Mahouts and “patawalas (assistants)” in the Jaldapara National Park of Alipurduar district started an indefinite strike on Friday, demanding that their jobs be made permanent and salaries be raised.
Elephant safaris for tourists stopped in Jaldapara — the largest habitat of one-horned rhinos in Bengal — because of the strike. Routine patrolling carried out by the forest department staff atop elephants was also affected.
“We have been serving as contractual workers for years and want the forest department to make our jobs permanent. Also, the money we get every month is too meagre to run our families. We had taken up these demands with the officers of the department earlier but there is no change in the situation. So, we stopped working from today for an indefinite period,” said Nirmal Kujur, a mahout.
Jaldapara has 145 mahouts and “patawalas (assistants who arrange fodder for pet elephants)”. The park has a herd of 78 pet elephants, which are engaged in safaris and patrolling.
As the mahouts and the “ patawalas” held a demonstration in the forest to press for their demands, tourists couldn’t take elephant safaris on Friday.
“We arrived here to enjoy the elephant ride but came to know that it would not be conducted today. It is disappointing. The forest department should take steps to end the impasse. Otherwise, tourists will miss the safaris,” said Bipasha Mukherjee, a tourist from Calcutta.
One of the protesters said: “We get Rs 7,240 per month. This is too low a sum to run our families. The department should immediately revise the amount.”
Deepak M, the Jaldapara wildlife divisional forest officer, said a proposal had been sent to the government for appointing a permanent mahout and a “patawala” for each pet elephant. “We are waiting for the approval of the state finance department,” he said.
Once the pet elephants get the permanent mahouts and “patawalas”, their salaries would go up.
Sources said though the mahouts didn’t join their duties, they had fed the pet elephants.
“They have, however, made it clear that if their demands are not met within three days, they will stop feeding the animals,” said a source.