How did environment issues fare in 2018?

Environment Issues

Looking back at the environment issues confronting Assam in 2018, the ever-growing human-elephant conflict would be of prime concern. Caging of leopards will come a close second. And the ominous link between these two events is the same – unabated degradation of forest land. This calendar year alone accounted for 74 human deaths and 65 elephant deaths. And these deaths occurred in non-forestry areas alone. These figures are only the tip of the iceberg since figures are not available from Karbi Hills, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. The uncanny regularity with which the events are shaping up points to a bleak scenario in the future.

Who is to be blamed for the environment issues?

The perception fueled by atrocious wildlife reporting on the environment issues by the visual and the vernacular print medium is to blame the Forest Department for this mess. But, if we dive deeper into the malaise afflicting the Forest Department, some unsavoury truths tumble out. There is a 40 per cent vacancy in the lower and mid-level staff coupled with minuscule budgetary support. Forests constitute 36 % of the geographical area of the state. How is it possible for such an understaffed department to monitor such a large forest area? Expecting them to monitor and develop proper mitigating steps to solve our environment issues would be foolish if the status quo continues. Nothing but despondency creeps in when the authorities remain a mute spectator to this entire saga of neglect of environment issues.

Electric Transmission Lines and Fencing

Most of these elephant deaths have occurred due to low-hanging electrical transmission lines, train hits and illegal electric fencing powered by alternating current sources and a few even due to poisoning. Nothing can be more tragic than a Forest Guard on duty at Bhalukpung, electrocuted by coming in contact with such an illegal electric fence.

Electric fencing has proved to be a somewhat effective tool to save human life and crops. But this cannot be a permanent solution since we cannot cut off the elephants from their natural migratory routes. Moreover, electric fencing tends to be misused- powered by alternating currents instead of batteries. Such misuse has proved fatal for quite a few elephants and a forest guard. Additionally, the fences need to be de-energized during monsoons. 

The Government can chip in by way of subsidies for setting up such fences (temporarily) for the marginal farmers to protect their crops to ensure that the conflict doesn’t escalate to unmanageable proportions. 

Covered Transmission Cables

The recent decision of the APDCL to erect covered conductors over the elephant migration routes along Kaziranga is a welcome step. Covered Conductors should be a norm across the state. And for this, the Government should fund the APDCL which will help alleviate some of the environment issues confronting the state.

The Railways, on the other hand, are experimenting with bee calls over railway lines as well as co-coordinating with Forest Department and the local population in areas such as Lumding and Rangapara sections by setting up anti-depredation and early warning squads. But this is too little and too late. Moreover, the efficacy of bee calls needs to be studied further. 

A silver lining on environment issues

But there are silver linings as well. The effort put in by the North Assam Circle of the Forest Department under the able leadership of Forest Officers like Shiva Kumar and Sivashsis Das are a case in point. They have successfully planted 400 hectares of degraded land this year. The idea is to connect the defragmented corridors. Additionally, they are managing another 1200 hectares of plantation areas. These plantations consist of elephant fodders among a lot of local species. Moreover, they have formed 300 anti-depredation squads with the local populace to mitigate human-elephant conflicts.

Similarly, the contribution of Kaushik Barua of Guwahati needs special mention. He is always present to augment the efforts of the Forest Department in relocating stray elephants. The recent tranquillizing and relocating of an elephant from the Amchang Reserve Forest who strayed through Guwahati city to Gorchuk was such a commendable feat.

These efforts will certainly go a long way in mitigating some of the environment issues confronting the state.

What is the solution to address environment issues?

We need to explore alternate means of cultivation for the farmers in the high elephant depredation areas. Aromatic and medicinal plants such as Bamboo, Aloe Vera, Anthurium, Gerbera, and Orchids, can be an alternative to paddy. Departments like Agriculture and Horticulture can play a proactive role here. 

Unabated destruction of forests has forced many endangered species like leopards to shift to marginal habitats like tea gardens in search of easy prey like dogs and goats. At present, we are caging and relocating the leopards. This cannot be a permanent solution. The real solution lies in connecting the fragmented corridors for wildlife.  We need to incorporate the domain knowledge of the fringe area people in policy formulation and make them equal partners in the conservation movement. Only then will we be able to address some of the pressing environmental issues that have crept in after years of neglect.

Bhaskar J Barua

An engineer by education, a Project Management Consultant by profession, a wildlife photographer by hobby and a passionate conservationists. Founded Agoratoli Resort and Kaziranga Foundation.