Displaced by jumbos

THIS LANKA isn’t that Lanka. But it attracts animals nonetheless.

In the Hindu epic Ramayana, an army of monkeys ruined mythical Lanka, the island demon Ravana ruled. God – Lord Rama – was with the primates.

Soon after 2011 dawned, a herd of feral elephants ploughed through villages near earthly Lanka. God, allegedly, wasn’t with the primates’ tailless descendants.

This Lanka in central Assam’s Nagaon district, 205 km southeast of Guwahati, doesn’t get written about. At least not for 78% of its 35,000 people being literate (higher than India’s national average of 60%).

If at all, Lanka gets space for highway robbery. Only fools travel without police escort between this semi-urban settlement and Lumding, Northeast Frontier Railway’s divisional headquarters 20 km east.

Along this stretch is Lumding Reserve Forest. The gates on either end of the protected area are opened at specified times during the day (night travel is no-no). But police escort isn’t any insurance against armed bandits belonging invariably to a Bengali-speaking minority community.

Elephants have nothing to lose but their habitats in this age of often ridiculous industrial pursuit. But even they – bulk, trunk and all – don’t dare move alone through the wooded stretch the bandits rule. Some 200 pachyderms thus began marching the other day from the adjoining Lamsakhang Reserve Forest in the hills of Assam’s Karbi Anglong district.

This march, greens say, wasn’t the normal jumbo march. The elephants, with some 40 calves, took a detour. They flatten 25 villages and drove some 1,000 people into three relief camps, the first to be set up for the elephant-displaced.

These relief camps contrasted with the 37 the government set up almost simultaneously for 35,000 people displaced by ethnic riots along the Assam-Meghalaya border 400 km west of Lanka.

Greens blame the elephantine change of course on a 1 million ton cement factory that came up recently on a known jumbo corridor. “Such displacement will happen if the elephants aren’t given back their habitats,” says wildlife activist Bibhav Talukdar.

That’s easier said than done. The Assam government has signed MoUs with two major Indian corporate houses for setting up cement plants to exploit limestone reserves in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, both ethnical volatile. More players are expected with the government trying to ‘cement’ an investment of Rs 400 million.

Nagaon district officials admit the expansion of the man-elephant conflict zone is baffling, but “one cannot ignore development”.

Man-animal conflicts in Assam have claimed an average 55 human and 10 elephant deaths annually. “But this (relief camps for people displaced by elephants) is unprecedented, and we are trying to get into the root causes,” says Nagon deputy commissioner M. Angamuthu.

The root causes were to have been looked into by his predecessors after some 100 elephants had laid siege to Hojai town, 25 km west of Lanka, on 19 December 2006. That jumbo rampage – two persons were injured – was unprecedented too.

The problem with these 200 elephants, the displaced villagers say, is the noisy cement plant on one end of their corridor and its semi-urban market on the other.

Will the problem be solved? Lord Rama knows. Or maybe, Lord Ganesha the elephant-head God.


About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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