A little over a month after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, her pet project – yanaai mugaam, a 48-day rejuvenation camp for temple elephants – has inexplicably been halted.
There has been no word yet on the annual retreat, usually held in December or January ahead of the harvest festival of Pongal, near Coimbatore on foothills of the Western Ghats. During the camp, temple and mutt elephants are taken for long walks, bathed and given a nutritious diet.
Amma, as the former chief minister was called, was known to have an affinity for elephants. In 2001, after the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam stormed back to power in the assembly elections, Jayalalithaa donated a 12-year-old elephant as an offering to the Guruvayur Temple in Kerala on her astrologer’s advice.
The idea of a camp for temple elephants came in July 2003, after a hungry elephant ran amok in a Chennai temple, causing it to be closed down for a week. A moved then Jayalalithaa declared a month-long annual holiday for temple elephants in the state and ordered a rejuvenation programme for them. Though considered sacred, temple elephants are held captive, confined for long hours and often chained. Several reports, studies and documentaries over the years have highlighted the poor conditions they live in.
“It is our duty to protect all animals,” Jayalalithaa had said while advocating the camp in 2003. “Especially, protecting the elephant, which is the largest land animal and most helpful to humans, is our important duty.”
When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam came back to power with Karunanidhi as chief minister in 2006, the camp was stopped. It was reinstated when AIADMK took control of the state once again in 2011.
The 48-day holiday for the pachyderms was hailed by wildlife activists. During this period, elephants and their mahouts would be taken for morning walks, given a good scrubbing, taken for prayers to the make-shift Ganesh temple and given healthy meals. The state’s forest department officials would prepare a diet chart for each elephant based on their gender, age, height, weight and physiology. The nutritious diet comprised coconut, banyan, sugarcane and palm leaves as well as rice, ragi, horse gram and green gram. Veterinarians also prescribed Ayurvedic, vitamin and mineral supplements to them.
This year, no preparations have been made to set up the elephant rejuvenation camp. A Forest Department employee from Mettupalayam in Coimbatore, where the camps have been held in recent years, told Scroll.in that when the late Chief Minister was in hospital through November, initial preparations for the camp had begun, but after her death there had been no movement on the same.
“Year after year, the camp would start near the banks of the Bhavani river in Mettupalayam,” said the official, who did not wish to be identified. “The place where it would be held would be cleaned and spruced up in December itself. Even this year, the tender for cleaning operations was getting ready to be floated in November itself. But after the chief minister’s death, the future of the camp hangs in suspense.”
Scroll.in approached the Endowments Department, which oversees the administration of all temples in the state, to verify whether the camp would take place this year. Officials at the department said the government order for the camp was yet to be issued for this year. Even if it were issued soon, they said, it would take at least two months to organise the camp.
AIADMK spokesperson C Ponnaiyan however told Scroll.in that the party and government had not forgotten Amma’s pet elephant camp project. “The elephant camp was Amma’s pet project and we will never forget that,” he said. “But at the same time the situation in Tamil Nadu is not conducive for conducting the elephant rejuvenation camp. Due to drought, there is water scarcity everywhere. There is a saying in Tamil that means the world will not survive without water. Similarly, the elephant camp cannot take place without water. Once the situation gets better, we will definitely conduct the camp.” After a poor Northeast monsoon, when Tamil Nadu receives most of its rainfall, the state is facing an agrarian crisis. Over a 100 farmers have reportedly committed suicide in the drought-hit state.
However, the forest department official said that the camp does not need additional water as the elephants are tended to using naturally occurring water on the hills.
Wildlife activists also pressed for the continuation of the scheme. “Jayalalithaa was very interested in wild life and their care and also in the environment, said Osai Kalidas, a wildlife activist. “The scheme for the rejuvenation of elephants should be continued. Just because they are temple animals they do not become domestic...They do not have proper food and good exercise at temples and are in a pathetic condition even now. In such a scenario, the 48-day rejuvenation camp was a blessing to them where they were taken care of as they should be. So, this should continue, even if not at a camp [then] at least where they presently reside.”
Not just the camp
This is not the first instance when the Tamil Nadu state government has not shown much enthusiasm for causes close to Jayalalithaa’s heart.
Chief Minister O Panneerselvam has reversed many of Amma’s decision after her death. For instance, on December 10, Panneerselvam wrote to the Centre stating that there was no objection to the Maduravoyal-Chennai Port Expressway project. The Rs 1,800-crore elevated road project, inaugurated by the DMK government in 2009, was stalled by Jayalalithaa when she came back power in 2011.
Similarly, Tamil Nadu also joined the Centre’s Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana or UDAY, a scheme to save ailing distribution companies, on Monday. Jayalalithaa had opposed the scheme, saying it would hurt the state and benefit private players.
The government also seems to have softened their stance on the the National Entrance cum Eligibility Test and the Goods and Services Tax, which Jayalalithaa was a staunch opponent of. For instance, the state government recently announced that it would set up an online platform to tutor students for the NEET, even as it maintains that it continues to oppose the common entrance test for medical courses. The state is also toeing a markedly softer line on GST, an umbrella tax to replace the various services taxes levied by the Centre and states. Jayalalithaa had firmly resisted the tax, which she said would hurt the state’s revenues and AIADMK MPs had stormed out of the Parliament in protest when the GST Bill was taken up for voting and subsequently cleared in August.
The AIADMK spokesperson preferred not to comment on these reversals of stance.
Political analysts like Aazhi Senthilnathan, however, feel that with Jayalalithaa gone, the present regime in Tamil Nadu is not strong enough to take the Centre head on. “We cannot say that Jayalalithaa opposed every scheme of the Centre’s,” he said. “She opposed those schemes which she felt took away the rights of the states. That is the reason she was against schemes like UDAY. Now, there is no strong leader in the Tamil Nadu government. The current regime easily buckles under pressure from the Centre.
Added Senthilnathan,” As far as the elephant camp is concerned, it is a scheme that has no public good per se. It was her personal wish. The fact that this scheme has been stopped clearly shows how much respect her party leaders have for the late chief minister.”