorities why these peace-loving animals have turned into destroyers within a span of a few years.”
Das narrates several incidents that took place in November 2008.
On November 23, a herd of marauding elephants visited Dibrudolong tea estate in Dhekiajuli, in Assam’s Sonitpur district, at around 1:30 am. Bablu Nayak, 38, a tea worker who was sleeping in his thatched house, was trampled to death. The elephants destroyed 10 labour quarters and five houses. In Brahmajan tea estate, in Gohpur in the same district, a herd of elephants entered the estate during the day and scared the workers. Till date, the forest department has not given any of these people compensation or a rehabilitation package.
Das says: “The rampant deforestation on the north bank of the Brahmaputra has made the tea estates vulnerable to herds of wild elephants. The forest department comes and inspects the area and does not even pay the prescribed compensation. We have repeatedly asked the forest department to give us kerosene to light fires, and crackers to scare away the elephants.”
The association has demanded compensation to rebuild houses and put up electric fencing. “If our appeals are not heard we will resort to agitations and declare a lock-up of gardens in the area,” he says.
There are around 800 tea plantations in Assam, with the state accounting for over 55 per cent of India’s annual tea production of about 900 million kg. Around 107 big estates exist in the north bank region of the Brahmaputra. They include the four tea-growing districts of Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Sonitpur and Darrang. Sonitpur district, the worst affected of them, has 74 big gardens and several small ones. Each garden supports around 500 permanent workers and their families, besides other employees.
According to WWF-India figures, between 1996 and 2009 there have been 204 human deaths and 131 elephant deaths in Sonitpur district alone. Damage to houses and property varies from tea garden to tea garden, but on average, it amounts to Rs one lakh. Often, deaths and injuries go unreported because of lack of awareness.
Wildlife activists blame the destruction of forests and traps that have led to the death of stray elephants. Anupam Sarmah, landscape coordinator of the North Bank Landscape Conservation Programme, WWF-India, says: “Elephant cubs often fall into trenches. Sometimes, unscrupulous elements deliberately spray pesticides in waterbodies where the elephants come to drink water. This kills many
elephants. Sometimes live wires are placed for deliberate electrocution. But if you compare these numbers, they are not high. Forest loss is the root of the conflict. Other reasons like change in food habits etc are secondary causes.”
For instance, an elephant was electrocuted on Bhutiachang tea estate in Udalguri district, in November 2009. The female pachyderm died when it came into contact with a high-tension transmission line in Section-1 of the tea garden. Elephants often run into cables that are connected to high-tension power lines running above, which farmers lie in their paddy fields to keep the elephants away.
Sarmah explains that elephants stray into tea gardens simply because they have nowhere else to go. “Many people die, but elephants die too. What we need is efficient tackling of the problem and an immediate compensation mechanism. In districts like Udalguri, relatives of the victim do not get compensation due to a continuing ‘resource crunch’.”
Compensation by the forest department includes an ex-gratia of Rs 40,000 for a person who has died; Rs 20,000 for permanent disability; Rs 1,000-2,000 for damage to a house; Rs 2,000 for damage to crops.
Meanwhile, forest officials continue to highlight efforts made to curb the menace. Chandan Bora, DFO, Sonitpur, explains the anti-depredation drives with the help of kunkis (trained elephants). He says: “The tea estate owners must also take this up as a social responsibility. They can provide items like searchlights, crackers and kerosene to light fires to scare away the elephants.”
In a bid to promote the co-existence of man and elephant, the government organises one of India’s largest elephant festivals, in Kaziranga National Park. Held jointly by the forest and tourism departments, this annual event aims at increasing eco-tourism and raising awareness about the elephant’s struggle with man for limited resources. The idea is to find ways to resolve the conflict.
Interestingly, a major attraction for the elephants is country liquor that’s prepared on the fringes of the tea gardens. The forest department in Udalguri district has urged the district administration to carry out an eviction drive in the liquor dens to keep the elephants away.
Meanwhile the tea authorities express their helplessness as, under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, they have no powers to deal with the elephants. “The government seems to be more favourable to the elephants. Elephants have ravaged hearth and home and razed them to the ground. We have organised awareness workshops and adopted several strategies like electric fencing, but nothing seems to work,” says Robin Barthakur, Additional Chairman, Bharatiya Chah Parishad.
And so the blame game carries on and the authorities keep passing the buck. The tea garden authorities blame the forest department; the forest department blames the politicians and district administration. And the man-elephant conflict in Assam’s tea estates threatens to become uglier with each passing day. (Infochange)
By Teresa Rehman