A little after midnight on September 27, a speeding goods train mowed down two elephants (a mother and her calf), dragging the latter for one km, while the pair was crossing a railway track that cuts right across the Lumding Reserve Forest in Assam. On Tuesday, the engine in question (12440 WDG4) was seized from Guwahati’s Bamunimaidan Railway Yard by officials, as part of an inquiry by the Assam Forest Department. The two train drivers have been suspended.
MK Yadava, Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam, said: “It is a legal procedure now, so I cannot say much. The only thing is that the railways will have to mend their ways.”
On Wednesday, the Northeast Frontier Railways (NFR) released a statement stating that the railway “took serious note of the incident, conducted an enquiry and has initiated action against the defaulters.”
While the engine was handed back to railways for custody after it was seized, a case (OR 2/02 2020/21) has been registered by the forest department.
“In the event of any crime, just as a pistol/dagger/weapon would be recovered, in the same way, we have seized the train engine. We cannot keep it with us, so it has been given back to the railway now — however, they have to produce it for us whenever we require it,” explained Rajiv Das, Deputy Conservator of Forests, Northern Assam Circle, Tezpur.
Das, who is the Investigating Officer in the case, said that the engine will be used as material evidence during legal proceedings.
The train mowed down the female (35 years) and the male (one year) in the stretch between Patharkula and Lamsakhang railway stations in Hojai district. Pulak Choudhary, DFO Hojai, said that many elephants get mowed down by speeding trains in protected areas. “This is despite speed limits and warning systems being in place,” said Choudhary, adding that “this particular track goes right through Lumding Reserve Forest. A speed limit of 30 kmph was in place, but as per inquiry, the train was moving at a speed of 60 kmph.”
An internal inquiry constituted by the NFR has led to the suspension of the drivers. “In our inquiry, we found that the drivers were speeding, so, the loco pilot and the assistant loco pilot were found overspending and have been suspended,” said Subhanan Chanda, PRO, NFR.
As per the release from the NFR, the seizure of the engine “was not a first of its kind incident” and a “procedural requirement for enquiry.” “The locomotive was not in operation during seizure and was released within half an hour,” said Chanda, adding that the railways had taken several steps to protect wildlife in its jurisdiction.
In 2017, NFR had come up with Plan Bee, an initiative to drive away elephants from tracks using devices that made loud, buzzing noises, similar to the sound made by honey bees. “Only one incident of elephant dashing has occurred during the current financial year in NFR,” said Chanda.
A release from the office of Parimal Suklabaidya, Environment and Forest Minister, Assam, said that the “case was being vigorously pursued under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972).”
In Assam, there are nearly 29 earmarked corridors where Northeast Frontier Railways (NFR) trains are supposed to operate at set speed limits. Yet, accidents on these tracks due to overspending is not uncommon. According to data provided by the Assam government from the year 2019, 54 elephants have died in train accidents since 2010.
According to Padma Shri Kushal Konwar Sarma, who is popularly known as Assam’s ‘elephant doctor’, unchecked construction and increase in human habitation have blurred boundaries of designated elephant corridors across Assam. “As a result, elephants are crossing all over. There have been instances where at least five-six have been killed at go,” he said. “Speed limits are in place — in this particular incident, the forest department had sent warnings that elephants might be crossing, yet the drivers ignored them. Hopefully, this incident will serve as a deterrent in the future,” he added.
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