Elephants in the room
“Six months ago, we were all rudely awakened in the middle of the night by sounds that are now quite familiar to us – those of an approaching elephant herd. The situation was alarming enough for us to run out house to a safe distance and when we wathched our house being destroyed by the animals, our hearts broke.”-Gouri Mondal is a resident of Baisi Colony village near Dharamjaigarh in Chhattishgarh’s Raigarh district where such incidents have become commonplace since 2005.
Following rampant deforestation and loss of their habitats in Odisha and Jharkhand, elephants began migrating to the forests of Chhattishgarh in the ‘80s. In Raigarh, Korba, Jashpur and Surguja districts, where a lot of forest land is being diverted for coal mining, foraging elephants often enter villages, attracted by the crops in the fields. AS per official records, the resulting human-elephant conflict has caused 8,657 incidents of property damage and 99,152 incidents of crop damage in the state between 2005 and 2014. The state has also recorded 198 human deaths caused by the conflict during these years.
In 2005, hoping to minimize human-elephant conflict, the Chhattishgarh assembly passed a resolution seeking central approval for two elephant reserves. One of them was the 450 sq.km, Lemru reserve in Korba district, which received a clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2007, but was shelved by the state government in 2008 to facilitate coal mining in virgin forests. According to the state government, the proposed sanctuary will block at least 40 million tons of coal production per annum.
Recently DB Power Limited, owned by the Daink Bhaskar Group, sought to acquire 693.2 hectares of land for an opencast coal mine in Raigarh, of which approximately 141hectares fall within the municipal boundaries of Dharamjaigarh. The 92 million tons of coal underneath will fuel the company’s 1320 MW power plant in Janjgir-Champa, still under construction. “Industry lobbies have been influencing the governments at both the centre and state. The Chhattishgarh government quietly sacrificed the concerns and conservation of both local people and elephants to suit the needs of companies,” says activist Sajal Madhu.