| Elephants being bathed at the confluence of the Ganga and Gandak rivers before the Sonepur fair. Photograph by Deepak Kumar
Patna, Nov. 9: Underhand deals in elephants are likely to be the order of the day at the annual cattle fair in Bihar’s Sonepur after the Rabri Devi government banned sale of pachyderms for the first time.
The problem is most of the jumbo-traders are politicians or people with political ties. So the Rashtriya Janata Dal regime can expect the traders to come up with ingenious ways to evade detection, helped generously by the dhul, dhuan, dhakka and dhoka (dust, smoke – from mud ovens – shoving and cheating) the fair is notorious for.
They have come up with a towel signal to strike deals secretly, according to market insiders. “If you want this elephant, I would not utter the price in words. I would put a towel on your palm so that no one knows what is happening,” said Vaishno Singh, a trader from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. “If I push your palm once, it would mean (Rs) 1 lakh. If I push three times, it would be (Rs) 3 lakh.”
The deal sealed, the money would exchange hands somewhere outside the fair, he added.
Last week, state forest and environment minister Jagadanand Singh announced the blanket ban on sale of elephants, in strict adherence to central wildlife laws.
“We had sought permission from the Centre for allowing sale in the fair as this is a tradition in Sonepur. But no approval was available,” he said.
The state’s politicians must rue the move as they are likely to be the hardest hit. Any leader of any consequence in Bihar owns some animal or the other as a symbol of his clout.
Most put these animals up for display or sale at the fair. Last year, RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav had dispatched his horse to the fair and state minister for welfare Ejazul Haque had bought an elephant.
“No successful political rally can happen without elephants. After all, the politicians of this era seek to retain the vestige of feudal power,” Satyajit Goel, a social researcher from Sonepur, said.
Most of the leaders don’t have proper registration or custody papers for the animals. “We have been insisting that they (custodians) get proper authorisation letter as per the Wildlife (Preservation) Act. But the response has been bleak,” tourism minister Ashoke Singh said.
If the fair’s line-up of around 15 elephants, tethered to iron rings fixed in stone slabs, is any indication, the sale will be on. The owners from Balia, Motihari and Sitamarhi have already arrived in strength though trading is just picking up at Asia’s largest cattle fair, thrown open to the public last week on the confluence of the Gandak and the Ganga rivers in Sonepur town of Chhapra district.
Animal lovers have demanded seizure of the elephants at the month-long fair. But the government may well throw in the towel at the prospect of taking on politician-owners or the politically connected.