The death of an elephant in Kerala has galvanised the nation and there have been clarion calls for ‘justice’. As the sentiment wears off, phrases like ‘fed’ and ‘hungry’ have disappeared from the reports. A clearer picture has subsequently emerged of the events that allegedly unfolded. It can now be said with some degree of certainty that the firecracker bomb was placed by a farmer to ward off wild boar from his crops. This blows the lid off the issue of human wildlife interface that is often presented fallaciously to urban Indians.
Looking at the dastardly act as an isolated incident that can be rectified is myopic. This Indiaspend
article quoting from the Elephant Task Force 2010 report, estimates the destruction of 0.8–1 million hectares of crops and 10,000-15,000 properties every year.
The preferred mode to retaliate is electrocution, just as food bombs are for wild boars. Some 461 elephants were electrocuted between 2009 and 2017. So this phenomenon takes place literally every week.
At the receiving end are obviously not just elephants. This nilgai being buried alive
in Vaishali district in Bihar last year was another heart wrenching episode. The common factor between the two episodes is the fact that ‘justice’ will only be limited to the last mile actors, those who have been left to execute this act of desperation.
These two incidents are not even the tip of the iceberg as the elephant data shows. Though aggregated data for each animal across the country is not available, the extent of the problem can be gauged by the fact that culling is institutionalised and it is legal to shoot wild boar, nilgai and some other species in multiple states in this country. The government itself executes this in some cases as well as has given similar permission to farmers. This clearly points out to the inability of the government to mitigate circumstances leading to these episodes.
The sphere of its action is limited to acting on the symptoms. So it is ironic for the environment minister to point out that killing is not our culture
whereas the government is executing the same by declaring multiple animals as vermin
. It is easy then to blame the government along with the farmer. This is exactly what followed the Kerala episode. The instant reaction blamed the farmer followed by the government, both justified. The third part of pondering over systemic issues and introspection is what is amiss.
As everyone feels validated putting up a social media post for the elephant, the urban Indian needs to realise that protection of habitats and species can only happen if they are willing to bear the cost. The Union government allocated Rs3,100 crore to the ministry of environment, forests and climate change in this year’s Budget; this is sadly the same amount that it allocated to a certain statue on the Narmada river bed, a third of what is allocated to the coastal road being built in the financial capital and a 33rd of the flagship bullet train project. Evidently habitat protection is not the government's fiscal priority.
The problem is, there is a lack of revenue generation from the sector as we are riddled with perverse subsidies. Almost all cities exclusively depend on the forests for their water supply. Mumbai pays 6 rupees for a thousand litres of water; this is not enough to even get the water to Mumbai from the reservoirs. We love responding to episodes once in a while but don’t pay for any of the environment-related services.
How many of us care when massive habitats are diverted for hare-brained ideas like river linking or unviable hydropower projects? How many link the elephant deaths to habitat fragmenting railways and highways? For the record, 49 elephants have died on railways between 2016 and 2018.
The fact is that things have to be manufactured somewhere, power has to be generated somewhere, the roads have to be built somewhere. This 'somewhere' is usually not homes, yours and mine, but those of the animals. This increases the pressure on habitats and consequently, human-animal conflict on its fringes is just an outcome.
This is not another rant to drive guilt in the minds of urban Indians, it is an effort to drive home the complicated economics of saving habitats of species. Since this cost is completely hidden from us the question that beckons to be asked is: Who shoulders this burden? This burden is shouldered by the communities that live around these ecosystems. They not only face livelihood loss due to crop depredation but also cattle loss in case of predators. For a lot of farmers an entire season’s effort is lost overnight. That is where the desperation to protect their livelihood sets in. Have we thought about this as a food security issue?
Criminal punishment will be initiated and a family might be pushed to poverty, sadly it is not the first one, nor will it be the last. Without addressing the inherent issues of inequity and environmental injustice secured habitats is but a pipe dream.
At our stage of development we cannot compromise on infrastructure needs as the poorest are at the receiving end of that stick as well. The government has to navigate through this complicated set of choices. There are solutions that are available but those mean additional expenditure for the government.
This is exactly where the urban Indian has to play a role. Elimination of perverse subsidies, paying a fair price for the environmental benefits we consume, are matters inherently linked to the larger issues of protection of habitats and species. Questions like “Are we willing to pay our share?” are the starting point.
Political mobilisation is necessary.
"How many of us vote on environmental lines?" "How many of us pressurise our elected representatives for pro environmental choices?" More fundamentally we need to ask ourselves "What is our skin in the game?"
The urban Indian, whose only approach towards the government is that of avoidance has to become political aware and financially involved. Until governments cannot win elections and raise money by protecting the environment we would have not addressed the ‘elephant’ in the room.