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No hands to dig trench to stop elephants

- Forest department hires earth movers as men work in illegal mines and women stock paddy
An earth mover digs the trench in Bankura on Thursday. Picture by Santosh Kumar Mandol

Borjora, Jan. 9: Two panchayats in an elephant attack-prone Bankura pocket could not get workers under the 100-day job scheme to dig a trench as the male residents are involved in the more lucrative illegal coal mining and the women are busy stocking paddy.

The forest department has been forced to hire earth-moving machines at Rs 700 an hour with its own funds to dig the 19km trench along forests to stop elephants from entering the dozen villages in the two panchayat areas and attacking people and damaging property and crops.

Had the Borjora and Ghutgeria panchayats managed to rope in residents under the 100-day job scheme, the work could have been done with funds from the Centre.

Some of the men folk in the villages said they earned Rs 400 a day working in illegal mines in nearby Mejia, much more than the Rs 151 per day under the rural job scheme.

An illegal miner who did not wish to be identified said: “I know my job is risky but I need the money. The wages offered under the job scheme are not high.”

Told that the trench was being built for the safety of the residents, he said: “It is not that the work is stuck because we have refused to do it.”

The women in the area don’t want to take up the assignment as they are stocking paddy in the barns of farmers for Rs 150 a day. “The money we earn matches the wages offered under the job scheme. On top of that, we get breakfast and lunch. Our work is much less laborious than digging earth and carrying it,” a woman said.

Mohan Sit, the Borjora forest range officer, said the department had started work to meet the deadline.

“We had set a target of digging 5km of the trench by the end of January. But because of non-availability of labourers, the work was getting delayed. So we hired the earth movers three days ago,” he said.

Sit added that the 19km-long trench would be built in four phases. The earth movers are being used for eight to 10 hours a day.

The trench will be 10ft wide and 6ft deep. The forest department had sought 1,200 labourers from the Borjora and Ghutgeria panchayats to dig it. The panchayats had managed to supply 100 labourers in November. But the labourers left soon to join the others in illegal coal mining.

“The villagers are reluctant to dig earth as the job is laborious. They are looking for easier avenues of earning money,” said Kajol Porel, the sabhapati of the Borjora panchayat samiti.

Although Porel, a Trinamul leader, refused comment on illegal mining, sources said most men in the area preferred working in the illegal coal pits because of the high remuneration.

Wild elephants frequently enter Borjora and Mejia from the dense forests around the two blocks.

On August 31 last year, 40-year-old farmer Manik Bauri was killed by an elephant in Mejia. On December 25, a tusker had damaged shops in another village in Mejia and eaten 65 cakes.

According to forest officials, at least 19 elephants live in the Borjora forest range. Another herd of 100 elephants entered the Bankura forests from the Dalma Hills in Jharkhand recently. “The elephants are approaching Borjora. We want to finish digging the trench before they arrive,” Sit, the Borjora forest range officer, said.