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Political predators on the prowl

The meeting between Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna and Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly Ajay Bhatt, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), last week in Dehradun has raised concerns among wildlife enthusiasts. The two leaders, who are seldom known to have convergent views on issues related to the state, showed unprecedented unanimity in their concern over rise in the incidents of human deaths due to elephant attacks on the Dehradun-Rishikesh road.

Bhatt is believed to have urged Bahuguna to take prompt action on the issue, a demand to which the chief minister acceded immediately. The official briefing on the matter claimed that the two leaders were concerned at the threat caused by elephant menace to the safety of people travelling on the Dehradun-Rishikesh road and residing in the region. They also did pay lip service for the need to conserve wildlife, stressing on need for increased efforts towards ensuring better habitat for elephants inside forest areas to ensure that their movement was restricted within forest limits. However, the policy formulations of Bahuguna government have so far betrayed the desire to allow further human encroachments into the animal habitats of the state. Finding himself on a politically insecure turf, chief minister Bahuguna has been systematically working towards proffering benefits to the residents of the state mostly at the cost of wildlife and environment. Last months two elephants were killed when hit by the Jan Shatabdi Express inside the Rajaji National Park. This was followed by a blame game between the Railways and Forest Department.

Chief minister Bahuguna who also holds the forest portfolio called a meeting of Forest Department and Railway officials ostensibly to resolve the tussle and take steps for safeguarding the wildlife but ended up directing the railway officers to present proposals in the next meet of the State Wildlife Board for making the track between Dehradun-Haridwar double and also start its electrification.

Such a direction could come only from such a head of state government who is on political tenterhooks trying to take populist measures ahead of the 2014 general elections and certainly not a political statesman. The wildlife and environmental wealth of Uttarakhand is unique as it forms the north-western geographical boundary of the nation’s elephant and tiger corridor. There are about 250 tigers and more than 1,000 elephants mostly in the Terai and foothills of this mountain State. The railway track between Haridwar and Dehradun is sensitive from the view point of wildlife safety. So far at least 22 elephants have been killed after being hit by trains on this track.

At least 40 trains pass on this stretch which includes a 22 km long stretch between Motichur and Raiwala which falls in the midst of the corridor and witnesses frequent movement of elephants. While chairing the meet with forest and railways officials the CM did direct that blind curves on the track and sensitive points be fenced to prevent accidents involving elephants, however, it is the chief minister’s interest in the possibility of doubling the track and its electrification which has raised the hackles of the wildlife activists and even forest department officers.

Incidentally the move to strengthen road connectivity between Dehradun and Delhi was taken up at the turn of the century to address the increased traffic as better rail connectivity meant addressing issues of environmental conservation. The rail line passes through Rajaji National Park and any construction activity to strengthen the rail connectivity between Dehradun and Haridwar would invite scrutiny under the Wildlife Conservation Act.

Crossing the railway tracks is just one of the problems faced by the long-ranging animals. Their survival is also threatened by poaching, poisoning by farmers and electrocution – accidental or otherwise. According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) statistics, 1,177 elephant deaths were reported countrywide between 1999 and 2009. Of these, 434 elephants died of electrocution and 106 in train accidents. The problems of the jumbo animal emanates from the fact that they are vegetarians and are forced to walk miles in search of food. The shrinking elephant habitats makes the jumbo come into direct contact with human settlements and thus the man-animal conflict. According to government estimates the geographic range of elephant corridors has come down by 70 per cent. There have been talks of giving legal cover to the elephants corridor but the move is still to take off. Though elephants are essentially not aggressive animals but the search for scarce food brings them into conflict and turns them aggressive. It’s estimated that over 300 people are killed by elephants every year.

What is the way out to stop deaths on both sides? According to government records, of the 88 identified elephant corridors in the country, 40 have national highways running through them, 21 have railway tracks and 18 have both. There is no point giving a legal cover to a corridor if the highways and the railway tracks continue to operate through them.

Wildlife experts and enthusiasts have suggested several solutions to the government, which includes building underpasses where the corridors cross a railway track or a highway. This would allow the animals safe passage. Till the time these measures are taken, the trains should move at lesser than normal speed and honk frequently in the identified areas to avoid accidents.

The solutions are all there and they are simple too but it would need the political will of the leaders at the helm to save wildlife. Their safety is low on the politicians’ priority list as they do not constitute a vote bank.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is consulting editor, Millennium Post
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