Man-animal conflict in Odisha: Too much pain, too little relief
At least 212 people who have been permanently disabled in elephant attack in the state in last 10 yrs are struggling for survival sans govt support
BHUBANESWAR: Basant Pradhan groans in pain. It has been more than six months since he escaped death by a whisker. An inhabitant of Pithabata village near Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR), Basant was trampled and nearly killed during a direct encounter with an elephant on a forest road in September last year.
The trauma lingers; the hurt has remained as the broken rib and the left hand have not healed, completely. Now he has developed a painful limp because the leg too was fractured. After being admitted to a hospital in Cuttack, his condition improved marginally but he has not been able to walk without assistance.
Basant’s family was forced to bring him back home and continue treatment at a Baripada hospital. He is now incapable of doing any work. The man who once managed to earn at least Rs 250-300 a day is now fully dependent on his family for survival. Both Basant and his family are worried if he would ever be fully fit. They are also clueless if the 39-year-old will be eligible to get pension benefits extended to differently-abled persons.
Jagan, Basant’s younger brother, said the ex gratia compensation of Rs 1 lakh they received from the Forest department was exhausted on repayment of the loan taken to cover the treatment.
“Whatever we received was spent on treatment and loan repayment. Even my brother’s condition didn’t improve,” he rues.
Like Basant, disability benefits have eluded 47-year-old Jayanti Mahanta, another victim of man-animal conflict in Odisha. She was declared permanently disabled after sustaining a critical head injury in an elephant attack in the Benasol area of Mayurbhanj two years back.
Jayanti’s brother Iswar Chandra Mahanta said his sister was the sole bread-earner of her family and earned her livelihood collecting Mahua flowers from the forest and doing small jobs. She, however, is no longer in a condition to work after the incident. “The injuries on head affected her memory too,” Iswar said.
Out-of-pocket expenses on health have burdened Jayanti’s family too. More than Rs 2 lakh has already been spent on her treatment against the government’s ex gratia assistance of Rs 1 lakh. There is no help coming as her 27-year-old son, who completed higher education recently, is still in search of a job.
Basant and Jayanti, however, are not the only victims of human-wildlife conflict and living miserable life after being left with a disability. Statistics furnished by the Forest, Environment and Climate Change department reveals that at least 212 persons have been left permanently disabled in elephant attacks in the state in the last 10 years. The gravity of the conflict can be gauged from the fact that the number was 5 in 2012-13 and jumped to 51 in 2021-22, the highest in the last decade.
The actual number of people left with disability in one form or the other could be significantly higher given the conflict situations with bears and other wild animals. Baripada forest division, part of Similipal National Park, witnessed a spurt in such cases in recent times. It reported seven permanent injury cases in the last three years. Of this, at least three are due to sloth bear attacks.
A majority of the victims acknowledge that inadequate ex gratia sanctioned by the state government is the first major disadvantage after a life-crippling mishap. In fact, Odisha offers one of the lowest when it comes to compensation for those suffering permanent disability in human-wildlife conflicts.
As per existing norms, a person is entitled to a compensation of Rs 1 lakh in the event of permanent disability as against states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu where the ex gratia stands at Rs 5 lakh.
The state’s assistance to those sustaining a temporary but serious injury in wild animal attacks is nil compared to Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu which offer compensation in the range of Rs 10,000 to Rs 1.25 lakh. Moreover, the compassionate grant offered in the event of human death due to conflict with wildlife in Odisha is Rs 4 lakh compared to a grant of Rs 20 lakh in Maharashtra, Rs 6 lakh in Kerala and Chhattisgarh and Rs 5 lakh in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
Iswar says if his sister could be included in a pension scheme meant for differently-abled and her son provided a job or skill training for a living, the family would not be in such a desperate state. Family members of Basant to pitch for similar support for the kin which would enable to them or their family members to earn a livelihood.
Wildlife conservationists not only call for adequate compensation but also for proper rehabilitation of the victims to prevent further escalation of man-animal conflicts in the conflict zones of the state. The ex gratia Odisha government pays to victims of man-wildlife conflict is only a consolation, they say.
A compassionate grant cannot be a solution in the long run as it leaves a wide gap between the actual loss and payment making things more critical, said Jitasatru Mohanty, a retired IFS officer and trustee of Save Elephant Foundation Trust.
“In absence of awareness and adequate support from the government, people tend to develop an antagonistic approach towards wild animals, elephants in this case. They treat the wildlife as a nuisance, cause of misery and a threat to their lives and property,” said Mohanty. His logic is not far from the truth given a spurt in cases of deliberate electrocution of elephants, poaching, and poisoning in recent years.
“Offered alternative source of livelihood or paid adequate grant, victims will feel assured. This is extremely important in the prevention of a hostile attitude built towards elephants which face the most animosity. Else, instances of poaching, poisoning and electrocution will only go up,” he cautions.
A wildlife warden unwilling to be identified concurs with the view. “Enhancing the grant and providing alternative means of occupation to the affected person or offering a job to one of his/her family members will be a huge solution. We had this norm for government servants getting permanently incapacitated during the service period. We only need to extend it to the victims of the human-wildlife conflicts,” he said.
Requesting anonymity, a senior forest official from the State wildlife wing also said the government needs to offer at least a Group D post to the victim in the disability grade. “This should be done immediately if the victim is young or middle-aged, a bread earner and/or have minor kids in the family. Disability grade is just as the person is unable to do normal work,” he said.
PCCF (wildlife) SK Popli said, “Compassionate grant for the injury had been revised from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh in 2014 and we have proposed the government to increase it further which is under active consideration.”Besides, skill-based training are also being carried out for communities near forest areas to create more livelihood opportunities for them, he added.
Senior officials point out that though there is no norm to offer job to such victims or any of their family members, they sometimes engage kin of the victims as watchers, protection squad members or any other forest work they could be involved with.
“We will explore how we could extend need-based skill training to the victims to support their livelihood. Besides, the proposal to hike the compensation for permanent disability is expected to be increased significantly to support the victim and their family members financially,” a senior IFS officer said.
Odisha one of the worst in man-elephant conflict
Despite efforts of the state government, Odisha continues to remain one of the worst state in terms of human-elephant conflict. Statistics suggest, out of over 1,570 human deaths reported due to elephant attacks in the country in the last three years between 2019-20 and 2021-22, Odisha has reported the highest 322 followed by 291 in Jharkhand, 240 in West Bengal, 229 in Assam, 183 in Chhattisgarh and 152 in Tamil Nadu.
The state also recorded the second highest elephant deaths due to electrocution in this period. Out of a total of 198 such deaths in the country, Odisha has reported 30 while Assam tops with 36 jumbo electrocutions. The state has also reported at least eight elephant deaths in a train accident between 2019-20 and 2021-22.