It had appeared to be a normal day for 64-year-old Juthel Das. He had hopped onto his bike in the morning to head to his farmland 3 kilometres from home. He worked through the day and had been peacefully riding back home in the evening, when a group of elephants ambushed him. He first attempted to save himself from the quagmire by running away from the one elephant that had turned up in front of him, but he soon realised there were more of them. Villagers around the road intervened and tried their best to rescue Das, but in vain. Later that night, his elder son Pardeshi was informed about his death.
It has been more than a year since his father died in October 2017, but protecting his family and farmland from elephants still remains Pardeshi's biggest concern. "Only last night, around 25 of them entered the forest," he says, sitting outside his home at Dharmapur village in Surguja district of Chhattisgarh's Pratappur constituency. "The Naxals in the south and elephants in the north are troubling the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh. We spend sleepless nights in fear."
Deforestation in the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Odisha has forced elephants to stray into the northern districts of Chhattisgarh, resulting in a serious human-animal conflict. One of the worst-affected districts in the state is Surguja, where there are three Assembly seats, two of which are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST). In the Surguja division, there are 14 Assembly seats, eight of which are ST-reserved. The Congress currently holds seven of them.
In December 2017, a response to an RTI query had revealed that 199 people had died at the hands of elephants in Chhattisgarh in five years, and that the animals had caused damages to 7,000 houses and crops spread across 32952.891 hectares.
Pardeshi says that when the elephants run amok through five acres of his sugarcane farm, they rupture crop worth Rs 3.5 lakh. "The compensation from the government hardly measures up," he says. "It is not even 10 percent of the losses we actually incur. We suffer losses every year, but I don't see the government doing anything about it."
The Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh has installed a sugarcane factory in the Pratappur constituency, which has encouraged tribal farmers to cultivate the cash crop, instead of solely depending on paddy. But this increase in the sugarcane available to them has attracted even more elephants as the cane serves as good fodder.
Matiga Saai, a resident of Madan Nagar in Pratappur, says her family has benefited financially from cultivating sugarcane, but it has increased the paranoia among farmers in the same proportion. "Even if we install a wire fencing around the farm, the elephants easily destroy it,” she explains.
One has to cross a board that says "Beware of Elephants" to reach her home. A muddy road with dense forests on one side and miles of sugarcane on the other betrays the vulnerability of the crops, as well as of those cultivating them. Elephants only have to cross the road to arrive at Matiga's doorstep.
"We keep chilly powder ready to drive the elephants away, or we remove the silencer of the tractor to make noise. These are some of the methods we use to keep the farm safe," she adds.
At times, farmers install an electric fence around their land because of which, there have been instances of elephants getting electrocuted to death. Observers believe that the elephants and tribal farmers were both paying the price for the policies of the governments that have encouraged deforestation.
Farmers say the state should ensure security on the roads, provide better compensation and come up with proactive measures to preclude them from living in constant fear. The administration has come up with several methods, but none have been effective so far. Now, they have promised an elephant corridor to resolve the problem.
"We don't go into the forests, but we should be safe on the roads at least," Pardeshi says.
One of the unique traits of the ongoing Chhattisgarh elections — which saw the first phase of polling on 12 November with the second scheduled for 20 November — is that the issues that drive voters to the booth are local in nature.
Right after the elephants, tribals highlighted the enforcement of the forest rights act, or rather the lack of it. Those who cultivate rice pointed out that the Minimum Support Prices (MSP) are inadequate at Rs 1,750 per quintal, and that the youth do not have jobs in the government sector.
Sanjho Pando, a resident of Pando Nagar, 15 kilometers from Ambikapur, says she is still waiting to get ownership of the patta (title deed to a land) she has had since the 1980s. "We feel we are at the mercy of the forest officials, who are letting us farm on our own land," says the Pando tribe member. "Recently, the state acquired land from some of the farmers for a godown in the village. They didn't even get any compensation. How long before all of us lose our livelihood like that?"
Sanjho, who cultivates rice on her farmland, says the MSP of Rs 1,750 has been insufficient, given the rising price of diesel that increases the input costs through expensive fertilisers, pesticides and so on. "But the state does not care for Adivasis and farmers," she says, pointing out that the Raman Singh government in Chhattisgarh has not given a bonus to paddy farmers for two years.
"There are no jobs either. Those who are not locals are working here, and our kids with decent degrees are daily wage labourers."
The consequence of these local issues overwhelmingly overriding the "national" ones is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speeches, where he has invoked the legally non-existent term of "Urban Naxal", or Yogi Adityanath talking about the Ram Mandir do not resonate on the ground.
Until now, whenever the BJP has been skating on thin ice in an election, Modi has managed to save the train by whipping up sentiments. He did it in Gujarat, Karnataka and even Uttar Pradesh. But Chhattisgarh has probably shown his limitations, which may be one of the reasons why he has only held two or three rallies, so far. The voters favouring the BJP are largely driven by the party workers and the chief minister's policy of providing rice at Rs 1 per kilogram.
In Surguja, the Congress is banking on the popularity of TS Singh Deo, who is touted as one of the party's chief ministerial candidates. Deo, the "maharaja" who hails from the royal family in the district, is respected for his calm and composed nature in Surguja.
Sokhta Ekka, a tribal farmer from Madan Nagar, says only "TS Baba" can ensure the development of Surguja.
"A bridge that goes to Ambikapur from here has needed repairs for years," he says. "In the monsoons, it is submerged in water, and we have to make an 80-kilometer journey instead of the usual 25. Raman Singh has neglected Surguja because he is not from here. We need a chief minister from here. And TS Baba is that man."
Updated Date: Nov 18, 2018 18:02 PM