The Udalguri district of Assam, bordering Bhutan, is among the worst affected regions as far as human-elephant con- flict is concerned. Between 2014 and 2015, 40 humans and 15 elephants have lost their lives. As worse as this may seem, the psychological toll of this day-to-day conflict is much worse than figures can indicate. But how can conservation organisations help? Rob- in Eastment, who is a Programme Ex- ecutive with the Balipara Foundation, Assam, recounts – “A person once told me that ‘there are more humans than elephants being killed in Udalguri. If an- yone needs help, it’s us – not them’. What do you say to that?”
Wanting to understand and learn more, Robin and Saurav Malhotra (Project Executive, Balipara Foundation) started camping out in the heart of Udalguri Elephant Country. “It was not easy to sleep at all, with elephants on our minds. Every little noise startled us. Anyway, we did it for two months and we see elephants very differently to- day,” adds Saurav, who has been with the Foundation for a few months now.
But the experience also offered them some clarity of action. “The only thing worse than an elephant breaking your house is getting compensated 12 to 36 months later. That’s insult to injury,” maintains Robin. “Whenever we have spoken to people as to how we could help, most often than not, the issue of ‘timely compensation’ has been raised. We are exploring models of CSR Bridge Funding to enable this, aligned with insurance schemes. Low Cost Solar Pow- ered Fencing is another priority item, aided by the WWF NBL team (read World Wildlife Fund North Bank Land- scape),” informs Saurav.
Robin quickly adds, “Elephants, how- ever, are not the most pertinent issue in Udalguri. Social mobility is, by far, the bigger challenge.” He explains that long- term and meaningful conservation out- comes cannot be achieved by a handful of conservationists going out there and preaching ‘conservation’. Neither can it be attained by ‘stand alone’ laws and policies. “Do you think that the fate of our forests and wildlife are dependent on government policies or conservation projects? No. It, in fact, lies in the hands of the people that live alongside these forests and have a day-to-day relation- ship with the wildlife living in it – the forest fringe communities,” he states.
This leads us to the core concept of the Udalguri Landscape Mission (ULM) Project. “Everyone talks about commu- nity participation in conservation projects, but how can you expect the community, hounded by elephants, to participate in the saving of elephants, when the much bigger issue for them is accessibility to water, and we are not even talking about drinking water, just water?” adds Saurav.
Robin explains that community participation can never be achieved by the current conservation narrative that is laden with ‘Nature nostalgia’ and ‘mo- tivational rhetoric’. “That can only take you so far,” he adds quickly.
Along with the elephants, accessibil- ity to water is a major issue in Udalgu- ri. “Having gone through the whole trouble of fetching water from a well one km. away, daily, during our two- month camp-stay in Udalguri, we real- ised that we could make a huge differ- ence,” exclaims Saurav. And that was how we conceptualised the 24x7 Wa- ter Project. Government investments through water supply schemes, in most cases, simply close down in a few months due to design flaws and lack of community ownership.
When one travels around Udalguri, one will see a lot of abandoned water supply schemes, rainwater harvesting units and rural toilets – all built by the government. However, they have been rendered as Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). One of the project’s long-term goals is to work with government departments to improve the service delivery of these assets by in- troducing engineering and design ele- ments that are technology-driven.
“Why should it be so audacious for a forest-fringe dweller to demand wa- ter 24x7 when his urban counterpart takes the same service for granted?” questions Saurav.
Robin and Saurav also spoke very keenly about having an exit strategy. They pointed out that traditional con- servation projects always lack one. Therefore, they invariably run out of steam once funding is exhausted. Their strategy is built around partnering with grassroot agencies as their primary project partners. The Khalingduar Eco- Development Committee (EDC) is a result of that endeavour. The EDC is represented by 12 forest-fringe com- munities who have organised them- selves to undertake an ambitious 500- hectare afforestation project, besides the Khalingduar Reserve Forest along the Indo-Bhutan border. “Two major nationalised banks have come forward to fund the EDC and the first tree will be planted with the onset of monsoons in March-April, 2017.
“The future of conservation lies in the hands of people who are unfortunately underprivileged, and hence, are not in a position to participate meaningfully. This can only be reversed through the social mobility of these communities. The poacher or the logger is not a “conser- vationist” not because he/she chooses not to be, but because he/she hasn’t had the opportunity to be one. The re- verse can be said for the conservation- ist!” signs off Robin.
Ranjit Borthakur, the Chairman of Balipara Foundation, which came into being in 2007, would like to term the entire exercise more as a concept rather than a project. He sums up, “Rather than just projecting Assam as a rhino land only, we should divide it into five- six zones – ‘Elephant Country’, ‘Rhi- no Country’, ‘Tiger Country’, ‘Buffalo Country’, etc. We are also trying to create patches so that tuskers can move freely without human habitations and tea gardens coming in their way.”