Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Killer on the Tracks

24th September 2010 :

Seven elephants, including babies, were knocked down and killed by a speeding train at Moraghat Tea Estate. We live on the estate, which my husband manages. All of India heard the news over television, and it spread over the world in no time.

At 4.30 a.m., our chowkidar (watchman) Madan told us that an elephant, a large tusker, had entered the bungalow compound about half an hour earlier. It had walked down the half-mile long road from the highway to the bungalow. It shook the large iron gates open. It walked all around the compound.
The two watchmen on duty ran and hid indoors.There was no damage barring a few huge footprints on the lawn. And a gate connecting our bungalow to the deputy manager's bungalow next door was knocked out of shape. That gate was made of iron rods! My husband's phone started ringing before six o'clock. He knew it must be something serious. The caller was Joy, the assistant manager who looks after the NG Division. His news was about elephants as well: the train accident had taken place in his division near the railway line. This news had spread all over the garden as soon as it happened (around midnight), and some workers informed Joy. He told them not to disturb the manager so late at night.

We went to the site, a distance of around one kilometre from the bungalow. Hundreds of people had gathered there. A baby elephant's carcass lay in the wide drain near the track. The mood was gloomy as it was lifted on to a lorry.

Crowds of people from the workers colonies rushed to the spot as soon as they heard about the accident. All but one of the elephants were alive at the time. We heard that they were crying in pain. A little calf was walking around in the broad drain, which was filled with water. As more people gathered, they started calling out to the elephants.

'Ganpati Bappa, Morya!' they shouted, asking the elephants to get up and walk again. People say the elephants would have survived if they had been rescued earlier, and that the forest department should not have waited till daybreak to begin removing them. The poor animals must have suffered terribly.

Elephants kill at least one person every year on this estate, and there isn't a living soul here who doesn't fear them. An elephant is perceived as an enemy. All this was forgotten that night when they lay there dying.

Moraghat Tea Estate falls on the elephant path between two stretches of forest. Every one is aware that elephants begin to move around the area in the evening. A herd had been creating havoc for the past ten nights in the tea area, pulling down shade tree branches, uprooting fencing posts and flattening plants. The wildlife squad in the region must have been aware of their presence here. Perhaps they could have alerted the railways.

It is really strange that the train's engine driver did not see the elephants on a full moon night. People say that he was drunk. Some say he reversed the train at top speed after hitting the first elephant, and that was how so many of them got hit. Everyone asks why the signalman at the level crossing nearby did not alert the engine driver or the stationmaster at the previous station. There was some talk about the 'symbolic arrest' of the train's engine at Alipurduar station.

Train services resumed within hours of the accident, and we now hear a loud whistle when a train goes past. Every time a train anywhere in North Bengal hits an elephant, the whistles begin to blow. Once the outcry dies down, these precautions are forgotten. Reports say 26 elephants have been killed by trains in North Bengal in the last seven years.

Ironically, one man from Moraghat Tea Estate died at the site of the accident that morning. Jaisingh, sometime worker, was a smoker of 'bhang' and was always in a hazy state of mind. A lorry hit and killed him on the spot.

Yesterday, another piece of news came to light. The elephant that walked into the bungalow had not nudged the gate open. That was the work of the chowkidar Dhiraj, who spotted him in the distance and opened the gate to get a good look!

We expect more visits from the herd.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Kings of the Road!

The Teesta, from Sevoke

How lucky I am to live near this river. How much luckier I need to be if I want to reach this spot without being held up by road blocks, natural or man-made. Here's one of the man-made variety, below.

Issuing directions all around

These pictures were taken when we were waved down at a place around 50 kilometres away from Siliguri, and almost the same distance from our garden. The mob blocked the road using a favourite shield in the area-- school students. Their 'demand' was for a new 'request bus stop' on the National Highway. The children had to walk to the regular bus stop from their school because the bus drivers wouldn't stop when they waved them down.

Most of the buses on the highway run long distances, and surely the passengers wouldn't want random additional stops. How long did the children have to walk, my husband asked some chatty looking bystanders. He was told the distance was under one kilometre.

A peculiar feature of these roadblocks is that once the mob stops your vehicle, it doesn't allow you to reverse or retreat. The idea is to cause as much nuisance as possible to members of the public. Once you're in, you park your vehicle and sit quietly.

The mob is quick to feed on the mood and is on a power high. Youngsters - little boys who must be in Class 5 or 6- slap the rumps of vehicles and strut around.

If you ask any questions, it is in a soft and quiet voice because you don't want to inflame the already excited 'dada log' or bosses of the moment. In short, you feel you're trying to appease the people who have broken the law. I feel wretched, but I console myself with the thought that when the authorities turn up they will do the same thing and then proceed to negotiate.

Last weekend we were 'caught' again on the road to Siliguri. This time it was at a small settlement near the hills. The road - the National Highway, of course - was blocked by local residents and the children from two nearby schools. The previous night, a couple of children from the busti had been trampled to death by elephants. What a terrible way to die.

We didn't have to ask when the road block would be lifted. From long practice, we knew that it would remain in place until the 'concerned authority' (as we say here, and with no ironic intent) showed up with promises of a hearing, of compensation or redress. In this case the mob was waiting for the forest department officials to declare compensation for the families of the victims. The law is quite clear that every death caused by an elephant has to be compensated. I wonder why the protest had to be staged. Was it because of some past callousness or lapse? That was not the time or the place to find out.

As soon as two or three Forest Department jeeps arrived, we were waved on our way.

Too close for comfort. I wondered whether I was being foolish, taking pictures with my phone! At the first roadblock, someone screamed 'No Press' when a vehicle with a press sticker inched ahead. I heard another person shout that the press would report the roadblock, but write nothing about how the schoolchildren had to walk all the way to the public bus stop on the highway.

Jam on the Sevoke Road in the hill section
With naturally occuring road blocks like this one above, do we need to create more?