Kolkata: In several pockets in West Bengal, be it Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Bagdogra in the North or Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram in the South, news about human-elephant conflict have been quite common for the last few years.
Such conflicts have been on the rise, following the increasing expansion of human establishments to the favourite corridors of the elephants.
In the case of North Bengal, the tea gardens and the growing human habitations around them are the main hurdles. In South Bengal, the presence of railway tracks and agricultural fields, among others create obstructions to the hindrance-free passage of the tuskers.
Despite several meetings between senior officials of the state forest department, union ministry of environment and forests and the Railways, among others, no long term solution to this problem has emerged.
The state forest department is banking on two proposed projects that it is hoping will minimize the incidents of human-elephant conflict. According to forest minister Jyotipriyo Mullick, the first project is setting up dedicated elephant corridors in North Bengal covering mainly the forest belts of Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Bagdogra and Bankura, Purulia and Jhargram in South Bengal.
"The project to be implemented at a cost of Rs 620 crore would be funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the project work is expected to start by November this year," Mullick said.
The second project, according to the minister, is the appointment of 600 local youths from these pockets as Gajamitras (friends of elephants).
"The process of recruitment will start shortly and after recruitment they will be specially trained by an expert agency and then inducted into the state forest department. They
will be provided with special android sets with a specialized Gajamitra app developed for that purpose installed. These Gajamitras will procure advance information about the movement of elephant herds, alert the state forest department and local people, so that preventive measures can be taken for avoiding human-elephant conflict," the minister said. He added that of the 600 new recruitments, 200 will be for areas in South Bengal and 400 for North Bengal.
However, former principal chief conservator of forests in West Bengal Atanu Raha sounded sceptical about the ground-level implementation and effectiveness of the projects especially the one related to dedicated elephant corridors.
According to him, the main difficulty in setting up such corridors is getting long stretches of land that are free of human encroachment and also have enough food for the tuskers. He said that there are already human habitations in forest land especially the ones that connect one forest with the other. "I really doubt how far the displacement of these encroachments will be feasible and unless it is done the dedicated elephant corridors will not serve the purpose of restricting human- elephant conflict," Raha said.
He explained why elephants often invade human habitations for food.
"These tuskers are excellent food managers. They know that they can compensate for the daily food requirement of around 300 kg of jungle flora with just 50 kilograms of paddy. So, if there is not enough food reserve for them in the proposed corridors, these elephants will invade human habitations in search of food," he explained.
However, he was positive about the "friends of elephants" scheme. "Advance information about an approaching elephant herd is surely a good proposal for taking precautionary measures to avoid human-tusker conflict as far as possible," he said.
According to him, ideally the state government should put in place a proper compensation scheme in case of damage to crops, residences or even loss of lives of the local people because of
this human-elephant conflict.
"The schemes for compensation are there. But the problem lies in the exorbitant delay in payment of compensation, which often antagonises the people and they try to prevent these elephants from invading human habitation using methods like electrified wires around the agricultural fields. Without making the people aware no scheme will work to successfully restrict human-elephant conflict. And to create awareness there is the necessity of ensuring timely payment of adequate compensation," Raha added.