Parbati Barua's predicament: What kills an elephant?

On march 6, 2003 all of us came to know what Parbati Barua had done. It made sensational news: she had -- sin of sins -- killed an elephant. As with any news flash, the context was made invisible. In September last year, 40 elephants strayed into Chattisgarh from Orissa and Jharkhand. Now they had to be handled. The state government earmarked Rs 36 lakh to catch 4 elephants. Parbati Barua was given that task (the media hailed her; she was "elephant queen"). By the time she managed to catch one, 30 people were killed and crops worth thousands of rupees were destroyed. Parbati Barua stands at the intersection of a larger predicament

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- on march 6, 2003 all of us came to know what Parbati Barua had done. It made sensational news: she had -- sin of sins -- killed an elephant. As with any news flash, the context was made invisible. In September last year, 40 elephants strayed into Chattisgarh from Orissa and Jharkhand. Now they had to be handled. The state government earmarked Rs 36 lakh to catch 4 elephants. Parbati Barua was given that task (the media hailed her; she was "elephant queen"). By the time she managed to catch one, 30 people were killed and crops worth thousands of rupees were destroyed.

Parbati Barua stands at the intersection of a larger predicament. Ask: what is it that does an elephant in? Here, we deal with still unresolved answers. Those tossed or trampled to death are, of course, victims. More difficult to understand is that the elephant is also an unwitting victim. The elephant merely walks through what its memory tells is forest. It no longer is. The forest that was has become cultivation, or a village. The elephant doesn't know -- cannot know -- mindless forest degradation in the name of development. We can always sit and argue about where the fault lies. Meanwhile, elephant and human being stand at the forest fringe, trumpeting and panting in battle fatigue.

How to save both elephant and people? One way is to remove the elephant from the conflict zone. How? Use the traditional system, or chemically immobilise and so capture it In the end, there will be a captured elephant. Now what? Where would this elephant be removed to? Another patch of degrading forest? Near another village? Once captured, the elephant can be domesticated. Put to some use. What use? Earlier elephants logged timber; this is now a banned option. Domestic elephants and their owners today are jobless, or used for illegal felling. Could they be traded? No; that's banned, too. Perhaps laws and new capacities of use could be created, then. But that's a bureaucratic procedure, not a real solution at all.

There is a third option: kill it. Still, grey areas exist. In the field a Parbati Barua -- a forest guard on the beat -- will take a chance. They will remove the one s/he thinks could kill or destroy paddy. They might make a mistake. But no one could blame them for expounding -- in tomes or seminars -- on the tragedy of a doomed, drooly-eyed megavertebrate inevitably disappearing off the face of the earth. They are on the grind, in the forest. They live out the conservation science India needs, today. Why condemn them?

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