General Elections 2019

West Bengal’s tea-tribe voters have a jumbo problem

Workers in Majherdabri tea estate say no candidate is addressing their fear of elephant attacks

By Atonu Choudhurri
Last Updated: Tuesday 16 April 2019
Elephant attack
A tea estate worker narrates her ordeal. Photo: Atonu C A tea estate worker narrates her ordeal. Photo: Atonu C

The poll battle is on, so is the hustle and bustle of electioneering in Alipurduar and Cooch Behar, the twin districts of West Bengal that go to polls today (April 11, 2019). But just a few kilometres away, people living and working in the quaint area of Majherdabri tea estate are experiencing a completely different emotion — fear. Fear of being attacked by elephants.

Their worries are not getting roti, kapda and swasthya (food, dress and health). “Our only worry is security from elephant attack. We don't want anything else from the government. Sahabs (officials) have set up two booths nearby but these centres fall near the elephant corridor. Elephants roam in day hours,” Madhu Toppo, 45, a tea worker, says.

Toppo recalls the horror when he saw one of his relatives, Shanta, 68, die. “The wild elephant came and attacked my aunt, who couldn’t see from one of her eyes and so could not notice the elephant’s movement. The animal first threw her and them trampled upon her. I saw her mangled body. I did not even dare to run as it would have chased me had I attempted to flee," Toppo says.

His neighbour Ramkumar Lakra, 32, also had a near death experience in his childhood. Lakra says he saw a big elephant entering his house after breaking the bamboo barricade. It barged into the room of his grandmother, who was away.

“Seeing the animal enter after breaking the bamboo-made door, I first froze in fear. Then I hid under the bed and covered myself in a heavy blanket. I remained inside the room for one hour and ransacked everything that came its way while I hid and continued to watch it in horror," Lakra says.

A member of Asur tribe bought a light to protect himself from elephants. Photo: Atonu Choudhary

Almost every tea worker has a horror elephant attack story to tell. Joydeb Munda, another local, laments none of the candidates are focused on their problem. “All India Trinamool Congress’ Dasarath Tirkey and Bharatiya Janata Party’s John Barla are too busy wooing voters in bigger estates, but care a little about us,” Munda says.

He says at least 10-12 people are killed by elephants each year but nobody pays any attention to the problem.

Animal activist Sukumar Debnath says human settlement along the forest and cattle grazing have forced elephants to move away from their habitat, which once spread across Buxa Tiger Reserve, which borders the forests of Bhutan and Assam’s Manas Tiger Reserve.

He says herds of elephants that migrate during this season to raid crops after nightfall pose death threat to villagers living in the periphery. NS Murali, field director of the tiger reserve, admits the fact but says lack of manpower and infrastructure are reasons behind officials being unable to tackle the problem.

He adds, “Due to depletion of natural food habitat in the forests, elephant herds have extended their habitat to cropland and changed their food habits. The animals now tend to survive on agricultural crops like paddy and fruit crops like cabbage, cauliflower, potato, brinjal and banana. That’s why they often enter human habitats and attack them.”

This house was abandoned after it was damaged in an elephant attack. Photo: Atonu Choudhary

Toppo says tea workers have formed a village task force that they call ‘hullah party’.

The members comprising mainly youths carry fire in hands, shout and make loud sounds to keep elephants at bay. But there is no such initiative from the forest department.

A hullah is a 3-4 metre pole of iron or sal wood. Its tip is wrapped with cloth and soaked in kerosene or diesel. The leader of the group ignites the tip of the hullah and chases the herd till they are driven away from the crop fields. Along with the hullah, they also use firecrackers and fireballs.

In an attempt to tackle man-elephant conflicts in the state and to eliminate fear among people about tuskers, West Bengal forest minister Binoy Krishna Barman says an elephant museum within the Buxa Tiger Reserve area would come up soon. He believes the first such museum in the country would help people remain alert to avoid any conflict with elephants.

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Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • It is surprising that the tea workers in North Bengal have starting using 'Hullas' to chase away elephants. Until now, 'Hulla Parties' used to function mainly in the districts of South Bengal and occasionally in the adjoining areas of Odisha and Jharkhand. In the hands of inexperienced or desperate users, hullas can pose threats for the safety of the elephants and the people. The matter was raised before the Supreme Court last year and the West Bengal Forest Department (WBFD) had to file an undertaking for ensuring the safe use of hullas. There are better alternatives for ensuring the safety of the tea workers against elephants. Electrification of labour lines and restrictions on storage of country liquor (Haria) inside the labour huts may greatly reduce the probability of intrusion by elephants. Slight changes in the design of labour quarters (For example, houses constructed on pillars or stilts) can make them elephant-proof. I understand that the WBFD has introduced a system of alerting villagers and tea workers in North Bengal through text messages about the presence of elephants in their vicinity. Inexpensive electronic devices are now available which can detect presence of elephants near the labour colonies and alert the inhabitants. SS Bist, Ex-PCCF & HoFF (West Bengal).

    Posted by: S.S. Bist | 3 days ago | Reply
  • Subsequent to posting my comments on Mr Atonu Choudhurri's story yesterday (13th April), I referred his story to the concerned forest officers of West Bengal. I gathered that the Field Director of Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) is Mr. Subhankar Sengupta and not Mr. NS Murali who has been quoted by the author. The author has apparently not cross-checked his facts with Mr. Sengupta who found many holes in the story. For example, no hullah-parties have been working in the jurisdiction of BTR. Obviously, this article does no justice to the high standards expected from the Down to Earth. SS Bist, ex-PCCF & HoFF (West Bengal).

    Posted by: S.S. Bist | 3 days ago | Reply
  • Dear Sir, While I appreciate the efforts taken by the author, I strongly protest that I have not talked to any of your correspondents , forget about talking this author. Please do not use my name to quote the mind of the author. Such instances only attract criticism not only to your esteemed magazine but also affects my credibility among fellow readers. Suitably publish a corrigendum and appropriately advise your author.

    Posted by: NS Murali | 3 days ago | Reply
  • Mr Murali/concerned official, here's my reply to address your objection to my write-up. I am not a regular employee/correspondent of Down To Earth and I had travelled to the area in connection with exploring story on the life in a tea garden. During my conversation with tea workers, I came to know that their prime concern is elephant attack which is giving them sleepiness nights. The report of the topic is based on their versions and not of course borne out of my imagination. But I have no hesitation to say that this time I could not talk to you(Mr Murali) but used your quote taken quite sometime ago. I own up my mistake and regret that. The mention about hullah party is,however, based on information provided to me by my source. While it's natural for you to voice concern regarding my write-up you have and I likewise I've also tried my best to reply your queries without of course having no intention to give you a bad name. My concern was about the safety of those people like you all who are working on the ground. Thanks & regards, Atonu

    Posted by: Atonu C | 2 days ago | Reply