Residents of a block in the eastern fringe of Chhattisgarh held a unique gram sabha on Thursday — to register a complaint against ever increasing human-elephant conflict in the area.
More than 100 people from 20 villages of Dharamjaigarh Block of Raigarh district, unanimously condemned the growing elephant migration in the area from adjacent States and held the forest officials responsible for the menace.
They demanded a “corridor” for elephants across the forests of eastern and central Indian uplands for their own safety. At least 56 farmers and 21 elephants were killed in Raigarh district and adjoining areas in last few years, according to an RTI reply filed by the villagers.
Amid a downpour, villagers assembled in the Club Ground in the centre of Dharamjaigarh town.
The agenda of the discussion “…how to deal with scores of wild elephants rampaging the area for years was decided weeks back,” said local journalist Sajal Kumar Madhu.
Several villagers told The Hindu on the phone that at least “two to three dozen elephants” were on the rampage in 25 odd villages and Forest officials were “completely inactive.” “This is potentially a dangerous situation. Imagine two dozen elephants are on the rampage and are not even been discouraged by traditional deterrents like light or drums,” said Ganesh Mandal, a grocer of Meder Marh. His village was ransacked twice in the last one month. Elephants were randomly moving from one village to the other and when they were chased out of one hamlet, they “hurriedly” entered the next one, causing large scale damage, said Mr. Mandal.
In the last fortnight, a herd destroyed several sets of mud thatched huts, few concrete houses and tribal lodgings. “They also chased the daughter of my neighbour and she escaped narrowly,” said Mr Mandal. Grains worth crores of rupees have also been damaged.
However, the villagers did not blame the animal for the conflict; the placards displayed during Thursday’s rally pledged to save the farmers along with the elephant. Rather the Forest Department and its officials faced the villagers’ wrath for declaring the area an “elephant-free zone.”
“To ensure windfall profit for the [coal] mining companies, the local forest circle declared it [Dharamjaigarh] an elephant-free zone, which was false…the proposed coal mines will harm both the elephant and the rest [farmers] and so we oppose the mines,” the villagers said in a statement.
However, Divisional Forest Officer C.L. Agrawal said that in the Dharamjaigarh block, coal mining was yet to start.
Acknowledging that human-elephant violence was taking a “serious proportion,” he blamed people for the recent crisis. “Villagers should not disturb elephants. We told them that…but to no avail,” he said. He also refused to accept the casualty figures. “It is exaggerated,” he added.
Opposition to power project
“The Forest Department has been saying that elephants are moving in Dharamjaigarh only seasonally. This is wrong,” said Mr. Dhirendra Singh Maliya, eminent social activist. He noted that for the last 15 years, about 80-90 elephants were moving in and around Dharamjaigarh.
“Due to habitational disturbance, elephants are migrating from Jharkhand and Orissa and the problem will intensify as and when coal mining starts in Dharamjaigarh,” said Mr. Maliya.
In all, the 92 million tonne reserve of Durgapur/Saria coal block in Dharamjaigarh was allotted to DB Power for a power plant in Janjgir-Champa, which has been partly constructed. The residents of Dharamjaigarh have been routinely opposing the 1200 MW power project over last few years.
Last February, the villagers rejected all mining proposals in the area through a public hearing. Later, they moved the court “pleading that the public hearing be respected and DB Power stopped from mining,” said Mr. Madhu, who himself is a petitioner. “Besides pollution, a more pressing threat of elephants storming colonies is uniting the locals against the DB power project. The company’s media arm owns the widely circulated Hindi daily, Dainik Bhaskar, a Gujarati and a Marathi newspaper, and is a part franchisee of English language newspaper Daily News and Analysis (DNA).
Interestingly, the Chhattisgarh High Court has postponed the final hearing on Dharamjaigarh — sixth time in the last six months — on Thursday, denying DB Power the right to mine the blocks.
“We are also expecting a speedy hearing and verdict in the case; we will abide by the court’s decision,” said the spokesperson of the company, Vaibhav Alshi.