Many COVID-19 returnees have cultivated paddy this year during the monsoon due to the lack of work and livelihood opportunities
People in north Bengal are on tenterhooks this November as the paddy harvesting season starts. They have reason enough to be so. The region is known for human-elephant conflicts. Add to this, more paddy has been planted this year due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Lakshman Oraon sounds anxious. He is a small-scale paddy farmer from the Patibari division of Jalpaiguri district in the Dooars region of north Bengal.
Oraon said this year, COVID-19 returnees had brought more area under paddy cultivation than usual. “Migrants have not left any space and covered every inch of the ground with paddy. Last year the situation was not like this,” he said.
Paddy farmer Om Narayan from Bagrakote gram panchayat of Jalpaiguri corroborated Oraon’s statement.
He said in his area, 30 per cent of people used to cultivate paddy usually. But this time, it had gone up to 100 per cent due to the lack of jobs during COVID-19. Many workers came back from Kerala and Goa and grew paddy after a gap of seven-eight years.
Nitai Biswas, from the West Bengal forest department, is posted in the Malbazar (a city in Jalpaiguri) wildlife squad. He said there had been an increase in the area under paddy by up to 50 per cent this year. Naturally, the department was expecting conflict cases to rise during the harvest season starting November onwards.
His colleague Rajkumar Sah, the beat officer of Malbazar, said paddy had been sown in riverine areas as well as open spaces adjacent to forests and tea gardens. “We are apprehending electrocution of elephants in paddy fields. To prevent such occurrences, we are conducting community awareness programmes.”
Elephant raids in crop fields are not a new thing in north Bengal, which is interspersed with patchy forests, tea gardens, human habitations and paddy fields.
According to a study published by Souraditya Chakraborty, north Bengal experiences one of the highest levels of human-elephant conflict in Asia.
Another study published in July 2020 in the journal PeerJ, said: “The north Bengal region situated at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas is well known for the severity of human-wildlife conflicts with nearly 500 fatal attacks on humans by elephants in the last 15 years.” In fatal cases, the compensation paid to victims’ families is Rs 400,000.
Rising to the challenge
“They have eaten a portion of my crop grown on 1.5 hectares,” Oraon told this reporter.
To guard their crops, farmers have set up watch towers made with bamboo poles and plastic sheets to watch out for elephants. A group of farmers have contributed Rs 500 each for this purpose. Apart from this, they have also kept crackers and torches.
Some non-profit organisations have also started taking steps to minimise damage that elephant raids could cause.
Anindita Das from Spoar (Society for Protecting Ophiofauna and Animal Rights), a non-profit based in Jalpaiguri, said annually, 35-40 people died due to elephant attacks in North Bengal.
This time, it might go up to 60-70. Besides inclusion of more areas under paddy, the brewing of hadia (rice beer) might also increase elephant raids as the government had distributed a lot of rice to migrants during the COVID-19 lockdown. The PeerJ study also talked about elephant raids in villages where rice beer production was prevalent, often resulting in fatalities.
Data shared from Sah’s office said there had been four human deaths caused by elephants from April 2019 to March 2020. From April 2020 till September, there had been two deaths already.
“To tackle the situation, quick response teams have been formed consisting of five to eight members. They try to tackle direct confrontation of farmers with elephants,” Das added.
According to Prakash Chettry, a resident of the Naxalbari area in Darjeeling, about 115 kilometres (km) from Jalpaiguri, the main problem was that forests in north Bengal were surrounded by paddy fields. So, animals often entered farmlands in search of forage.
Diya Banerjee, who works as a consultant for World Wide Fund for Nature-India, said a group of 15 local volunteers helped in driving away elephants, in close coordination with the forest department.
“Crop raids start around September-October onwards. That is why the team was formed to chase away the animals from cultivation areas. At the end of the day, we have to coexist.”
Securing elephant corridors
According to a report by non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) titled Right of Passage, about 34 per cent of the elephant range in North Bengal was under forest cover, 22 per cent under tea gardens, 17 per cent under agriculture and 27 per cent under human habitation and development activities.
North Bengal has 13 elephant corridors that are narrow strips of land running from anything between 5 km and 50 km and connecting two habitats. According to Sourav Mandal who works with Spoar, paddy cultivated around tea gardens created obstructions for elephants as major elephant movement occured through tea estates.
Upasana Ganguly, who is leading the Elephant Corridor Project at WTI, said the non-profit was working with a number of local organisations like Spoar as well as individuals to secure corridors.
“We are trying to secure corridors to ensure the right of passage for elephants. Tea gardens are also used as passages by the animals. Though legal protection is ideal, no such law exists at present. Another thing is that most corridors lie outside protected areas,” she added.
Of these 13 corridors, one is an international corridor between Nepal and India bordering Nepal’s Jhapa district, that is mostly fertile agricultural land, said Avijan Saha, a photojournalist based in north Bengal.
To prevent elephants from India from crossing over to its side, Nepal had erected an 18-km long energised solar fence in 2016. As a result of this obstruction, conflict was rising on the Indian side in areas like Naxalbari, Panighatta and Kharibari in Darjeeling district where there was a lot of paddy cultivation.
Rudra Mahaptra from WTI said it was not uncommon for elephants to take different paths due to the presence of highways, railway lines and other developmental activities.
Sometimes, corridors used earlier might not be functional anymore. Still, monitoring helped to assess the exact situation and what needed to be done for restoration in the future.
Ankur Sarkar of Spoar said as part of monitoring, a corridor was divided into grids and one such grid (5-10 square metres) was surveyed once in four months by foot.
Sarkar’s colleague Siladitya Acharjee has been monitoring a corridor called Nimati-Chilapata measuring 3-4.5 km for the second consecutive year. Solar lights have been installed in some places along the corridor through which elephants pass from September to February, to reduce electrocution deaths.
From 88 in 2005, the number of functional corridors has gone up to 101 in India. The idea is that even if there is a multiple land use system, the animals should keep on moving.
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