Trunk call from India

Tanuja and Rajesh Khanna starred in the immensely popular ’70s flick Haathi Mere Saathi. The hero can do no wrong in a Bollywood film and in this one the elephant could do no wrong either. Rajesh Khanna sang and wooed, fought and emerged victorious with the haathi by his side. Little wonder then that Jairam Ramesh, the ebullient green hero of today, wishes to emulate the evergreen hero of yesteryears in adopting the elephant as the

companion of the ministry of environment and forests. Last week, with eight elephant range countries on the dias, he declared Gaju as the mascot of the “Haathi Mere Saathi” campaign of his ministry. The idea sprung from the 12-member Elephant Task Force that was formed last year to suggest how to revamp Project Elephant. With man-elephant conflict touching an all-time high and the struggle for land between the pachyderm and humans claiming both in large numbers, the task force conjured up this innovative campaign to bring back gajah to the prajah of India.
Today, on World Environment Day, it is good to go back a few centuries into India’s past, well before the time when Tanuja danced around the proverbial tree, into the days of gajah and prajah. In a democracy, the word prajah may be anathema to many. But in 300 BC, the king was almighty and his prajah were subject to his benevolence or malevolence, as the case may be. The wise rulers kept their subjects happy. To do so, Chanakya advises in Arthashastra, the king must see to it that elephant reserves (Gajavanas) are protected and that the subjects are protected from elephants in equal measure. “Gajananam bhoota ganadi sevitam”, the invocation to Ganesha, began in those ancient days when a walk through the forest was beset by the possibility of chancing on a lone elephant with a broken tusk, one of the most dangerous obstacles that existed in an Indian forest. Like fire and the tempestuous seas, an unpredictable heaven or the scorching sun, the elephant was a symbol of nature’s might that had to be appeased rather than tamed. This led to the idolisation of the elephant and we got the Hindu god Ganesha. Tribal populations had their own versions of the venerable elephant and they were always respectful of the giant. Over the years, however, this ethic of revering and letting the elephant live has taken a beating. With human pressure increasing and land and resources becoming scarce, forests have shrunk and elephant and man have begun a saturnine dance of supremacy.
Nothing demonstrates this as lucidly as the 11 elephants that were poisoned in Assam’s Sonitpur district in 2001. Normally, it is imperative for the Assamese populace to offer flowers and burn incense when an elephant dies, for the animal is the embodiment of Lord Ganesha. But on that fateful night in a paddy field the lines were drawn for a new engagement, a new interpretation of an old companionship. On the carcass of one of the older females was scrawled a chilling message of hatred, “Dhan Chor… Bin Laden”, “Paddy Thief… Bin Laden”.
The transformation of the elephant from Ganesha to Osama in the minds of our people was a clarion call to all those concerned about the elephant’s survival. In north Bengal last year, a train mowed down seven elephants running on a track that has been repeatedly called into question by conservationists as it cut across a traditional elephant movement path. There is no doubt that the fight between man and his oldest companion in India was reaching epic proportions. It was time to act to prevent a further strain in the relationship.
What the Union government is proposing now is not a day too late. It’s not just launching a campaign but is combining it with ground-level action — setting up High Conflict Zone Task Forces that can provide local solutions in elephant conflict prone areas; providing immediate relief to those who are affected by elephants; using innovative techniques such as grain-for-grain schemes and feeding the poor, while protecting the elephant; stopping the interminable linear tear along elephant landscapes by giving the elephant the right of way in 88 identified stretches of the country, each no more than 5-10 km, which the pachyderms have been using for centuries. And, finally, according respect to the largest living being on Indian terra firma. This, in fact, was the first recommendation of the task force — to declare the elephant, a National Heritage Animal.
In 2010, the elephant joined the league of the tiger, National Animal, and the peacock, National Bird, as the official symbol of India’s natural heritage.
The E8 meeting was another recommendation heeded. It was a preparatory meeting, but it came up with a strategy wherein Asia and Africa could join hands using the elephant as a symbol to conserve our joint natural, national heritage. If all goes to plan, 15 months down the line all 50 countries that have ever been graced by these magnificent animals will converge in India to discuss a common minimum vision for elephants for the next 50 years. “Elephant 50:50” will be the crowning glory of Indian conservation emerging as a global leader. But, before that, India would do well to put in place all the recommendations of the Elephant Task Force that affect the elephant on ground: secure corridors, step up anti-poaching efforts, encourage research and provide welfare to captive elephants.
Meanwhile, the Haathi Mere Saathi campaign (a joint initiative of the ministry of environment and forests and the Wildlife Trust of India) would be taking the message of conservation to the people. If it succeeds in restoring national pride in the pachyderm, in disseminating solutions to solve conflict and cautioning development agencies to avoid crucial forest habitat, the job would be well done.
Then, perhaps, Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja can dance around a tree once again to celebrate. And this time, Mr Jairam Ramesh can join them as well.

Vivek Menon is a practising wildlife conservationist and environmental commentator

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