Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat and chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Nirmal Bangla (Clean Bengal) campaigns have got a push from a completely unexpected quarter – marauding herds of elephants – in at least three districts of West Bengal.
Scared out of their wits on how to save people from these wild animals that especially target those defecating in the open early in the morning, authorities have now taken up the task of building toilets in thousands of homes as a priority.
“We have observed that many who live close to the forests were killed by elephants when they went to the forest for defecation. We will conduct meetings with the district administration of Jangalmahal area for building toilets in every house,” Binay Krishna Barman, the state forest minister, told HT.
The Jangalmahal area covers large swathes of West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts in the state.
“Besides, we will also install lights along the roads so that elephants are visible when they move inside human habitations at night,” Barman said.
The minister said that at dawn sleepy villagers are not always alert and when the animals attack them, they can’t even see the creatures clearly in the semi-dark hours. Therefore, loss of lives can be sharply reduced if people don’t need to go out in the open to respond to the call of nature, he said.
“We have also sought permission from the central government to allow us to catch elephants but so far the permission has not been granted,” the forest minister added.
Every year the elephants descend from the Dolma hills of neighbouring Jharkhand and roam around in Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore districts. Large tracts of these three districts are covered by forests but the animals regularly stray inside human habitation destroying crops, lives and property.
“The mining works in Dolma Hills are also driving away the elephants from their habitat forcing them into neighbouring Bengal,” a state forest department officer said.
He said 105 people were killed by the tuskers in 2015, and out of them as many as 71 were in south Bengal. This year, 14 people have been killed in West Midnapore district and agricultural products on many acres destroyed in elephant attacks. The tuskers have often strayed into Midnapore town as well.
“At present, there are more than 200 elephants in different parts of forests in Jangalmahal area. Of these, about 180 elephants have come from the Dolma Hills. Earlier, these elephants used to go to Odisha through Bengal, but recently the Odisha government has dug canals and tuskers can’t cross these barriers and are staying back in Bengal,” the officer added.
During her first administrative meeting outside the state capital on Tuesday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said in Jhargram in West Midnapore district that the forest department can no longer procrastinate in taking strong and effective steps to combat the attack of wild elephants.
She said the department has to devise ways to save lives and property from elephant attacks that are becoming more frequent now.
“I have told the forest department to work seriously and the chief secretary will monitor their work,” Banerjee said after the review meeting.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been overshadowed in Bengal by Nirmal Bangla plan that was launched by the chief minister a few months before the central programme and getting rid of defecating in the open is a big component of both plans.
The campaign to eradicate defecation in the open got a boost in Bengal when Nadia became the first open defecation-free district in India in 2015. It also won a global recognition from the United Nations.