Despite her frail condition, there was no stopping Terasia Bai from vigorously collecting dry wood from the forest. She needed to light a fire around her mud house as a tusker had raided it on Friday last. It has been running amok for a week. Terasia knew it was the beginning of another rainy night in the sparsely-populated Katami village inside the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve (ATR), about 170 km north of Raipur in Chhattisgarh. She needed to stay prepared.
“Look what it has done,” the old lady said as she entered the room from the courtyard. The tusker had pulled down one of the mud walls. “After ruining the wall, it devoured half the grain and threw the rest.”
The tusker bypassed the ATR-Amarkantak road that runs through the reserve forest to enter the denser inner ring, about 650 square km in size. It ruined at least two dozen mud houses partially in Dabripara, Katami, Chhaparwa, Bamhni, Atharia and Surhi villages deep inside the forest and damaged crops in several paddy fields, villagers claimed.
Residents of two other villages at the entrance of ATR from the Bilaspur side said they saw three more elephants. But they did not enter the core zone. Rumour of more elephant herds arriving after the monsoon is keeping the villagers awake all night. Solar-powered lights are kept handy and every house has stocked up on dry wood to scare away any attacking elephant by fire.
Aghnu (41), a farmer who was diagnosed with malaria a day before by the local quack, had his house razed to the ground by the tusker. “I was sleeping in the house when it came. I ran towards the river with my family. The demon destroyed all the crops and virtually destroyed the entire three-room house,” he said, sitting in the open space where his dwelling was built a few months back.
The villagers’ woes underline a tragic sub-plot of the unfolding coal-allotment controversy with wildlife activists and even State Ministers and officials blaming large-scale mining for pushing elephants onto ‘non-active paths.’
Interestingly, there are records of elephant habitation in Achanakmar some six decades ago. However, at that time the animals were ‘inhabitants’, and now they are ‘outsiders’ — hailing from the Katghora forest division in Korba district. “It seems coal mining in Korba has pushed the elephants to the ATR,” said a wildlife activist, who works closely with the State government.
The Katghora forest was disturbed because of large-scale mining in the Chotia block of Korba district — east of Bilaspur — by Prakash Industries. Recently-published news reports suggest the business group is close to the Bharatiya Janata Party at the State and Central level.
A CBI inquiry was initiated against Prakash Industries in 2010 for allegedly diverting coal from Chotia to sell it on the market for a huge profit instead of using it for their sponge iron plant. Last week, the CBI started a fresh probe against the company for alleged irregularities in coal blocks allocation prior to 2004. Elsewhere in Korba, nearly 20 more coal blocks are awaiting approval.
Interestingly, while the Chhattisgarh government is mired in several controversies over alleged unfair allotment of mining leases, neither the government nor civil administration hesitates to say that mining in Korba could be ‘one of the reasons’ for the recent migration of elephants.
“It is happening in the entire patch called the elephant corridor. The elephants are moving out of the corridor to villages. Mostly, they are coming from Surguja in the extreme north [of Chhattisgarh] and mining is one of the reasons. However, mining is not the only reason. They raid the villages for paddy and mohua as well,” Forest Minister Vikram Usendi told The Hindu .
Bilaspur Divisional Forest Officer Hemant Pande said mining in the Chotia coal block was making it difficult for elephants to stay in the Katghora forest division.
“Probably these elephants came from Jharkhand to Ambikapur in north Chhattisgarh to Katghora forest and due to mining in the Chotia block they came to ATR. But they may have followed the other route also, which could be Dharamjaigarh in the east to Raigarh to Korba to ATR,” said Mr Pande.
Mr. Pande rejected villagers’ claim that two dozen houses were damaged by the tusker. He said only eight houses were partially damaged. Forest officials found that crops of 22 individuals have been spoiled so far. “The problem would have been far less if villagers stopped disturbing the elephant,” said Mr. Pande.
Meanwhile, after a quiet weekend, the tusker raided two houses in the ATR on Monday. Malaria-afflicted Aghnu regretted that this happened when Ganesh Chaturthi was on in full swing. “Why does he [Ganesha] not understand that we are worshipping him,” he sighed.
Mining in Chotia coal blocks making it difficult for elephants to stay in Katghora forest division
Apart from mining factor, elephants raid villages for paddy and mohua too, says Forest Minister