Fights for space

The human-elephant conflict takes a violent turn in Orissa. Two persons injured in police firing

By Satyasundar Barik
Published: Wednesday 31 October 2001

-- while India celebrated wildlife week, conflicts marred a major elephant corridor in north Orissa. Two people sustained serious bullet injuries and another 85 were injured when police opened fire at an 8,000 strong crowd in tribal-dominated Keonjhar district on September 25, 2001. The crowd had gathered at the district headquarters to protest against elephant attacks in their areas and government apathy regarding the safety of the people. Some 25 police personnel were also injured in the clash that ensued the protest.

Villagers from five blocks gathered at Keonjhar to air their grievances to the district collector. However, the mob turned violent over delay on the part of administration and ransacked the office of the divisional forest officer. Protesters also attempted to torch a police vehicle. According to additional superintendent of police, Sarat Parida, the protesters lost their patience out of sheer anxiety to know the response of the district collector. The apathy of the government agencies is quite evident from the fact that despite early information of the protest, all top-ranking officials, including the superintendent of police, divisional forest officer and additional district magistrate were not present in the town.

Orissa is one of the most crucial states for Project Elephant, the government of India project aimed at improving the status of the Asian elephant. One of the major components of this programme, which started in 1992, is to minimise human conflicts with elephants so that elephants are not killed in retaliation. According to Bisht, one of the major problems in areas like Keonjhar, one of the critical elephant districts, is that it is an important mining district. With mining activities destroying the elephant habitat, there is a tremendous conflict of priorities between generating revenue and addressing the issue of elephant conservation with all its integral aspects like minimising conflicts.

As the incident created a furore in the state, people had begun to voice their concerns over growing incidents of human conflicts with elephants. This was not a sudden burst of public anger, but the result of five years of lackadaisical government approach in addressing the problem of depredation by elephants. According to Bhagirathi Mohanta, a Keonjhar-based lawyer, the gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that people came for this protest cutting across party lines as their lives and property were at stake.

Agrees additional district magistrate K L Das: "Their anger is but natural. The compensation in the Orissa Wildlife Act is very less as compared to other states. The government never expected that human-elephant conflicts would one day become so critical." While compensation for elephant related human deaths in Orissa is Rs 10,000, states like Karnataka pay up to Rs 1 lakh.

Says S S Bisht, director, Project Elephant in the Union ministry of environment and forests, New Delhi: "As far as the compensation for human deaths caused by elephants is concerned, we can give upto Rs 1 lakh. The centre can give the money. But it is upto the states to utilise it, which they don't." This is very clear from the fact that despite 60 elephant-related deaths that occurred in the past five years, only Rs 4.97 lakh have been sanctioned for compensation. However, the money actually paid as compensation is Rs 79,654. "When government is spending around Rs 2 crore for the safety of elephants, it is regrettable that human lives have lost their importance, thanks to government policies," says Jagat Panda, a resident of Keonjhar.

The property damage is also significant. It is estimated that elephants in Keonjhar have damaged about 860 houses this year. This is in addition to about 140 hectares of ready to harvest crop. As people in nine blocks of the district spend sleepless nights, most of the villages have become virtual battlegrounds. While people in sparsely populated villages live a nomadic life, many villagers have chosen to stay in tree houses during night.

This is also having a tremendous socio-economic impact on the lives of the affected villagers. According to Ramesh Sahu, former sarpanch of Naranpur village, Keonjhar, the people cannot get labour after spending the night struggling with the raiding pachyderms. This is even more relevant as more than 50 per cent of the population of the district lives below the poverty line. The only government assistance to the villages is the kerosene, petrol and crackers, which they use to drive out elephants. Karunakar Barik of Khulpa village warns that if the authorities continue to be apathetic, the villagers may resort to killing elephants. Meanwhile, as the district administration reportedly issued warrants against 500 protesters instead of tackling the problem at its roots, the forest department is making its usual "shortage of staff" excuse.

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