Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article indicated that the official had taken action against ‘poachers’. This was incorrect and a misuse of the official term. The action was taken against ‘encroachers’. The article has been updated to reflect this. The error is regretted.
Famously called ‘Encroachment Eviction Specialist’ among her peers, Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer, Basu Kannogia is known for her fearlessness.
Ever since the 2012-batch officer took charge in 2014, Basu has been fighting against forest mafia for unlicensed sale of trees, illegal settlers on forest lands, miners and wildlife-related crimes.
Basu has had her share of troubles for abiding by the laws without fear or favour. She has been in the epicentre of threats, and controversies.
But that has not stopped the fierce woman from discharging her duties in a career spanning five years and seven transfers. Over the years she has successfully freed more than 6,000 hectares of encroached land in Madhya Pradesh.
“There is no room for grey area, it is either right or wrong,” she tells The Better India, “I refuse to believe in a solution that allows intrusion in the name of development which is at the cost of nature. I am only doing my job of safeguarding the green cover which is unfortunately on a decline.”
Embracing the Challenges
Basu grew up in a household that ran on strict rules. She completed her schooling in Kanpur, followed by Bachelors in Science from Allahabad University.
Basu’s father served in Uttar Pradesh’s administration service and from a very early age, she was exposed to the government’s role in uplifting the society. It stands to reason that joining government services was an obvious choice.
“I have seen my father making people’s lives easier just by doing his job honestly. He did not get intoxicated with power and instead, used it to help people,” shares Basu.
Following her father’s footsteps, she started preparing for the Union Public Service Commission exams and Indian Foreign Services (IFS) was her first choice by virtue of her inclination toward the environment.
“IFS mainly comprises two things – protection and plantation. Plantation cannot happen without land and thus protecting the forest land became my primary focus,” says Basu.
She cleared the examinations in the first attempt and was posted as the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Madhya Pradesh’s Ashoknagar district. Not wasting much time, she undertook the task of evictions.
Improper implementation of laws was the first lesson she learnt in her one-year tenure at Ashoknagar.
“For years, no one told the people that farming or staying in Forest Reserves is against the law. For no fault of theirs, we had to displace them. Some would put forward the argument that their ancestors lived here without any problems. In such cases, it is heartbreaking but protecting the forests is more important,” says Basu.
When it comes to the rights of the forest dwellers, there are legal mechanisms like the Forest Rights Act (FRA) which they can use to attain their right to reside and manage the forest reserves.
The Better India spoke to Nitin Rai, who works at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment about the rights of forest dwellers. Here’s what he had to say:
“There is a dire need to understand and respect the history of forest dwellers by opening the possibility of a democratic process. The FRA has to be implemented effectively to ensure dwellers are given their right to forest use and at the same time, the forest department can implement their conservation-related policies. There does exist an example where 400 Gram Sabhas in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra have been given right over forest use and the department is working with them. Such a solution needs to executed across India.”
However, as per Basu, eviction is carried out only if the forest dweller fails to present any proof that validates their residency in the forest area, “Based on the proof, a 3-tier committee hands out a Right to Reside letter to the forest dwellers.”
On Protecting Forests & Family
‘We know where you live’, ‘We will show you’, ‘Take care of your family’ are some of the verbal threats that Basu has faced many times.
There have also been times when encroachers and forest officials have engaged in a physical tussle and gunshots had to be fired to control the situation.
While Basu is brave enough to directly face the wrath, her family suffering because of this is not acceptable to her, “When times get tough, I disconnect all communications with my family members. It is unfair to drag make my loved ones in the turmoil.”
She adopts a common strategy to conserve the forests, regardless of the postings.
“There are two types of encroachers – temporary and permanent. Usually, we have to take the land from temporary ones which happen to be the seasonal farmers,” she says.
Basu starts with studying the locals and identifying schemes that could provide alternative livelihood or rehabilitation. Patrol or inspection is the next step which also makes for a subtle warning. Often, to ensure the quality check, Basu does not tell her teammates about the inspection.
A discussion is held with the locals and legal route is taken only if there is resistance. In case of legal action, Preliminary Offence Report (POR), equivalent to an FIR is filed against the concerned people which is usually enough to get the work done. Post eviction, the forest department covers the land through plantation.
The process lasts for anything between 30 days to four months.
Basu has also taken local politicians and government officials head on. Refusing to bow down to them, she has even sent them notices like in 2018, she fought against the construction of the house in the forest area of Umaria district, MP, by sending legal notices to the collector and superintendent.
Two months later, she was transferred. She met a similar fate in Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary for opposing illegal tree felling and in Laundi forest range in Chhatarpur where she managed to freed 300 hectares of land from illegal settlements.
Her most recent transfer was from Panna Tiger Reserve, MP where she served as the Deputy Director.
Within a year, Basu was handed a transfer letter without underlining the reason behind it.
Presently, Basu is serving as the DFO in Ratlam Forest Department where she has already liberated 300 hectares of forest land from jungle mafia in just three months.
Braveheart’s Message to Civil Aspirants
“Saying no to favours or wrong things is the first and most crucial aspect of being a government official. Do not be afraid and use the platform to save nature and country. There will be a lot of people who will have hopes from you and your post. Working in administration is a thankless job, you won’t get a medal every time you do the right thing. Your batchmates may get more lucrative positions but it is inner satisfaction that will keep you going and make you do better each day amidst the mental pressure,” says Basu.
In her seven years of service, the 33-year-old Kanpur woman has time and again proved that nothing is beyond the call of duty. No amount of threats, political interference or agitations can come in Basu’s way and distract her commitment to protect forests and wildlife.
Here’s hoping that more civil aspirants turn out to as brave and loyal as Basu Kannogia.