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Thursday, 19 April 2018 | Hiranmay Karlekar | in Oped
Beware, India's killer tracks

It is ironical that while elephants have been declared India's national heritage animals, their slaughter in train accidents continues

It has happened again, elephants being killed by speeding trains. According to a report, on April 16, four of them, including two calves, were mowed down by the Howrah-Mumbai Mail smashing into a herd in Odisha's Jharsuguda district. Needless to say, the customary trading of charges between the Railways and the State forest department has begun. While a spokesman of the former has said that the latter had not informed them of the herd’s presence Odisha forest minister, Bijaysree Routray, has stated that an advisory had been sent between April 11-14.

The place between the Bumrah and Bagdihi railway station, where the accident occurred, comes under the South-Eastern Railway's Chakradharpur division. The Railways have ordered a divisional railway manager-level probe. The Odisha forest department has ordered its own investigation. One hopes that the outcome will not be two reports with radically different conclusions reflecting the respective stances of the two ordering authorities.

The record of the Railways, however, is such that the needle of suspicion for culpability points to it. In one instance, the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express hit a herd of elephants in Odisha's Ganjam district on December 30, 2012. It was, according to Khallikote forest range officer Bijoy Kumar Hota, travelling at a speed of between 115 to 120 kilometres 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 kilometre. 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 Kavi Guru Express ran into a herd of 40 elephants at Jaldhaka bridge in north Bengal's Jalpaiguri district, killing seven of them including two calves, and seriously injuring at least 10 on November 13, 2013. The then West Bengal Forest Minister Hiten Burman 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.

In both instances above — as in most other cases —the State Government’s forest departments have blamed the Railways. One can possibly argue that the former was wrong and the latter being right in a particular case. Surely, the  State forest departments located in disparate parts of India, cannot be wrong — and the Railways right — in each, or most, cases. A recent case holds this true. In February 2018, five elephants were killed roughly 250 kilometres north of Silchar in Assam by a train whose driver ignored frantic waving of torchlights by villagers indicating that a herd of elephants was on the tracks. Not only that, he was travelling well above the speed limit for the area to make up for the fact that the train was running 10 minutes late!

This is not to say that forest departments personnel of State Governments have never been at fault. Stern action needs to be taken against them whenever they have been remiss. 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. The Indian Railways, which has one of the largest networks in the world with 115,000 kilometres of tracks over routes totalling about 65,000 kilometres (in 2014), traverse many such areas.

The matter is important given the regularity with which the trains are killing elephants. 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 killings continue. According to the Union Environment Ministry data, train accidents killed 120 of them between 2009-10 and 2016-17. This is so ironical. Elephants have not only been declared India's national heritage animals but the Railways have themselves have adopted the Asian elephant as their mascot!

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)


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