A Parliament for Elephants: Encroachment, Laws, and Animal Rights
By Tirthankar Ghosh and Manas Dutta
“over our dead bodies
near the jungle tracks
you put up a sign:
let them pass
please give us back our corridor
our forest our food our freedom
take away your trains
and population” (Bishnupada Ray, Fox Land and Selected Poems, p. 21)
The distinctive aspects of human-animal relationships, as compared to human-human bonds, have received wider scholarly interest in recent times. Potential questions such as the role played by the animals in ‘human society’, the rise of animal bearing/ pet-keeping, the diverse social issues related to the animals are being addressed so as to realise the human-animal relationship in wider socio-cultural context. While describing this, one can explore issues of exploitation, commoditization or domination of animals and its relation with human being at large. How the issue of animal relation with human go hand in hand or contradict to each other will require further explanation in this respect. Until recently, animals have been practically invisible in the social and human sciences. This essay critically examines the role of modern human agencies in shaping ‘future’ of the elephants of Duars region in India, and aims to explore the connection between broader social developments, especially in relation to issues of sociality, affect or intimacy, and changing relationships with animals throughout society.
However, animals have evoked a growing interest to the point that today it is almost impossible to ignore their presence in many disciplinary fields. The rise in such scholarships over the last two decades has made it possible to talk about an “animal turn”, which has brought about the consolidation of interdisciplinary fields such as “animal studies”, with a production that has been growing in quantity, quality, and visibility. The animal turn seems to be a recent phenomenon in the field of exploring the human-animal relationship in a more non-human way to acknowledge animal presence in ‘human society’, hegemonised by the so-called dogmatism of human supremacy and animal inferiority. Apart from the biological and anthropological sense, animals could hardly find any place in historical reconstruction of any civilization – either they have been treated as being minimal presence or obliterated from the consideration of any ‘serious’ historical interpretation. According to the common perception about the life-world, it is always believed that the two worlds – human world and animal world – run laterally without meeting each other. Human ‘dependency’ upon animals is thus directed to ‘utilize’ animals for human cause – consumption, domination, and pleasure. Moreover, contradictions and acquaintances develop in systematic patterns of annihilation and production as well as in socio-cultural and inter-subjective relations, highlighting the fact that animals and the human-animal relationship are deeply affected by structures of power. Recent scholarships have led to an understanding of the establishment and development of certain mechanisms of power and authority in the human-animal relationship and its inevitable result which can be seen in human determination of animal consumption and conservation.
Our desire for knowledge about animals is thus not innocent but violent, and …that animal studies has a kinship with trauma studies, both because of the violence done to animals in academia as well as in multiple other sectors in society, and because of the great challenges involved in understanding how animals themselves experience this violence we inflict on them. For millions of animals, their relationship with humans mean forced labour, forced mating and breeding, disruption of family relations or other relations with members of their own species, severely restricted possibilities for movement, physical harm, stress, suffering, and premature death. (Erika Andersson Cederholm et el., Exploring the Animal Turn p. 14)
Human-animal conflict is thus receiving greater attention among the biologists, social-scientists, and naturalists. Most of the academic discourses and newsprints have been centred on the issues of tiger conservation and its ever reducing number due to the human interference in the existing food-chain system or practices. Royal Bengal tiger of Indian Sundarbans has received adequate attention in a world-wide scale. On the other hand, elephants are yet to get appropriate attention in scholarly writings or academic discussions in comparison to the ‘global’ tiger. Thus, the present article intends to explain the multi-dimensional aspects of human-elephant conflict in the Duars region of northern Bengal in India. Moreover, the study seeks to explore elephant sufferings caused by the human agencies and technological development in this region as a case study to take into the account the broader theme of human-elephant conflict and its subsequent impact on the elephant lives.
Elephants in West Bengal (India) are mainly found in its northern part, i. e. in the districts of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. They dwell in a geographical area over 6990 sq km with a forest cover of about 2200 sq km. Formerly widely distributed elephants are now circumscribed to small areas and enforced to contend with people who are living adjacent to the forest or secured areas and National Parks for food, water and space. Elephants are not getting enough food and water within the restricted areas and they are compelled to get out of the forest. Side by side, introduction of major development projects such as construction of dams, irrigation channels, railway networks, electricity connections, and monoculture plantations obstruct the traditional migratory routs of elephants. When elephants come back to their erstwhile routs, they come across human settlements and that results in human-elephant conflict. Elephants invaded the cultivated crops and when cultivators try to protect their crop they are executed or injured by the raiding elephants.
Wild elephants use the Duars corridor of West Bengal on their way to the Sankosh River in the east on the Bengal-Assam State border from the Mechi River on the India-Nepal border in the west. Regular elephant movement in this region has been recorded at an altitude of 3000 feet. Annual Report of Forest Department of 1940-41 reported movement of elephant to Rechila at an altitude of 10,000 feet, and further into Bhutan (cited in Kalyan Das, p. 6). The Terai-Duars region happens to be the widely reserve areas for elephants and wild animals consisting of Six reserve forests – Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary; forest of Kalimpong Forest Division; forest tracks of Tondu (Chalsa) between Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary and Garumara National Park and Diana reserve forest under Jalpaiguri Division including Moraghat and Bannarhat area; Jaldapara Wildlife and Buxa Tiger Reserve (Kalyan Das, p. 13).
Human-elephant conflict, which seems to be a regular event in the forest areas of Duars of northern Bengal, can be attributed to the historical transformation of the region under the colonial administration when a large forest tract was reclaimed for the purpose of revenue extraction and railway extension. The clearance of forests resulted in the contraction of the grazing-land for the elephants and later successive human developments in the name of modernization have aggravated the elephant holocaust. Government’s consideration of the problem has naturally proved to be insufficient due to the dithering complications that prevailed between the two governmental departments of centre and state – railways and forest respectively. The absence of any professionalism of these two departments has acted as the main impediment to decipher any fundamental solution of the problem. The human encroachments into the land of elephants not only have threatened the ecological balance of the forest areas but also contributed to the increasing contest between human habitat and elephant mobilization. Elephants are also killed by the hunters for the precious ivory.
With growing human concentrations in this land, the fallow periods become shorter that leads to diminishing forest cover causing loss of soil fertility, soil-erosion, and decline in productivity and even to some extent desertification. When much of the elephant habitat is under such intensive shifting cultivation, the quality of alternative forage available to elephants is meagre, which causes widespread crop-raiding (Lenin & Sukumar, p. 9). There are several corridors for the movement of elephants within the vast tea garden areas of the Mal block of Duars. Crossing the Teesta River, the herd of elephants generally moves to the Targhera, Apalchand forest area via Totgaon and Lees River and then the elephants disperse to the Bhuttabari forest area through the Betguri, Dumdim, Kumlai, Goodhope, Rangamati, Sylee, Ranichira, and Minglass tea gardens (UBS: Siliguri, 5/12/2013).
Apart from the want of food and water in the human-occupied forest-land adjacent to the forest areas, the major factor that causes elephant deaths is the accident between trains and the elephants. The railway track which passes through this Duars region is a broad gauge converted track, over which most accidents take place. The considerable increase of traffic in the railway lines over the past ten years increases the propensity of railway accidents with the elephants: 8 pairs of passenger trains and 3-5 pairs of goods trains pass through the forested track. But most of the accidents are caused by the goods trains, when elephants are about to cross the railway lines. It is a matter of great concern that whether goods trains should pass through the forest tracts. There is an alternative route via New Jalpaiguri Railway Station which can be used for passenger and goods trains to avoid the forest areas of the Duars region. The elephant census conducted in 2010 has shown that “elephant population in north Bengal stands at 529 now which is obviously higher than the previous recorded population (in the 2008 census) of 350 [but] the main cause of concern now is the death of elephants on the Dooars tracks” (The Telegraph, 17th May, 2011, Siliguri). The foresters have informed that around 30 elephants have been killed in the Dooars since the narrow gauge railway track was converted to broad gauge in 2002 and the most shocking calamity occurred on September 22, 2010 when seven elephants were mowed down by a goods train (Ibid.). Despite these casualties, the elephant population has increased over the past ten years that raises a serious question of availability of fodder for these increased number of elephants, which could be instrumental to the further acceleration of human-elephant conflict. From Malbazar, it was reported that five elephants were killed on 13 November, 2013 by train at Jaldhaka railway bridge near the Nagrakata basti area and the elephants who survived came back again and again for their dead partners (UBS: Siliguri, 19/11/2013). Nafsar Ali, Secretary of a Duars-based NGO, Nature and Adventure Society (NAS), has stressed the importance for the necessary improvement and modernization of prevailing signalling system on the railway tracks and has prescribed for a better inter-communication strategy between the Railways and Forest Department (Interview with NAS).
However, human-elephant conflict is not always induced by the clash over the realization of fodder on the part of the elephant or protecting properties from the elephants by the villagers; sometime human-elephant face-off becomes a spectre of amusement to ‘have fun’ on the part of the locals residing adjacent to the forests. The Times of India reported: “A herd of 80-100 elephants pocketed in a small forest patch in north Bengal’s Kolabari near the Nepal border face a daily dose of harassment by villagers who either chase them with stones, crackers and sticks or venture close to them to click photographs. The purpose – ‘to have fun’” (12/06/2016). The reason which is discovered for this case is the unemployment of the youths here and their dependency upon agriculture and hence “whenever they get a chance, they venture into the woods to chase away elephants for having fun” (Ibid.). This sort of incident resulted into heavy toll on both the sides : in 2015, four elephant deaths were reported only from the Terai region of north Bengal and fifteen humans were also killed in this region in 2015-16 (Ibid.).
Government has decided to release compensation for the victims of elephants’ attack, when people got injured or killed by the elephants. But the question here is: why do the elephants attack humans? The simplest answer is: for water and fodder or sometime for country-liquor. If the elephants are displaced from their original residence, i.e. forest-land, then who is responsible for their displacement or hunger? When elephants get killed by the trains, hunted or even injured by the villagers, who will be there to receive compensations on behalf of the elephants? Whatever the conservationist methods or policies have been applied so far, these are drawn from the humanist viewpoint of retaining the ‘noble’ responsibility to restore elephant lives without making any ‘compromise’ (or sacrifice!) for modernization or developmentalism necessary for the ‘humans’ time to time. If elephants are to live their share of life without any so-called ‘modern’ hindrances, the tracks should be removed and human should retreat from the elephant-land which they have robbed and occupied as if “being the only survival” on the earth.
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Newspaper reports obtained from the North Bengal or Siliguri/Kolkata edition of newspapers like – Uttarbanga Sambad (UBS), The Telegraph, Times of India provided reliable sources of information in writing this article. Field-work and surveys in the Duars forest were carried out in May and July, 2016. We are indebted to Mr. Nafsar Ali, Secretary of Nature and Adventure Society, Odlabari for his generous help and cooperation during our fieldwork days.
Tirthankar Ghosh is Assistant Professor in History in Kazi Nazrul University, India. His area of research comes within Environmental History and he was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship to carry out Research in British Library, London and Welcome Trust Collection, London in 2017. He has contributed in journals such as Quarterly Review of Historical studies, Environment and History (forthcoming), Indian Historical Review, South Asia Research, etc.
Manas Dutta is Assistant Professor in Kazi Nazrul University India. He was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship to do research in British Library London and in School of Oriental and African Studies, London in 2016. His area of research engages with Military History, Conflicts and Violence. He has contributed in journals such as Social Scientist, Indian Historical Review, Studies in Peoples’ History (Sage), Contemporary South Asia, Economic and Political Weekly, International Journal Of Military History and Historiography, Itinario (Cambridge University Press Journal), Canadian Journal Of Military History, Journal of Military Ethics, South Asia Journal of South Asian Studies, etc.
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