Every time Jhilik Nandi, a 19-year-old college student, leaves her home in Bankura district’s Pathra village — a part of the Sonamukhi constituency — to attend her classes, her father drops her to the main road, 6 km away, and returns to fetch her in the evening. This is a routine for almost all families in the area, unless they have sent their children away to stay with relatives.
A part of Jangalmahal’s tribal belt, the area once swept by Maoist violence now lives in fear of elephants. Jhilik lost a cousin, 28-year-old Gopimohan Nandi, to an elephant attack in 2015.
Come elections, elephants are back as a poll issue in the 12 Assembly seats of Bankura that vote in the first and second phases, but villages this time hope for a permanent solution.
In October last year, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced that the next of kin of those killed by elephants since 2011, the year the Trinamool came to power, would be given a government job. This was in addition to monetary compensation by the Forest Department.
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Subhashish Batabyal, the Trinamool candidate from Chhatna in Bankura, says he emphathises with the villagers as he is from a jungle area. “Our CM is sensitive to the issues. She has announced jobs. The Left Front did nothing,” he says.
As per a report tabled in Parliament in February 2020, West Bengal saw 403 deaths due to elephants between 2014 and 2019, the highest in the country.
But the relief, especially the government job, has been hard to come by.
Subhrangshu Mukherjee, secretary of an organisation helping those affected by the elephant menace, says, “Over the years, the compensation has gone up from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 4 lakh. The CM announced that next of kin of those killed will get jobs as home-guards… But only a handful have got the job.”
Jhilik’s father Tarun Nandi, 40, says, “Once, in 2019, police provided a car to drop students for their Madhyamik (Standard 10) examination.” But it turned out to be a one-time initiative.
Kuturam Nandi, 68, who lost his son Gopimohan to elephants, got Rs 2.5 lakh as compensation and a relative was recently hired as a home guard. “But will this bring back my son?” Kuturam asks, his eyes welling up.
Pori Baghdi, of Satjhora village, asks why 2011 was set as the cut-off date for a government job. Her husband Sambu Baghdi was killed in 2010. Their son Manu, 23, works as a daily wager. “How do I feed my mother, wife and son?” he says.
A senior Forest Department official, who refuses to be named, says, “We have dug trenches, put up electric fencing. This has reduced deaths.”
Rameshwar Hansda, 55, who lives on the outskirts of Bhula village, has been making a living as a hula member (teams hired by the Forest Department to drive elephants away), for 35 years, surviving several injuries. But the remuneration has been falling. “Years ago, I was provided an insurance by the government. However, they stopped paying the premium six years back.”
The forest officer says the insurance will come after the polls. “We have spoken to the BDOs.”
Kochdihi village, 6 km from Pathra, is home to the latest victim of an elephant attack. Dilip Karak, 51, lost his elder son Milan in October last year. His married daughter may get a job. Karak says “even this time, parties have been promising they will do something”. But he doesn’t expect things to change.
The BJP’s Bankura MP, Subhas Sarkar, insists that unlike the Trinamool, they will keep their promise. “The state ignores guidelines (on wildlife) by the Centre… We will provide jobs.”
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