During his first visit to the forests in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh, documentary photographer Subrata Biswas was fascinated to see the fine balance between its humans, flora and fauna. It was 2013. Biswas was visiting the forests to document a disturbing part of this ecosystem: human-elephant conflict.
Following rampant deforestation and loss of their habitats in the eastern Indian states of Odisha and Jharkhand, elephants began migrating to the forests of bordering Chhattishgarh state in the 1980s.
At present, there are roughly 250 elephants spread in nine districts across the state. Some of these districts are perfect habitats for elephants because of dense forests.
But as Chhattisgarh gradually started losing its forest cover to coal mining, elephants began intruding into human-dominated areas destroying crops, properties and on some occasions, killing people.
Chhattisgarh reported 325 human deaths by elephants between 2014 and 2019.
Biswas has visited the jungles in this region thrice to capture the devastation.
Korba, one of the districts in the state, has witnessed damaging effects of coal mining with villagers suffering from multiple respiratory ailments.
Explaining the impact of mining, a Korba resident told Mongabay-India. “Near Kete [coal mine] is an elephant corridor. The mine must have interrupted their natural route of passage and migration. After the mine opened, man-elephant conflict increased in all the villages surrounding the mine and caused severe destruction to their lives and livelihoods.”
A research paper published by Sarguja University, Chhattisgarh, noted that the human-elephant conflict is a symptom of inappropriate land-use practices such as diversion of the forests for development and mining activities leading to loss or fragmentation of elephant habitats.
Incessant mining has also displaced indigenous people of the region. In some cases, people have made groups and collectives to oppose mining.
To combat human-elephant conflict, the local state government has taken multiple measures such as alerting the villagers about the movement of pachyderms and tracking locations of elephants though radio collars.
With the hope to mitigate the conflict, the Chhattishgarh state government, in 2005, sought the approval of the central government for two elephant reserves. By 2011, one of the two reserves was established. It is believed that the state government shelved plans for the second reserve to facilitate coal mining. Last year, the state government revived the second project and is yet to finalise its size.
“The ruthless encroachment of the forest by coal mining activity is not an impersonal episode for the forest dwellers. It is an invasion of their homes, lifestyles, privacy, and dignity,” said Biswas.