Raipur: Mohitram Yadav, resident of Ongna village in Dharmajaigarh block of Raigarh district, Chhattisgarh, was attacked by an elephant at 3 am Wednesday while he was out answering nature’s call.
After being alerted, the forest officials reached the spot, gave the family an instant relief of Rs 25,000, and told them the rest of the amount would be given post-completion of necessary formalities.
This is not the first case of elephant attack in the lush green forests of northern Chhattisgarh. Including Mohitram, at least eight people have succumbed to Jumbo-attacks, and two elephants have lost their lives due to electrocution in the Dharmajaigarh forest area alone this year.
On August 3, Sifir Kujur, 55, was attacked and killed by a rogue Jumbo in Balpeda village in the Dharamjaigarh forest area. These human-Elephant encounters are not isolated cases. It is only a matter of time for the people living in thick forested northern Chhattisgarh until they face an elephant in the open.
Over the years, with forests being cut down, increasing mining activities and other environmental lacunas have disturbed elephant habitats, forcing them to enter the human habitat.
According to the government data, in the last three years, as many as 45 elephants and 204 humans lost their lives. At the same time, over 65,000 cases of crop destruction, 5,047 cases of house destruction, and 3,151 cases of destruction of other properties have been recognised and compensated for by the state government. However, the state government, in many instances, while giving clearance for coal mining, has said that "elephants rarely come to these places".
Elephant Reserve Hangs in the Air
In 2018, when the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government rose to power in Chhattisgarh, it quickly decided to stop the allocation of coal mines and declared that it would construct the Lemru Elephant Project covering 3827 sq km to safeguard the habitat of Pachyderms.
However, the promises bore no fruit on the ground. The state government in 2019 went back on its words by bringing a motion to reduce the area of the Lemru Elephant Project first from 3827 sq km to 1995.48 sq km and further reducing the area to a mere 450 sq km. However, facing severe opposition, the government had to take back its decision.
Since then, Lemru Elephant Project, which saw the light of the day in 2005 during the BJP rule, has been pending. Under this project, a 450 sq km area comprising parts of the Badalkhol-Semarsot reserve, Tamor-Pingla reserve, and forests of Hasdeo Aranya and Dharamjaigarh were mentioned in a proposal sent to the central government for the formation of Lemru Elephant Reserve. The project got the central's nod in 2007.
While the then state government notified the areas of Badalkhol-Semarsot reserve and Tamor-Pingla reserve, Hasdeo and Dharamjaigarh were held back from the notification owing to the coal mining potential. The project has been in the back burner ever since.
Congress Recoiling on Its Promises
State forest minister Mohammad Akbar and present CM Bhupesh Baghel were quite active during their days of opposition and rallied heavily, talking about the interests of indigenous people and wildlife. After Congress gained a majority in the 2018 elections, several rounds of letter exchange happened with the Centre. As a result, the Centre removed the coal blocks falling in the vicinity of the Lemru Project from the auction in September 2020. However, the same government has permitted to auction off 18 coal mines in Northern Chhattisgarh.
It has become common for people of northern Chhattisgarh to live in fear for their lives, homes, and crops. As for the elephants, they have no other option but to encroach as their original habitat has been ransacked by mining and other projects.
Environmentalists working in Northern Chhattisgarh seem discontent with the dual-nature politics of the Bhupesh Baghel government.
Talking to NewsClick, Alok Shukla, convener of Chhattisgarh Bachao Aandolan, said, "The state government has deliberately kept the areas of coal mines out of the Lemru Elephant Project. This move clearly shows the government's interest in coal mines rather than safeguarding the elephants and curbing human-elephant conflict. If the coal mines would become active in or around the area of the Lemru Project the purpose of creating an elephant reserve would become pointless."
Bipasha Paul, a member of 'Janabhivykti,' an organisation working towards Tribal and Forest Rights, said, "The Forest Minister himself wrote to Coal ministry in July 2020 opposing the commercial mining in Hasdeo, subject to the ecological importance of Hasdeo and creation of the Lemru reserve."
Despite all this, the state government chose corporate benefits associated with coal mining over all the concerns they had paid heed to earlier. Suppose the government finally decides to create a reserve in 1995 sq. km. In that case, it will not serve the purpose because a habitat surrounded by coal mining that will destroy the existing migratory route will ultimately lead to conflict and cause more damage.
Thus, the elephant reserve declaration and coal mining operation are two contradictory processes that have become a parallel process, with no resolution in sight.
Member of State Wildlife Board, Meetu Gupta, voicing concerns over the dilly-dallying attitude of the government on Lemru Project said, "The least the government could do is notify the already sanctioned area of 1995.48 sq km for the Elephant Reserve. It has been approved by the Cabinet and should get notified as soon as possible."
Human-elephant conflict has caused distress on both sides and has been profitable only for the corporates, say activists and locals.
A while back, the Forest Department's decision to reduce the size of the Lemru Elephant Project by quoting objections from the local MLAs were rebutted by the state Health Minister TS Singhde, MLA from Ambikapur, northern Chhattisgarh. In his letter, Singhdeo said, "It has come to my attention that a letter on my behalf seems to have been portraying that taking into the consideration the public's sentiments, I have given consent to reduce the size of the Lemru Elephant Project to 450 sq km. However, this is totally untrue and misleading."
He went on to say that he had been advocating the restoration of the 'No Go Zone' as it was under the UPA government.
Though the Congress government in the latest development has emphasised allocating 1995.48 sq km for Lemru Elephant Project, much is needed to ensure safer lands for both humans and elephants in Chhattisgarh.