In the 1980s, following rampant deforestation in the districts of Odisha and Jharkhand, the elephants of Chhattishgarh, an eastern Indian state, began migrating to the undisturbed districts of Raigarh, Korba, Jashpur, and Surguja. But in recent years, these once untouched forestlands have been diverted for coal mining to provide for the country’s growing energy needs. Foraging elephants are once again on the move, but are now being pushed ever closer to populated areas, often coming into contact with humans in devastating ways. Attracted by the fields of crops, they enter villages, destroying farmers’ homes and land. In some cases, the elephants stampede and trample people to death.
Biswajit Mondal, 54, was asleep in his home with his family of six when a herd of wild elephants broke into their house last spring. “One of the elephants caught me by its trunk and threw me with tremendous force to a corner of the room,” said Mondal. “I was rescued promptly by a neighbor while the elephant was approaching to trample me.” He was later given a compensation of 12,000 rupees ($179) by the government. He managed to repair his home, but the money was not enough to treat the severe injuries he had sustained to his waist and legs. There are thousands of stories like Mondal’s in the region. According to official records, elephants have caused over 8,600 incidents of property damage, nearly 100,000 cases of crop damage, and 200 human deaths in Chhattishgarh between 2005 and 2014. Elephants, too, have been injured or killed when they run into the farmers’ electric fences.
In 2005, the Chhattishgarh Assembly, the state legislative body, responded to the crisis by passing a resolution seeking central approval for the construction of two elephant reserves. In 2007, the state government received clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to build one of them—the 48-million-square-foot Lemru reserve in Korba—but then quickly reversed course, shelving the project in 2008 to facilitate coal mining in virgin forests. Although Chhattishgarh is a densely forested state, it generates most of the country’s electricity—it has an estimated 56 million tons of coal reserves, one of the largest in India—and according to the state government, the proposed sanctuary would block at least 40 million tons of coal production annually. Local activists see it differently: industry lobbies have considerable hold over the governments at both the federal and state levels, and to them, the Chhattishgarh government simply sacrificed the concerns of the local people and the conservation efforts of environmentalists to the profit-driven goals of the coal companies.