Odisha TV journalist dies, another critical, after boat to rescue elephant capsizes

Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force conducts a rescue operation for a stuck elephant near the Mundali barrage while trying to cross the Mahanadi river, in Cuttack on Friday. A journalist with OTV died as the rescue boat capsized.

 

A journalist with a local TV channel died while his colleague was battling for life after an Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) boat, which was sent to rescue an elephant stranded in the swirling waters of the Mahanadi, overturned near Mundali bridge of Cuttack on Friday.

Arindam Das, 40, the chief reporter of OTV, his cameraman colleague Prabhat Sinha, along with five personnel of the ODRAF were in the inflatable dinghy that capsized due to strong current of water near the pillars of Mundali barrage during the rescue operation.

Das, who along with Sinha and four ODRAF personnel were rushed to SCB Medical College and Hospital, was declared brought dead, said Dr Bhubanananda Maharana, emergency officer of the hospital.

“Prabhat Sinha, the cameraman, and an ODRAF personnel are in very serious condition. We are trying our best to save them,” said Dr Maharana, adding that three other ODRAF personnel were also in serious conditions. One ODRAF official is still missing.

Additional Director General (law and order) RK Sharma, said an investigation into the boat tragedy will be done to find out the circumstances that led the dinghy to capsize and why journalists were allowed to board the boat.

An ODRAF official, who was rescued from the river, said the boat was sucked into a whirlpool. “As the boat capsized, we tried to restore its position, but the water current was very strong. As the boat got sucked into the whirlpool, the motor stopped working. We tried to come out of the whirlpool but it was tough…,” he said.

Jagi Mangat Panda, managing director of OTV, said it was a terrible loss. “He was a brave and ethical journalist who fearlessly chose to go after breaking news. This is a terrible loss despite taking safety precautions & ODRAF’s best efforts. Om Shanti,” she tweeted.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national vice-president Baijayant Panda and National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) DG Satya Narayan Pradhan condoled the journalist’s death. While Patnaik said the death of Das was a huge loss for journalism, the Union minister said the journalist had created his own identity with his daring news reportage in challenging circumstances.

“He was and is a hero. Deeply anguished by boat tragedy which, despite safety precautions, took life of OTV’s intrepid chief reporter Arindam Das while covering an ODRAF elephant rescue. Deepest condolences to his family & prayers for injured & missing,” tweeted Panda.

Saying he was extremely disturbed and saddened by untimely death of Das, NDRF DG said: “Can’t forget he took my first TV interview at Mundali soon after I joined as NDRF DG. Always active and stayed in touch. May your soul be forever blessed dear Arindam.”

Editor of OTV, Radha Madhav Mishra said, “As reporters we often take on-the-spot risk assessment of doing a particular story. Arindam has done several such reporting including covering cyclones in the past in difficult circumstances. I am too shocked and sad to say anything more.”

Das is survived by his wife and a three-year-old son.

Hours before the tragedy, a team of 80 forest officials from two forest divisions of Odisha launched a major operation to rescue the adult tusker that was trapped inside the swirling floodwaters of the Mahanadi on Friday morning, officials said.

Assistant conservator of forest of Chandaka forest division, Sangram Mohanty, said the tusker, part of a 17-member herd that was trying to cross the river from Chandaka side to Banki late Thursday night, got swept by strong water current in the river that is now in spate. “All other elephants, except the tusker, could cross the river. The level of water was a little too high near the spot where the elephant got stuck. Though elephants are good swimmers it got tired and was looking for ways to get out,” said Mohanty.

The rescue operation did not make much headway as the elephant that was slowly wading its way through the waters to the banks returned back, probably scared by a large number of people who were watching it over the barrage. A team of five ODRAF personnel from its 6th Battalion then decided to go near the elephant to herd it towards the shore when the two reporters of OTV hopped on the boat.

Bhubaneswar-Cuttack police commissioner Soumendra Priyadarshi said though the inflatable dinghies are easy to manoeuvre and not difficult to balance in floodwaters, the current seemed to be too strong. “Though the journalists and others in the boat were wearing lifejackets, the force of the water was too strong for them. The journalists carrying video cameras and other reporting materials may have found it difficult to balance themselves in such a situation,” said Priyadarshi.

Officials said on Friday locals found the tusker trumpeting and converged over the Mundali barrage as fire brigade personnel thought of ways to rescue the elephant. They first put a net around it to stop it from getting swept away and then planned to bring a crane to lift it out of the swirling waters.

“A couple of hours later, the elephant slowly regained its strength and started wading through the water though the water level kept on rising covering half its body. It had almost reached the shore when it decided to turn back and head into the swirling waters again annoyed by hundreds of people shouting and taking pictures in the mobile camera. We tried telling people to move away, but nobody would listen to us,” said Mohanty.

It was then that the ODRAF officials were requisitioned by the forest department and they arrived within 15 minutes. A former ODRAF commandant said the team should never have gone into water as its mandate is to save human beings not wildlife. “In disaster situation the first principle is ensure own safety first and then attempt to rescue as many people as possible. There was no need of rescuing elephants that are known to be good swimmers. The team should have waited instead of taking the boat in the swirling waters. There was also no need of taking journalists unless they can tell the team about the topography of the area,” said the former commandant.

Another senior police official who has trained with ODRAF, said Friday’s operation was a complete botch up till the end. “Though ODRAF claims to be very good in rescue, I was appalled to see its personnel being rescued from the waters through rope ladder. The personnel must be totally drained out of any energy and disoriented after the boat capsized and they should have been winched up through a crane. One needs biceps of steel to climb up the ladder,” said the official.

By late Friday evening, the elephant was still in the riverwater, but was in a better position. DFO of Chandaka wildlife division, Mohd Jamil said he expected the elephant to swim its way through once the water level receded a little bit. “The crowding and the constant hooting on the barrage is still troubling the animal,” he said.

Noted conservationist and former member of National Board for Wildlife, Biswajit Mohanty said the the mishap could have been avoided had the forest officials been a little more patient. “I don’t know what the forest officials were thinking, but the idea of herding away an elephant is ridiculous. Elephants can swim and in this case it would have found its way had the crowd been driven away by the forest officials,” he said.

Wildlife expert and member of Odisha State Biodiversity Board, Jayanta Mardaraj said the elephant may have been forced to take the new path as the riverbanks are now encroached. “The riverbank has been encroached by farmhouses and elephants are now taking longer routes to cross rivers. In my youth, I have seen elephants regularly crossing the river from Chandaka to Banki effortlessly. But encroachment on the riverbanks is a major issue which is playing havoc with the elephant corridors,” he said.

In August this year, the National Green Tribunal had ordered the Odisha government to notify 14 elephant corridors in the state within the next two months culminating in the realisation of the long-standing demands of elephant conservationists for declaration of the same that would give legal sanctity to the elephant paths.

Responding to a petition by wildlife conservationist Biswajit Mohanty the Eastern Zonal bench of the NGT said that the 14 corridors identified by Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, a non-profit public charitable trust involved in the conservation of Asian elephants in 13 of the 30 districts be notified within two weeks.

Mohanty had alleged that that though the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) had submitted details of elephant corridors in Odisha to the forest and environment department in 2012 for identification of 14 corridors with a length of 420.8 kms and a width of 0.08 km to 4.6 kms, no action was being taken for their formal notification under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

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