4 June 2015 | Torpa, Jharkhand | Amit Topno
In this interview, Community Correspondent Amit Topno speaks of how his video on rampaging elephants in his village resulted in villagers mobilizing funds to purchase 15 torches that would help them locate and disperse these elephants. His advocacy efforts also led to validation of claims of man-elephant conflict in the region, and a sanction of 10,000 INR for each of the 22 villages in Torpa block.
The carving out of the state of Jharkhand at the turn of this century acknowledged over 50 years of agitation for separate statehood. Formed on the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, the creation of this state was a huge achievement for the tribal people of Chhotanagpur & Santhal Pargana.The very name, ‘Jharkhand’ (meaning forested land)pays homage to the symbiotic relationship between the people and theirjungles. The thick forest cover is not only a traditional tribal habitat, but is also home to a wide variety of wildlife & accounts for about 40% of India’s mineral resources.
Over the last decade, however, the government of Jharkhand has wantonly issued MoUs permitting multiple ‘development’ projects, leading to rampant destruction of the very same forests that have protected and sustained its inhabitants for generations. Acres of forests have been felled to make way for smoke spewing factories & coal-dust choked mines, displacing millions of people, diverting millions of tonnes of water for industrial use, slowly but surely converting huge tracts of pristine forests into wasteland.
Elephant raids in rural Jharkhand have become commonplace over the last decade because of badly planned canals, highways and railroads which serve the singular purpose of facilitating industries. Both people & animals have been left bewildered by the destruction caused by this ‘development’, and often end up seeking sanctuary in the same spaces, escalating chances of conflict. When 12 houses, including his own, were broken in one night by marauding elephants,Amit took it upon himself as headman of his village, to ensure that adequate compensation was distributed. Many months went by, and neither had any of the affected villagers been compensated, nor had any equipment been provided to ward off future raids by the animals.
“As a Community Correspondent, my natural instinct is to film a video highlighting an issue. While filming this video asking for compensation, I realized that this problem went beyond adequate compensation for the homeless families. The natural tracks of the elephants had been diverted, leaving them no choice but to forage near human habitation for food.”
Along with the interviews from the villagers, written statements were sent to the District & State Forest Departments. Amit showed the Forest Ranger some of the footage, and had already begun the follow up process of meeting the Ranger & the District Forest Officer a number of times. Amit then took a copy of the issue video & screened it to the forest officials. “I decided to rework my Call-to-Action (in the video) and instead focus on the fact that the State government has schemes to fund & procure the necessary equipment to avoid such conflict. None of us were aware of the existence of this scheme! It’s only when I was recording an interview when one of the officials let slip about this scheme. It was only while completing this second version of the video, I realized why the Forest Department had been so quiet about the existence of these funds – they didn’t actually have enough money!” Amit was now determined to change this complacence. To begin with, his people needed immediate intervention to avoid future conflict with the fleeing animals. Amit called a meeting for his village to discuss what could be done and they agreed that 65 households would contribute 200INR,which was then used to purchase three big torches and twelve small ones in October 2012, which would be used to scare away the elephants.
Around this time, the Elephant Enumeration Survey was taking place. Sensing an opportunity to push his case further, Amit re-visited the Ranger to show him the footage of the elephants entering the village to prove instances of human-animal conflict. Based on this evidence, the forest department sanctioned 10,000 INR in March 2013 to each of the 22 villages in Torpa Block per year. The purpose of these funds was to set-up and avail of short-term measures to keep the elephants at bay. Each village was asked to open a bank account in the name of the Joint Forest Management Committee, into which the money would be transferred. Though this transaction was scheduled for April 2013, no financial transactions had taken place. The Forest department claimed irregularities in the paperwork submitted (to open bank accounts) had led to this delay.
Finally frustrated, Amit & his people decided on a two-pronged approach to pressurizing the Forest Department. To begin with, Amit himself worked with the village Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) to ensure all paperwork was in order. His community submitted fresh petitions from their village and they also mobilized 3 more villages to formally petition the DFO via the Gram Sabha that accounts be opened immediately. Finally, in July 2013, some accounts were opened. However, because Amit & his community were acutely aware of the fact that success in opening bank accounts for the JFMC wouldn’t necessarily mean that money would be transferred, they also organized a rally, where they hired a bus and reiterated their demands in front of the DFO. Finally, on the 31st of August, 2013, the five villages who had submitted completed & accurate information & had succeeded in opening bank accounts were granted the 10,000 INR as promised by the forest department.
Amit recounts that convincing his own community that the camera could create change was a big step. “The most challenging aspect of achieving this impact was proving to the villagers that this ‘video method’ would work. When I came back from training, I’d have my camera with me, and they’d be so confused, ‘What is Amit up to now!’ They normally appreciate & support my activism, but were very wary of the camera. When I was recording the interviews, instead of responding to my questions, the villagers were instead asking me questions! It was tough to bridge this tech divide. In the meantime, the Forest Department blamed us, blamed the JFMC, and then even the lack of personnel for their inability to provide these funds in time and took almost a year to respond to our appeals. When they finally released the funds, we all heaved a huge sigh of relief. With this money, we have now bought some large battery operated torches and can get crackers too.”
When asked his opinion on the escalating environmental conflict & how his people tackle it, Amit snorts cynically. “Our ancient communities have been displaced, as have all the other creatures of the forests. Over generations we have maintained a harmonious existence with each other, respecting patterns and habitats, and now, because of all these big roads, huge industries, we have nowhere to go. Do you know how high the rates of elephant related deaths have soared in the last 10 years? Do you know what a tremendous, tedious process it is to get compensation, in case one of your family is killed mistakenly by an elephant? Every step of the process, the First Information Report (FIR), the post-mortem report, and all the paperwork is just a pain. We are being pushed into the paths of the elephants. And they, they’re gentle creatures. But if they have no access to water and no forests to graze in, of course they’ll be forced to forage near human habitation.”
Hailing from the birthplace of the Birsa Munda movement, Khunti, Community Correspondent Amit Topno has led his people in a long crusade against injustice. As Community Correspondent, his primary aim is to document his people’s struggle and expose corruption. This Impact has enabled Amit & his community to access funds, which will directly aid over 2000 residents of 5 villages to acquire the equipment to avoid further such conflict. About 14 more villages are yet to receive these funds.
Interviewed and Written by: Radhika.