Justice for Arikomban amid the fierce battle for land grab

By Sangita Iyer

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Arikomban | Mathrubhumi

It is one of the most thoughtful and eloquent orders issued by two brilliant and conscientious judges of the Kerala High Court. They refused to be intimidated by death threats or cave into political pressures. They upheld the rule of law and India’s constitutional rights for a voiceless and vulnerable bull elephant.

The April 12th virtual hearing of the latest media obsession, Arikomban elephant, was something to behold by the moment. Perhaps sensing the ulterior motives of the petitioners, Justice A.K. Jayasankaran Nambiar set the stage, “capturing the elephant for the purpose of captivity is not an option.”

The issue at hand is, a trial run to relocate Arikomban from Chinnakanal to Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, set for April 11th was thwarted. They erected blockades, causing traffic nightmare, protested, disrupting the local communities, and even prevented an excavator from reaching Parambikulam. Thanks to the Nenmara constituency MLA, who stoked anger and terror in the minds of gullible villagers.

His writ petition argues that the elephant is habituated to straying into human settlements, and Arikomban would do the same in his locality – enter the Muthalamada Grama Panchayat and cause mayhem if he is relocated to Parambikulam. But in a court order, following the hearing, the defiant judges dismissed the MLA’s unfounded fears, “Firstly, there is no material before us, either in the form of scientific opinion or otherwise, that would suggest either that the elephant would almost inevitably behave in the manner suggested by the petitioner or that its translocation would upset the ecological balance within the Tiger Reserve. Secondly, we do not find any right, fundamental or otherwise, inhering in the people residing in the vicinity of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, to decide on the nature of the animals that must be housed within the Tiger Reserve.”

Inside the courtroom, the MLA came up with a different contention, this time claiming that the elephant could escape from the truck and kill people. But Justice Nambiar, swiftly rebuffed that suggestion too, stating, “The tusker will be taken in a tranquilliser state, so how can he pose a threat?”

As the arguments escalated to a fever pitch, you could hear the frustration in the judge’s voice, “There is a limit to all this. The chief wildlife warden issues his order without considering the consequences. Why don’t you take up your issues to the state officials? They need to open up elephant corridors, and ensure that humans do not block the passage of the elephants. It is for the state to build confidence building measures.”

Addressing the numerous death threats and thousands of nasty emails that were being fended off by the clerks, Justice A.K. Nambiar said, “Some of the grossly irresponsible statements misleading the people cannot be coming from the state government. We have no interest in governance. Our job is to uphold the constitution for the minority.” And upheld they did!

This is a battle between the good and the evil in the modern-day Kurukshetra, with law abiding citizens on one side, and rogue humans, desecrating the laws and manipulating them for personal gain on the other. Caught in the middle is an elephant named Arikomban, who understands and adheres to only the laws of nature. He is the poster child for wild bull elephants across India, bravely exposing the miseries facing his species that are doomed in the wild and in captivity.

Arikomban, just like all creatures of the earth, doesn’t understand human laws, nor does he understand the concept of “stealing rice”. Arikomban is not a “rogue” elephant neither is he a “menace” nor a “rice stealer”, as the media describes him, only flaming the fumes of hysteria and panic.

The only reason he enters human dwellings is that he is hungry, thirsty and homeless. He comes into the villages to find food and water because he has nothing left inside his home. Humans have looted his home and decimated his fodder, even as the waterholes are drying up due to extreme weather conditions.

In a somber, yet firm voice, the judge patiently explained how the loss of habitat, the replacement of grasslands with eucalyptus forests to serve humans, and the waste stenches are some of the factors that draw elephants to the villages in search of food and water. He reiterated that humans have encroached into the forest, leaving no food or water for the elephants and other wildlife. This he asserted was the root cause of the problem currently facing the people of Chinnakanal.

“If you deplete food and water where will the animals go? Today it is Arikomban, tomorrow it will be another elephant. How can we continue to capture all elephants and put them in captivity? What is the state doing? Complete apathy is what we need to address. The problem is, we have authorised human settlements in the forest. We need to revisit revenue records to find out who owns the land.” – April 12, 2023 Kerala High Court Hearing

If you deplete food and water where will the animals go? Today it is Arikomban, tomorrow it will be another elephant.

That’s exactly what the central government of India did back in 2010. They constituted a committee to investigate if the Forest Protection Act 1980 had been violated in Kerala, based on a petition filed by a non-profit organisation. The inconsistencies and suspicious land transfers discovered during the investigation prompted the central government to force the forest department to notify 17,349 acres of land immediately. The report also highlights concerns regarding the assignment of pattas (land ownership document) by the Revenue Department without consulting with the Forest Department. At the heart of the problem is reckless land management and land transfers:

“There is wide spread fear/apprehension that lands set apart for afforestation in Munnar Division may also be distributed for non-forestry purposes by the District Administration/State Government in future particularly in view of the District Administration distributing pattas in Kuttiyar valley without complying with the provisions/spirit of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 and orders of the Supreme Court dated 12.121996 in WP 202/95”, according to the Inspection Report of the Central Team Constituted to Examine Violations of The Forest Conservation Act 1980, in Munnar.

But there’s more to the story. Eight years before this investigation was launched, Kerala cadre IFS officer, former Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Munnar, now a senior PCCF, Prakriti Srivastava, had issued a dire warning against allowing human settlements in Chinnakanal. “I as the DFO Munnar, had objected to the proposal of assigning this land considering that the habitat was a known Elephant corridor, and informed all the authorities regarding the perils of doing so.” But her objections fell on deaf ears.

Clearly, the nexus of land grab, politics and corruption run deep. It’s much easier to project the problems on Arikomban. But he isn’t the trouble maker. Rather, it is the shackled, greedy, and selfish human minds, fueling hatred and conspiracy theories in order to ensure that Arikomban is captured for permanent captivity. But that idea had been quashed multiple times in the Hon. Court’s previous orders:

“We are persuaded to hold so because we have come across various instances of cruelty to captive elephants in the State, and also seen the deplorable state in which elephants are held captive in various locations across the State. Adding another wild elephant to that list of hapless ‘converts’ would run counter to our fundamental duty to protect wildlife and have compassion for living creatures, as envisaged under Art.51A (g) of our Constitution.”

It’s humans who have encroached into Arikomban’s land. And it is humans who must be relocated. Chinnakkanal rightfully belongs to Arikomban. It’s his home, period! Case closed! Even the order issued on April 12th quells any doubts.

“Reports submitted by the Forest and Wildlife department of the State suggest that some of the settlements that have come up in the areas falling within or in the vicinity of established elephant habitats in the State, were authorised by the State government in gross disregard of the safety of the persons proposed for settlement therein, as they were permitted to reside in those areas notwithstanding clear data that showed them to be elephant habitats. The increasing instances of human elephant conflict that we are confronted with today appear to be nothing but inevitable fallouts of the apparently reckless executive action of yesteryears.” – Kerala High Court Order, April 12, 2023

Arikomban seen in the human settlement areas of Chinnakkanal and Santhanpara in Idukki | Mathrubhumi

The story of Arikomban has opened up the Pandora’s box of dubious land transfers of Kerala’s rich forestland that have now become a human wasteland. But it’s still not too late. The forests can be restored and regenerated, so people and wildlife can coexist harmoniously.

“The long-term solution to the problem may lie in re-visiting, and in appropriate cases reversing, those decisions, and restoring to the animals their lost habitat but that will take time. Pending such long-term resolution of the issue, we feel that the State Executive must take immediate and effective action to protect human settlements in areas falling within or in the vicinity of wildlife habitats. Towards this end, it must forthwith constitute local level task forces comprising of officials from the revenue, forest & wildlife and police departments, as well as the President of the local Panchayat, who will work with the members of the local community concerned to put in place adequate and effective warning and protective measures to insulate themselves from animal attacks… The State Executive must also, simultaneous with the translocation of the elephant, put in place adequate safety measures that would allay the fear of the people residing within the Muthalamada Panchayat, of an attack by wild animals including the elephant in question. The above steps would constitute the bare minimum of the State’s obligation to protect the lives of the people in the locality while balancing their rights with the rights ensuring to the animals in the wild.” – Kerala High Court Order, April 12, 2023.

At the end of the day, we need to realize that humans are just a strand in this magnificent web of life. If the strands of the web collapse, human civilization will also implode. Therefore, it’s in our own best interest that we deal with the situation honestly, ethically, and most important, compassionately.

“Art.51A of our constitution uses the expression ‘compassion’ and ‘humanism’ while enumerating the duties expected of the citizenry towards the environment and living creatures. In the true spirit of humanism, and through invoking our feelings of empathy and compassion, what the constitution exhorts us to do is to develop a sympathetic understanding as a cognitive mode to decipher nature’s own language, to see organic life as it is, not as translated into manipulable objects for human use. It is only through a duty based legal approach that obligates human beings to invoke their feelings of sympathy, empathy and compassion while trying to understand those legitimate interests of animals that require safeguarding, that our nation can succeed in enhancing the inherent spirit of humanism in the citizenry.” – Kerala High Court Order, April 12, 2023.

The relocation is expected to take place within a week, and the next court hearing has been set for April 19th. There’s so much that can happen between now and then. But it’s worth mentioning that if not for the ongoing agitations, Arikomban would have returned home to do what he does best, wander freely like a vagabond, rather than constantly stalked and harassed by humans.

(The writer is a author, award-winning wildlife filmmaker, National Geographic Explorer, Founder, Voice for Asian Elephants Society)

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