Add to forest minister A K Saseendran's shoddy preparation of his provocative response to the eruption of public outrage in Wayanad, and the LDF government was shown in a poor light in the Assembly on Monday, two days after a 46-year-old man was stomped to death by a wild elephant.
It was while responding to an adjournment motion moved by Kalpetta MLA T Siddique that the minister made two improper comments; one that was factually incorrect and the other plain insensitive.
The minister seemed to believe that anti-social elements had stoked public anger. "It was after we got reports that there were attempts to inflame passions that the administration acted with great maturity and restraint," Saseendran said. "It will eventually harm Wayanad if there are moves to instigate people to take extreme positions in a moment of such emotional turmoil," he said.
There was a sudden swell of protest in the opposition ranks as the minister's remarks could also be taken to mean that it was the opposition leaders who were trying to exploit the situation. "It was the suffering public who were protesting and no one was inciting them," Siddique was heard shouting. The minister was quick to clear the air. "All of us know it was the people who were protesting. But I was just informing the house of a fact (the reports of anti-social elements trying to foment trouble). I hope the House would treat it with the gravity it requires," he said amid big shouting by the opposition.
Speaking over the din, the minister said: "I would want you to please realise that there is such a group among the protesters. I am stating this strongly and with all responsibility."
When his turn came, Opposition Leader V D Satheesan said the government should not view certain groups of people in the same casual manner as it would protesters before the Secretariat. "These farmers who live along the fringes of forest face severe challenges to their daily existence. Like fisherfolks, it is in their nature to react emotionally to such situations," Satheesan said.
He then urged the forest minister to imagine how it would be if tigers, elephants and other wild beasts roamed freely in the area in which he was living. "Can children go to school? Can they even step out into their courtyard? Can the adults go out to get groceries, tap their rubber or sell their milk? It is a reality that wild animals are encroaching into human settlements like never before. Imagine the terror they are being put through," he said and added: "People terrorised by the threat of death would respond strongly and sharply. It is not because they are being incited. You have misunderstood. This is just a natural reaction. Kindly don't brand them Maoists or terrorists or troublemakers. Leave them alone."
If his anti-social remarks were inappropriate, coming just two days after the death of Ajeesh, the forest minister's excuse for the Forest Department's failure to track Belur Makhna exposed the minister's disconnect with even his Department, forgetting the sincerity with which he did his homework.
Saseendran said that the makhna elephant trespassed into the Kerala border from Karnataka on January 30. The Opposition Leader corrected him saying it was much earlier, on January 5. The minister stuck to his statement but Satheesan insisted that it was on January 5 that the makhna first crossed into Kerala. Later it went back to Bandipur in Kerala and returned to Muthanga on February 2. The Forest Department, too, had officially said it was on January 5 that Belur Makhna was first spotted in Kerala.
The minister had also said that Karnataka had delayed granting the user ID and password to track the communication from the radio collar on the makhna after it was spotted in the Muthanga division on January 30, suggesting it was the reason for the Department's delay in tracking the makhna that killed Ajeesh. Satheesan once again put this in perspective for the minister. He said the user ID and password were handed over to Kerala on January 9, a month before Ajeesh was killed. "You could have used the same details to track the elephant when it returned to Kerala on January 30. Both you and Karnataka would have taken the same two to three hours to decode the information," Satheesan said. The minister had no reply to this.
When contacted, a top Forest Department conceded the point. "We could have used the ID and password," he said. However, the official argued that Kerala also required a receiver and antenna to track the elephant and that Karnataka denied this equipment to Kerala.
But this exposes not Karnataka's stubbornness but Kerala Forest Department's inefficiency. The fact is, even after human-animal conflicts increased like never before, Kerala has not bothered to equip itself with the necessary technology to track dangerous animals. "We don't have the receiver and antenna," the official admitted. Kerala then borrowed these from WWF but by then it was too late.