Can we expect farmers to save wild animals, when we have no policy to protect them and their families, asks S. KANNAIYAN.

One evening in December, my neighbour informed me that a farmer had been trampled to death by elephants in Madhahally, a short distance from my own Thalavady. On the edge of Sathyamangalam Reserve Forest, a home for tigers, elephants, wild boars, gaurs and deer, it is not uncommon for wild animals to stray into adjoining villages. Typically, farmers keep a look-out for wild animals and warn others. However, 25-year-old Kumar was not so lucky. He was trampled to death by some elephants even as he stepped out of his thatched house. On the way to his maize field to guard it from wild animals, he did not notice in the darkness some elephants standing just outside and did not have even a moment to alert the others or save himself.

Thousands of people gathered in Madhahally and I was there as well. People were very upset and angry over the death of the young lad, and stood about debating how to prevent such incidents, decrying forest department officials who were lax in helping the farmers to drive back the wild elephants which strayed out of the Reserve Forest. A group of farmers were angry that no forest official had come to the spot, and refused to allow the police to take Kumar's body. “It is the responsibility of the forest officials to protect us from wild animals,” said a farmer. “Who will take care of his young wife and children?” wailed an elderly woman. I was finally able to convince the group to allow the police to take the body to Primary Health Centre for post-mortem. Finally, a young forest official, Ashok, came to Madhahally and in my presence gave a cheque of Rs. 25,000 as accident relief to Kumar's 23-year-old wife, Maheswari. He confirmed that the Forest Department gave up to Rs. 1,50,000 as compensation to the family of a victim killed by a wild animal.

Bureaucratic hurdles

I visited Maheswari on January 21, just after Pongal, the annual harvest festival. Talking to her, I learnt that she had yet not received the balance compensation. Of the Rs. 25,000 she got, she gave Rs. 10,000 to her maternal uncle to conduct the formalities and paper work. Her uncle had to go to the primary health centre, police station, meet revenue department officials to get the death certificate and post-mortem certificate. She still required the “legal heir” certificate without which she could not make an application for the remaining compensation due from the Forest department.

Talking to Maheswari, I understood that Kumar had recently bought plough-bullocks by getting loan from a self-help group of which he was a member. She showed me her bank pass-book and explained, “From the Rs. 25,000, I repaid this SHG loan of Rs. 7,000 and another Rs. 7,000 to my neighbour. My husband had borrowed the amount as a short-term loan for the maize crop. The rest I gave to my uncle for the formalities. The maize crop has been destroyed by the straying animals as I was in no shape to save it.”

Kumar's pass-book showed a loan balance of Rs. 32,200, and apart from this, Maheswari said they had borrowed Rs. 11,000 by mortgaging her jewellery at the local Primary Agricultural Cooperative Credit Society. Together with interest it amounted to nearly Rs. 50,000. She said that Kumar leased two acres of rain-fed land from their neighbour and cultivated maize. But, the crop too had mostly been destroyed by the straying wild boars and elephants after Kumar's death.

Feeling helpless

I felt helpless as I talked to Maheswari. With tears she could not control, holding her infant child in her arms, she said, “the elephants took the life of my dear husband, leaving me landless and homeless. I speak Kannada and know only a smattering of Tamil. I do not know the government offices. Who will speak for me? Who will help me to build my small children's future?” No forest official or elected representative came to support Maheswari. She stands beside her thatched hut, with no idea how she will support herself.

As I say good bye, Maheswari pleads with me, “Anna, please come again. Will you ask the forest department to give me the remaining money so I can repay the loans?” Who will speak for the dead farmer's wife, Maheswari? As I drove back to my village, I could not help wondering how the young farmer's widow, who had her whole life ahead, would manage. Maheswari is just 23, has two little children, and like any other village girl, has no education or training. The compensation of Rs. 1,50, 000 would not go very far, I thought to myself. Maheswari has no clue when she will get the legal heir certificate and how much money still she needs to complete the formalities….

Who is responsible for protecting farmers and their crops? Does the meagre compensation divest the government from its larger responsibility to the farming community? Can we expect farmers to save wild animals, when we have no policy to protect them and their families?

With no one to help farmers to protect themselves and their crops from wild animals, farmers are virtually at the mercy of a parasitic bureaucracy and indifferent politicians…. Can throwing small money at people help to rebuild their lives?

The writer is with the South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements.


Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012