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A matter of life, not election

Pukhuria (Mariani), Jan. 27: The panchayat election is the last thing on the minds of the residents of around 10 small villages and a few tea gardens here as every day is a battle for survival.

Over 3,000 bighas of paddy fields here, an area about 4km from the border town of Mariani in Jorhat district, have been lying unused since the past three-four years as the locals have stopped tilling their land following frequent depredation by elephants straying from the Gibbon wildlife sanctuary, which is about a kilometre away.

Things have only turned grave for the 4,000-odd residents over the years — the fields slowly turning into grazing grounds, with locals sending their animals there to feed. The land owners are at a loss about what to do with their plots — sell (some reportedly sold their plots to people interested in setting up housing colonies) or leave these untouched.

Lives and livelihoods are clearly at stake here, as growing vegetables, too, is not an option because, as was the case with paddy, it will attract the elephant herds.

Most of the affected area falls under the 56 Dakhin Ka-ranga gaon panchayat and 58 Kathanibari Bagisa gaon panchayat under 11 Kathani zilla parishad seat in Jorhat district’s Mariani Assembly constituency. The ruling Congress controls both panchayats.

Asking the locals about the ensuing panchayat elections evokes only disinterested looks. For them, it is nothing but a kind of ritual like the one they follow while praying to Ganesha, the elephant god, to keep the herds away from their homes and fields.

Purnakanta Gogoi and his wife Pubali shifted their house two years back to a spot 800 metres away following constant herd attacks. But there was no respite. They have since learned to live with it.

“The elephant herds started following us after we shifted. We have abandoned several bighas of our paddy fields near our earlier dwelling but this winter, too, the jumbos damaged 80 per cent of my crop,” Gogoi said.

Six days back, elephants damaged the bamboo fence and tried to barge into their thatched hut, which has a small granary. When they raised an alarm, neighbours came out with torchlights, bursting crackers and beating drums and utensils to drive away the herd, which usually retreats when confronted with fire, noise and firecrackers.

The Gogois said during panchayat or Assembly or parliamentary polls, members of different parties offer their sympathies and promise to take steps to mitigate their problem but nothing gets done. The politicians, too, seem as helpless as us, they said.

“Basically, we have been left to our own devices,” Gogoi added.

Forest personnel try to drive away the jumbos by bursting firecrackers and at times, firing blanks, but these measures hardly help. The herd moves to a new locality and continues with its wild ways. Similar is the plight of Mangla Kalhandi’s household in the nearby Kathanibari tea estate.

Mangla said his family had about 20 bighas of paddy fields till three years back but they stopped cultivating following frequent elephant attacks. “We are trying to make ends meet with great difficulty as the estate, a Assam Tea Corporation Limited (a state government PSU) is also struggling.

Baby Kalhandi, one of Mangla’s daughters-in-law, sells grocery from home to support the family.

Their neighbours, Amit Tanti and his wife, are now working as daily wagers at a nearby sand mahal or at NREGA projects.

Life for Jamiran Nissa, another daily-wager with a young daughter and an ailing husband residing opposite the Kalhandis and Gogois, has only got tougher, as rice has to be purchased now.

The narrative does not change in Govindpur Madhurpaur and Bhogpur, villages around 8km away, north of the sanctuary. “If the attacks by elephants increase, we, too, may have to stop cultivation,” said Biraj Bora of Madhupur.

The three villages have over 500 families. The government had rehabilitated them there in the mid seventies after they lost everything to floods and erosion in Majuli.

The forest department attributes the problem to rise in the elephant population in the 20.48-square km sanctuary — from 20 to 40 in eight years. The existing area is ideal for two to three elephants. Thou-gh a group of six forest personnel regularly patrols the area from dusk to dawn, it is hard-pressed, as the elephants split into smaller groups.

A forest department source said a long-term solution based on a detailed study of the man-elephant conflict was immediately required.

Mariani MLA Roopjyoti Kurmi has this to say: “I am always with the people. I have been writing to the forest department for effective steps to check the menace; have been helping the affected personally and also by securing government compensation.”

But the affected need much more than just government doles.


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