Friday, October 1, 2021

Elephants at Luchki ghat


July 1987

Luchki ghat lies to the east of Ambikapur, the headquarters of Surguja district. The ghat road is 7 km long, winding between two high hills, and is the main route out from Ambikapur to the east.  The ghat has many scattered hamlets, and one small reservoir.

I first heard about the elephants in early July when I was on my way to a health worker training camp at Tongo-Ghagra which lay beyond the ghat. We had to take a 38 km detour over bad roads and were told the reason – the tribals has blocked the ghat road with a tree in protest against the Collector’s inaction regarding a herd   of wild elephants which had been menacing them for a week. The elephants had come there from further east – from around Jashpurnagar. They had smashed huts and destroyed crops and the authorities had not done anything about it so far. The tribals wanted permission to kill the elephants if necessary. It was a herd of seven – five adults and two calves. Subsequently the Collector had visited the area and had persuaded the villagers not to kill them – he would make arrangements to capture them.

Now, a week later, our hospital (Holy Cross Hospital, Ambikapur) had been requested to assist in delivering health care to the affected villagers, and a nurse and I went out to Luchki ghat. The hill to the north of the road had been fenced off with high voltage wire, and there were prominent signs put up urging people not to touch the wire, and not to attempt to graze cattle inside the fencing or to try and pick mushrooms on the hill. The plan was to isolate the elephants on that hill and then get tame elephants to help capture them.

We drove to Rai, and then walked four km to one of the affected hamlets. It rained all the while, and the nurse and I were wet by the time we reached it. A group of people had gathered near the primary school building as they had heard that we would be there. Several old people whose houses had been destroyed completely were housed in the school building – they had established themselves in separate groups under those areas of the roof that did not leak. Rain water which came in was being collected in what vessels they had in an attempt to keep the room dry, but it obviously had not done much good. William, a village elder, took me around the hamlet. It had a desolate look about it with no people around, the only sound being that of rain.

We went to William’s house which was a short way up the hillside and had been the first to be attacked by the elephant ten days ago. There was a large hole in the back wall where an elephant had smashed through and a corresponding hole in the front wall where it had exited. The corn crop had been trampled and destroyed, and the ragi that had been planted had been destroyed too. William and his family had rushed out in panic when they had heard the elephants approaching, and along with the rest of the villagers, had raced down to the reservoir and waded out into neck-deep water. They stood there all night, praying that the elephants would not follow them there. Parents carried little children on their shoulders all night as they stood there, and the incessant rain made matters worse. Fortunately the elephants (after having had their fill of corn) had retreated into the forest at dawn. From that night on, the men took turns to stay up at night, beating drums and making enough noise to keep them away. So now the menfolk were an exhausted lot.

What had the municipality done? They had been given money as compensation, William told me, to rebuild their huts, but now the mud was too wet to build with, and the families had spent a lot of the money buying seeds to plant their crops again. They families were out in open, most of them having rigged up a sheet of plastic between the trees and sheltering there. Till the rains let up in September and the sun was strong enough to dry the mud, they would be unable to build their homes. The elderly from among the families had been put in the school building.

Most of the people had fever, and several children had pneumonia. Malaria was rampant as usual.

I spoke to the primary school teacher and asked – didn’t the presence of the villagers living in the school building disturbed the routine of the children? Not at all, he replied – I have only five children attending this school. Seeing my surprise he explained. This school had upto 50 children coming here before the reservoir was built. After that, many families had to relocate. They could not move up here as this hill was already occupied by people, so they have moved away, I am not sure where they have gone. Only the families left on the upper slopes send their children here. And as there are so few children in this school, why should the Government spend money in maintaining this school building? The verandah is alright, so I teach there. The people inside do not disturb me not at all.

That was the first of many visits to Luchki ghat that season. The huts have been rebuilt now. The elephants have all been captured, except for one female elephant who when trying to escape, ran into the fence and got electrocuted to death. I am not sure where the elephants were escorted to and whether they returned in later years.

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