It is not just illegal encroachments that lead to human-animal conflicts. Myopic government policies, and the subsequent refusal to rectify mistakes, can be even more dangerous.
The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which was tabled in the assembly on Friday, demonstrates how the elephant habitat in Munnar division shrunk so dramatically as a result of the state's faulty resettlement policies, and also tourism activities.
Jungle highway robbery
The catchment area of Anayirangal (The Elephant Slope) reservoir in Munnar forest division was a hub of wild animals, especially elephants, thanks to the availability of water and fodder. However, in 2002, the state government rehabilitated landless tribes in Pandhadikkalam, in 301 Colony and the 80 acres adjacent to Anayirangal. (The place was called 301 Colony because 301 tribal families had settled in the Anayirangal area between 2001 and 2005.)
“With the establishment of new settlements, the available habitat of elephants in the area shrank, which resulted in intense human-elephant conflicts in the area,” the report noted. This set in motion a vicious circle of sorts. “To counter animal attacks and damage to crops, solar fences were built along the private land boundaries blocking the natural path of elephants, which made them more aggressive,” the report said.
Many incidents of deaths and severe injuries, and extensive damage to crops, were reported from Chinnakanal and Anayirangal area of Devikulam range in Munnar. In fact, frequent wild elephant raids forced many resettled tribals to flee the area.
As if the damage done by unnecessary human presence was not enough, the government encouraged tourism activities in the area. “The situation was further aggravated by the use of boats by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) for tourism activities in the reservoir. The Anayirangal reservoir is manned by the electricity board. “The elephants, which get disturbed by the boating activity, do not have an escape route as all other sides are surrounded by private properties secured by fences,” the report said. “Thus, due to the actions of the government, neither the purpose of tribal welfare nor wildlife conservation are served,” it added.
Violation of working plan
In fact, the approved 10-year (2010-2020) working plan of the Munnar division has mandated that the elephant corridors to Mathikettan side and Kanan Devan Hill side should be kept free of activities that impeded free elephant movement. The working plan had recommended protecting the entire valley by declaring it as an ecologically sensitive and protected area and to confine the human settlements by relocating them to areas less frequented by elephants.
The state government is well within its rights to protect wildlife areas. “The Forest Rights Act empowers the state government to declare an area as protected area if it considers that such an area is of adequate ecological, faunal, floral, geomorphological, natural or zoological significance. This area was frequented by elephants and the Forest Department had objected to the translocation of tribals from other parts of the state to Anayirangal. But the government brushed aside the objection and rehabilitated landless tribals in the area,” a top Forest Department official said.
However, the CAG report begs to differ. “Audit observed that the Forest Department did not submit any proposal for declaring the area as protected area,” it stated. Top government sources said that the Idukki district collector has been asked to submit a proposal to the government for relocating tribals in 301 Colony elsewhere.