As they pass each other on the streets, the villagers of Bagda in Surajpur district in North Chhattisgarh shout out: “Kahaan?” However, to them this isn’t a greeting meant to know where a person has been or is going. It comes laden with apprehension. “Nadi ke uss paar. Abhi door hai (It’s on the other side of the river. It’s still far),” is the answer they hope for — indicating that a herd of wild elephants living in the forests on Bagda’s doorstep is some distance away.
With elections to North Chhattisgarh 20 days away, the government’s failure to control the man-elephant conflict is, for the first time, a burning issue in the polls. The five affected districts, of Surguja, Jashpur, Balrampur, Surajpur and parts of Raigarh, cover at least 16 seats out of a total of 90.
Home Minister Ram Sevak Paikra is the MLA from Pratappur, the constituency under which Bagda falls. It was also the only one seat in the Surguja division that the BJP won last time. T S Singhdeo, the Leader of Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, is the Congress’s sitting MLA from Ambikapur in Surguja district.
Earlier this year, Independent MLA from Mahasamund Vimal Chopda asked Chhattisgarh Forest Minister Mahesh Gagda in a starred question in the Assembly how much damage wild elephants had caused in the state. The numbers were astounding: 53 people killed, 20,646 acres of farmland and 2,851 homes destroyed in 2015-16; with the numbers standing at 66 deaths, 17,110 acres of farmland and 1,863 homes in 2016-17. Forest officials say the numbers are largely the same for 2018.
Environmental activists, lawyers, and NGOs have been long raising the issue, blaming the man-elephant conflict on irresponsible mining affecting habitats, lack of elephant corridors, and rudimentary and archaic warning mechanisms employed by state and forest officials.
Sometime in March this year, villagers of Bagda say, 50-year-old Dana Manjhi was cycling home from a nearby construction he worked at. Recalls a villager, Ram Gopal, “That afternoon everyone had been told the elephants were near. But because Manjhi had been out, he didn’t know. At 8.30 pm, when we finally ventured out, we found his mutilated body. Elephants enter our homes, kill our people. We don’t blame the elephants, they are looking for food. But we do blame the government. There are elephants all across the world, all across India. Do people die like this everywhere?”
Bansi Paikra’s home is among those trampled by elephants. Angry at the government, Paikra says, “They gave me Rs 1 lakh as compensation to build a new home. The elephants destroyed my fields of groundnut and paddy, and for that they gave me Rs 2,000. What will that buy? My family had to move to a rented house, I had to buy this year’s crop on interest. We don’t sleep at night because of memories of what happened,” he says.
Apart from repeated complaints to the government, villagers say they have also complained to local MLAs, including of the Congress, who have professed helplessness.
Sainath Netam from Balrampur says, “Some villagers have been given torches etc, but most haven’t. Sometimes Forest Department officials come, and do nothing because they are too afraid to go close. In most places there are no torches, no fencing etc. Sometimes the villagers put up electric wires themselves.”
But that too has its dangers, as Ram Gopal points out. Last year, one young elephant had died after being caught in the wire. For weeks on end then, the herd had stayed close to the village and wreaked havoc. “They are angry, and they don’t forget,” says Ram Gopal.
T S Singhdeo admits elephants are a problem. “New babies are coming, which you can see in every herd. The jungle environment and fodder available to them is not sufficient and that is why they not only have to migrate but also go into cultivated areas. You cannot overnight increase the habitat. What you can do is limit them in areas by fencing them in, or creating corridors, or training them,” the Congress leader says.
But Bagda is not very hopeful any more. The ability to “half sleep and half stay awake”, they joke, is something they are used to now. But there will be one change come polls, villagers say. “The BJP or Congress both talk of vikaas, corruption etc. This time, we will make them talk about elephants.”