Elephants are dying because the Railways do not care. Particularly, they are insensitive to protecting elephant corridors
Early on Sunday, December 10 morning, the speeding Dekargaon-Naharlagun Express killed six elephants in Assam when it ran into a herd of about 30 of them trying to cross the tracks in search of food. Coming in the wake of another on November 19, in which another speeding train had killed two of the behemoths near Guwahati, the accident is a shocking indictment of the Indian Railways’ indifference to the lives of elephants. The statement by officials of the Northern Frontier Railways that Sunday’s accident did not occur at place identified as an elephant crossing corridor — where trains have to travel at reduced speeds — reflects the utterly uncaring and bureaucratic attitude that the railways have consistently brought to bear on the subject, and their refusal to accept the fact that trains have to slow down not only at the corridors but while passing through all elephant habitats. The point needs to be made especially forcefully here because Sunday’s accident occurred at a point identified as kilometer 135 between Balipara and Dhalaibeel stations, which was between kilometers 131 and 144 designated respectively as elephant crossing corridors. With two corridors at such close proximity to each other, it is clearly elephant country through which trains ought to be travelling slowly, and certainly not at 100 kmph, which the Dekargaon-Naharlagun Express was doing.
Given the railways’ attitude, it is not surprising that train accidents have taken a heavy toll of elephant lives. According to the report of the Elephant Task Force, Gajah: Securing the Future for Elephants in India, submitted on August 31, 2010, train accidents had killed as many as 150 of these behemoths since 1987. Thirty-six per cent of these occurred in Assam, and 26, 14 and 10 in West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand respectively. Tamil Nadu accounted for six per cent, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala three each, and Odisha two.
The Elephant Task Force had recommended a number of measures to prevent road and rail accidents killing elephants. Implementation, however, has been half-hearted, with the railways being particularly insensitive to the task of protecting elephant corridors. Speeding continues. The Chennai-bound Coromondal Express, for example, hit a herd of elephants in Odisha’s Ganjam district on December 30, 2012. It was, according to Bijoy Kumar Hota, Khallikote forest range officer, travelling at a speed of between 115 to 120 kilometers per hour considering the impact, which scattered the bodies of the elephants hit, here and there around the track, and pieces of carcasses over a distance of half a kilometer! Besides, it occurred in an area where elephants crossed the railway line regularly. There were as many as 10 signboards, warning that it was an “elephant crossing zone” between Rambha and Huma stations where the accident occurred.
In another instance, the Jaipur-Kamakhya Kabiguru Express ran into a herd of 40 elephants at Jaldhaka bridge in North Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district, killings seven of them, including two calves, and seriously injuring at least 10 on November 13, 2013. Hiten Burman, then West Bengal’s Forest Minister, had said after the accident that the railways had repeatedly ignored requests from his department to reduce the speed of the trains in areas where there were elephant crossings.
The killings have continued with 17 elephants dying in the last six months of 2016. There are doubtless occasions when forest departments personnel of State Governments are at fault. Stern action needs to be taken against them as coordination between them and railways personnel is central to the prevention of accidents. The railways, however, have to bear the main burden of the blame as long as they refuse to reduce the speed of trains not just at elephant corridors but all areas where large numbers of elephants are found.
As recommended by Animal Equality, an animal rights organisation in Britain, trains should be equipped with automatic speed governors which would be activated once these enter forests where the maximum speed should be 20-25 kmph on even tracks and 40-45 kmph on steep tracts. Other suggestions include installing in trains scintillating head lamps with halogen/LED bulbs which would help to illuminate much longer stretches of tracks, and installing in them radar sensors to detect animals on tracks, determine the train’s distance from these, and act as instant auto-brakes for preventing collisions. All this will cost money but this is an expenditure we owe to our national heritage animals for colonising and exploiting their habitats for our benefit.
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)