Elephant deaths in Odisha: Gaja killed during Gaja Laxmi puja!

Seven Elephants Electrocuted by Sagging 11 KV Power Line in Kamalanga, Dhenkanal. Photo: Wildlife Society of Odisha (WSO)
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Daitari Banspani railway line in Odisha, which broke the elephant corridor and a railway line of Central Coalfield Ltd, near Ramgarh, Ranchi, where an alternative alignment was available, avoiding forests land. Many similar projects have disturbed the elephant corridors and Dhenkanal district of Odisha, which was free from human-elephant conflict in the past, is now registering the highest human deaths in the state from such conflicts and elephant deaths. There are sufficient alternatives but without finding these alternatives, diversion of forest lands has broken the corridors of movement of wild animals, resulting in increased human-wild animal conflict and animal deaths” said B.K. Singh is a former IFS official.

Development News Exclusive : By Bibhuti Pati

Odisha: The Capital of Elephant Deaths

Seven elephants were electrocuted after coming in contact with a live wire on the outskirts of Kamalanga village under Sadar Forest Range in Dhenkanal district. In 8 years, the State has lost over 175 elephants due to electrocution which means every year around 11 elephant deaths occur due to electrocution. Though electrocution is mainly caused due to livewires, sagging overhead lines and electrified fences, steps are yet to be taken to address these issues and strengthen elephant tracking and patrolling mechanism which is the Forest Department mandate. A series of deaths due to unnatural reasons has turned Odisha into a graveyard of elephants.

The seven elephants, part of a herd of 13 elephants, died after they came in contact with an 11-kV line, Assistant Conservator of Forest Jitendranath Das said. The incident took place in a village in the Sadar Forest Range when the herd was proceeding towards a canal road from a paddy field. This is the highest number of elephants killed in a single incident in the state.

Sources said that construction of a railway over-bridge in the area was assigned to a private company which violated forest department guidelines and had pulled the electric wire at a height of eight feet from the ground.

Issuing a press release, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Sandip Tripathy maintained that due to non-rectification of the sagging lines and non-cabling of transmission lines, the accident has occurred claiming the lives of the seven elephants.

Tripathy said in the coordination meeting between forest and energy departments on March 29, 2018, it was decided that the electric transmission line going through the elephant movement area should be invariably insulated in new cases and for older transmission lines, the replacement should be done in a phased manner.

He said that the DFO, Dhenkanal had submitted a report six months back saying that a stretch of 136.57 kilometers of LT lines passing through vulnerable area needs cabling. The issue was also raised at the coordination meeting held on September 24, 2018, he said and added that no corrective action has so far been taken.

Meanwhile, secretary in the Energy Department Hemant Sharma said that a three member team is probing into the incident. Action will be taken as per law after the inquiry is over, he said.

“The incident took place near Kamalanga village in Dhenkanal. “We have received information about the death of seven elephants due to electrocution. Field officials are rushing to the spot to ascertain the circumstances under which the tragic incident had occurred,” Sudarshan Panda, Additional Principal Conservator of Forest,” told.

Forest Minister Bijayshree Routray said the incident was “most unfortunate” and accused the electricity department of negligence, “We lost seven elephants due to the sheer negligence of central electricity supply utility,” he said. “The electricity supply authority was repeatedly warned about the sagging lines, both by the forest department and the people of the area.” He added that cases will be registered against those responsible for such apathy.

As per preliminary reports reaching here, the power line was being set up as part of laying of a new railway line. Bodies of seven elephants were lying scattered near a small water channel passing through vast stretches of agricultural land.

Elephant movements in Dhenkanal are widespread. In the past, several electrocution deaths of elephant have been reported from the district. The district has also been identified as a critical area as far as man-elephant conflict is concerned.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has ordered crime branch inquiry into the incident of electrocution of seven elephants near Kamalanga village in Dhenkanal district, directed to take appropriate action in case of any criminal negligence.

In connection with the death of 7 elephants after electrocution in Dhenkanal, state government suspended 6 officials & sacked a junior engineer of Central Electricity Supply Utility (CESU). Forest department has suspended three of its filed staff including Dhenkanal Range Officer.

Expressing deep concern, Naveen said, appropriate action must be taken in case of criminal negligence. The Chief Minister’s direction comes after electrocution of seven jumbos at Kamalanga in Dhenkanal sparked a blame-game between the Forest and Energy departments.

Gaja killed during the Gaja Laxmi Puja!

The young leader from Dhenkanal Suparno Satpathy says, “Gaja (elephant) getting killed during the Gaja Laxmi Puja (the day of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth). The death of seven elephants on 27 Oct 2018 due to electrocution near Dhenkanal is an extremely heart wrenching incident. This tragedy has hit us at a time when everyone in Dhenkanal, including yours truly is in Divine connection with the annual Gaja Lakshmi Puja. Dhenkanal-Angul belt ever since many years has been vulnerable to human-elephant mortality. We have been flagging this situation at all necessary points including Chief Minister since very long and he too just doesn’t seem to care. To clear out Elephant corridors and to give the right to passage for our Giant refugees (Elephants) is the need of yesterday in Odisha. Hope good sense prevails on the ruling dispensation, before it gets too late to mend thing. I am told for the said current date tragedy the forest department has blamed the state electricity dept. It is imperative that ‘culprits must not go free’. My appeal stands with all the concerned authorities in Odisha albeit India. Should the matter of Elephants/Forests/ Humans/ Wildlife be neglected, all we shall be doing is galloping towards doomsday.

“The official figure of Elephant deaths in Odisha only due to electrocution 2010- till date stands at 102. Suspending a few officials after a tragedy is not a solution. Practice of safety measures on the ground is more important. A work culture change in the ruling dispensation is the need of the hour. Yes, certainly exemplary punishment for culprits shall go a long way but that is only a small part of the solution,” Mr. Satpathy further added.

Biswajit Mohanty, noted environmentalist says, “The massacre of 7 Elephants at Dhenkanal was preventable had the Energy Dept listened to the repeated requests to pull up sagging overhead wire. Since the Managing Director of CESU was warned and he did not act he is guilty of criminal negligence. The Odisha Forest Department should immediately arrest him for causing death of a Schedule-I species. WildLife Society of Odisha feels it is gross injustice to punish lower level staff of CESU since the highest functionary was given notice of threat to Elephants by the forest department. The Odisha Govt. should have taken action against the higher official first.

No Action since 1993!

Although ‘Forests’ by then was in the Concurrent List, states were agitated by this law, and ignored it in initial years. In 1986-87, when TN Seshan was secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, five regional offices of the union ministry were established to monitor the implementation of the Act. By then, the Centre had started granting permissions for diversion of forests while stipulating some conditions. The important stipulation was to raise compensatory afforestation over non-forest land of equal extent. Further, states were also to notify this area as protected forests. These stipulations were complied with in hardly 10% of cases. Forest lands continued to be diverted at will.

In early 1993, I was posted in the Bhubaneswar regional office of the union ministry to monitor cases where forest lands were already diverted and also to process fresh diversion cases in the states of Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. These are mineral-rich states where leases of iron ore, aluminum, coal, uranium and mica were granted in forest lands. I found that even after the expiry of lease periods, additional forest areas continued to be broken without concurrence of the central government.

During my four-and-a-half-year tenure in Bhubaneswar, I found that all states moved new proposals for diversion of forest land for several development projects without even complying with stipulated conditions in many old cases.

The Centre started granting diversion of forest lands in two stages. The final clearance was granted only after non-forest land identified for  compensatory afforestation  was notified as protected forest and the user agency paid for the cost of compensatory afforestation   to the respective state forest department. When this cost was paid, Protected Forest notification became a bureaucratic process and was successful in hardly 10% of the cases. Two-stage clearances, too, had some loopholes.

Forests continue to be diverted at the same rate as before the 1980 Act. In fact, the central government approves all diversion proposals of state governments. If for some reasons a particular project is rejected, it is reopened after some time and approved with some stipulations that are mere eyewash.

While processing fresh diversion cases in Bhubaneswar, I recommended rejection of some proposals of states, listing reasons for doing so. Later, the cases were manipulated and approvals granted overruling my recommendations, B.K. Singh said.

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