Editorial: Ridding crossings of catastrophes

In what seems to be a continuation of tragedies involving one of India’s most majestic animals, two wild elephants were killed in Assam, after they were hit by a passenger train on Tuesday. The two adults were walking on the railway track when a train knocked down the two animals, killing them instantly.
Editorial: Ridding crossings of catastrophes
Representative image.

Chennai

Despite the proposed regulation of speed in elephant zones, trains have knocked down dozens of animals in Assam which has an estimated 5,000 Asiatic animals. The incident follows on the heels of another accident near Madukarai in Coimbatore last week. Three elephants including a pregnant female, an adult ‘makna’, and a calf were among those killed while crossing a track. The loco pilots had cited a curve ahead of the accident spot which contributed to poor visibility on the stretch. Animal activists said the presence of electrical fences on the farmland near the tracks could have restrained their movement too.
India’s track record vis-a-vis elephant deaths paints a shocking picture. In May, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change said 186 elephants were killed between 2009-10 and 2020-21 after being hit by trains. The Project Elephant division of the Ministry remarked that Assam witnessed the most casualties at 62 deaths, while West Bengal with 57 and Odisha with 27 fatalities trailed behind. Tamil Nadu saw the passing of five elephants in rail accidents during this period. The worst year seems to have been 2012-13 when as many as 27 elephants were killed across 10 states.
A Permanent Coordination Committee had been set up comprising the Railway and Environment ministries, which aims at preventing elephant deaths due to train accidents. However, a CAG report tabled in the Rajya Sabha this week said officials of the two departments did not prioritise the construction of underpasses on tracks to enable the movement of pachyderms, which resulted in many fatalities. The audit conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General said more elephants (37) died on identified railway tracks compared to those who died in unidentified stretches (24) during the 2016-17 to 2018-19 period.
It added that precautionary measures including speed restrictions in notified elephant corridors were not followed. Elephant signages to be installed by the Railways were found to be non-uniform in dimensions and content, while also being placed incorrectly which prove detrimental in forewarning drivers. Experts have said sounding the horn frequently or operating the trains at a lesser speed are not foolproof mechanisms as it is impossible to bring trains to a complete halt when spotting elephants at a short distance.
In Tamil Nadu, the Forest Department has proposed to install more watchtowers in areas besides the railway lines connecting Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to ensure the safety of elephants. Forest officials have been asked to employ drones with infrared cameras to monitor the presence of elephants near tracks, which will be supplemented by foot patrol units.
Between 2011-12 and 2020-21, as part of Project Elephant, the Environment ministry disbursed Rs 212.49 crore to elephant-range States. This is aimed at mitigating man-elephant conflicts. The Permanent Coordination Committee has also been tasked with the clearing of foliage along tracks to provide a clear view for loco pilots and putting up signage boards at relevant junctions to alert on the presence of jumbos. There is also a need to moderate slopes on elevated stretches of tracks, as well as create functional underpasses and overpasses for the safe passage of the animals. Train speed will also need to be monitored between sunset and sunrise in elephant corridors.
Man-animal conflict has risen due to the depletion of wildlife habitats across India, as well as due to encroachment of reserve areas. While it might be impractical to stop railway traffic on these lines, we must undertake remedial measures in sync with the requirements of both man and these gentlest of giants.

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