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Who will bell the Cat ? #Tribalrights

At the receiving end: Paniyas in Gudalur. Photo: Mari Marcel Thekaekara

MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA, April 14, 2012, The Hindu

What does one do when a tiger‘s life is apparently more precious than an Adivasi‘s?

On March 30, Kokila, an woman, was collecting firewood with a few friends near Kozhikolly village in the Devala area of Gudalur taluk, 50 km below Udhagamandalam, when she was charged by an angry elephant. It hurled her to the ground. Mercifully, I hope, she died instantly. The kicked her around like a football and smashed her into a pulp. An Adivasi who saw the incident said, “It was terrible. She was smashed to pieces, like chamandi actually. We had to collect the bits and put them into a sack. It was a sad and sickening task. We could not prepare her for burial according to our rites. There was no body left.”

A passionate conservationist asked me, “Did they get compensation?” The question angered me. Kokila was a lively, feisty, irrepressible woman. Panichis, women belonging to the Paniya tribe, are independent, proud and they tend to keep to themselves. Kokila was different. She represented her people, even becoming a Panchayat member, really unusual for a Panichi woman. I recall her taking a lead on stage in dramas. She was bold and theatrical, making everyone laugh, dancing infectiously with abandon, urging everyone to join her. How do you compensate the death of such a woman? Of any woman for that matter? Can you replace the person for her family? Her children? Her people?

No one deserves this

Does anyone deserve to die in such a dreadful manner, for absolutely no fault of their own?

I live on the edge of a forest and all my friends and community are passionate about conservation. When elephants break our water tanks, or create havoc for a few days, we accept it philosophically. After all, we are living on their turf, in once-uninhabited terrain. It’s okay to lose a little. For the poorer population, a paddy or banana field gone is their entire livelihood. I shudder when I hear people throwing huge loud firecrackers to chase away the menace. I’m even more distraught when I hear that they throw burning tyres, which will stick on the elephants’ skin, cause terrible pain and is the only thing guaranteed to make the animal move. But I know I’m reacting like a city armchair environmentalist, sitting safe and sound in my solid stone bungalow listening to the screaming and the firecrackers from a comfortable distance while poor people battle for their lives, their livelihoods and their precarious homes.

Collision course

In the last year in the Gudalur area, there have been elephant problems every day, leaving the locals angry and fearful; a really unhealthy lethal combination. Last year, two people were killed around the same time in different locations by two separate elephants. One, a poor Gurkha working as an estate watchman, far away from his northern home. The other, an anonymous youth on a bike.

Even as I mourn the dead victims — collateral damage, wild lifers would say perhaps — I understand the rage of the elephants. Elephant behaviour has drastically changed even in the last two decades I’ve lived here. Every pachyderm has bullet wounds festering and hurting the animal; injuries that have driven the once-docile beasts to regard humans as the enemy. Adivasi elders tell us that they walked among the elephants without fear 50 years ago. Those days are long gone. As I write this, I hear about a child gored by a wild boar outside her balwadi. Luckily, she’s not dead, only badly wounded, recovering in the Gudalur Adivasi Hospital.

My entire family are wildlife enthusiasts; two of my kids were born here. We’ve lived outside the sanctuary for almost 30 years now. I believe sanctuaries must be sacrosanct. I believe we must protect our tigers and our elephants and the less exciting unknown species that co-exist with them. I know all the conservationist theories. We need to move people out. But forest dwelling Adivasis have rights too. And till they choose to move out; they have a right to stay safe. The Forest Department, in order to protect wildlife, should dig those elephant trenches around vulnerable habitations. It’s hard to explain to ordinary people, apart from armchair wildlife enthusiasts, why a ’s life is deemed so much more important than our laughing, dancing, full-of-the-joy-of-life Kokila. A ’s death mostly makes it to every newspaper in the country; each life is precious, counted, documented by lovers in London and New York. It makes for eye-catching, sexy photographs too. Our Kokila will never make headlines. Perhaps the Coimbatore editions will carry an item: “Tribal woman killed by elephant”.

That’s what ordinary village people find incomprehensible. Sometimes, when I think about it, I do too

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