15 February, 2002, is a day not many officers of the Indian Forest Service (IFS) can ever forget. It’s also a day that long remains in mind of retired university Professor Ghanshyam Singh.
On this day, his son and heroic IFS officer Sanjay Kumar Singh was murdered by nefarious Maoist elements of the mining mafia in the Rehal forests of Rohtas district, Western Bihar. A Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Sanjay had arrived at the Rehal Rang Office for a routine inspection when armed men disguised in police uniforms stopped him.
With no armed protection, Sanjay and his bodyguard had little choice but to address these criminals. Led by CPI-Maoist zonal commander Nirala Yadav, the armed assailants demanded that Sanjay facilitate the payment of a commission for a road being constructed in the area. Instead of caving into their demands, he firmly refused to give a single penny.
Responding to this denial, the gang leader accused the young officer of being anti-poor because of his work in sealing stone crusher machines, which the Maoists argued had rendered many villagers unemployed. Sanjay responded by saying that his opposition was to illegal stone mining, which only benefited the local mafia and smugglers.
Illegal stone mining, he argued, not only resulted in serious environmental degradation but also caused a massive loss to the exchequer. Moreover, he said that his office had given the respective village committees in the area a lease for stone quarrying that would benefit local residents and not criminal elements.
As DFO, Sanjay had set up a committee of villagers from 14 villages under a Joint Forest Management (JFM) initiative and granted them a lease for stone quarrying to a degree that it doesn’t cause undue harm to the environment. As the argument escalated and got more heated, residents of Parchha village came to the Range Office and pleaded with the armed assailants to leave the DFO alone because of his positive work in the community.
Through government-mandated construction of Primary Health Centres (PHC), roads and school buildings, Sanjay had given livelihood opportunities to the residents of Parchha village. The request soon turned into a full scale protest, and in an attempt to disperse them, the armed assailants began firing.
When the assailants tried to harm his bodyguard, Sanjay asked them to spare him because he was only doing his duty. They then went onto tie Sanjay’s hands up, separated him from the other forest officers and took to the forest where assailants pumped nine bullets into his body. Sanjay died on the spot.
Sanjay’s remarkable legacy became an inspiration to subsequent generations of IFS officers who perform their duties with little fanfare.
Early life: A Sense of Adventure
“He was a very adventurous, dedicated, generous and all-round brilliant boy growing up. Participating in multiple sports events, debates and cultural events, he won 36 medals of merit during his time in school. Growing up, he didn’t want to take the conventional route in life. He always wanted to do something different. A man of adventure, he wanted to explore beyond the confines of conventional life with dedication,” says his father Ghanshyam Singh, speaking to The Better India (TBI).
There is no question his early life reflected this excellence and a sense of the unconventional. Born to Dr Ghanshyam Narain Singh and Dr Kanti Singhin Belhami Jairam village of Sitamarhi district, Bihar, Sanjay completed his secondary education from the Netarhat Public School in Patna before joining the prestigious Patna Science College for his Intermediate studies.
During his time in school, he earned multiple medals for merit and excellent performances in debates. After high school, he would go onto finish his BTech in textile engineering from IIT-Delhi and Masters in Computer Application from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He worked as a Management Trainee at the multinational company HCL for barely a year before he joined the IFS in 1992 as part of the Bihar cadre.
Once again, he maintained his levels of academic excellence at the Indian Gandhi National Forest Academy (IGNFA) in Dehradun during his two-year training course winning medals along the way.
With his qualifications, he could have earned a lot more doing something else or left for foreign shores to pursue further studies. But he chose to dedicate himself toward protecting India’s ecological future and the people dependent on the forest for their survival (vulnerable tribal communities) at locations far away from mainstream public discourse.
Sanjay’s first posting was as DFO in the Garhawa Forest Division and he did not mess around. Among his first tasks was ensuring strict checks on illegal mining and the collection of Tendu leaves used to roll beedis. Despite increasing pressure from vested interests, particularly the powerful mining mafia and their political patrons, he filed a series of FIRs against both offenders and corrupt administrative officials.
However, his work wasn’t merely limited to taking punitive measures. Utilising multiple afforestation and developmental projects, he facilitated alternative livelihood opportunities for low-income tribal communities living in the vicinity of the forests he supervised.
Considering his uncompromising, yet principled personality, there was no question he was going to run into barriers in the system. Merely a year and a half into his first posting, he was transferred out of Ranchi, following which he underwent further transfers to Hazaribagh before finally landing up as DFO of Rohtas Forest Division in Sasaram in December 2000.
“His dedication to serve the poorest of the poor was uncompromising. He wanted to do something for the deprived. And the people loved him for it. For example, when he was transferred from Garhwa Forest Division to Ranchi following pressure from vested interests unhappy with his work, there was real discontentment among the local village folks. On the day Sanjay left, his entire staff and many villagers saw him off to the boundary,” says Ghanshyam.
Aftermath of his Death
Following his tragic demise, Sanjay was cremated with state honours in Patna. On the day after his abduction and death, there was a bandh in Sasaram with locals blocking the roads and railway lines into it. In the days following, students from different schools and colleges in Sasaram conducted a march paying their tribute to the fallen hero. Even the Supreme Court of India took cognizance of his death and requested the then Solicitor General of India to act as an Amicus Curiae to the case. However, it was only 15 years later when a special court in Sasaram convicted four of the assailants to life imprisonment.
“After my son’s tragic passing, we formed the Sanjay Kumar Singh Memorial Trust to not only support activities related to the cause of protection of the environment and the benefit of economically disadvantaged forest dwellers, but also other social causes like educating children of slum dwellers. But after his demise the State government had promised the transfer of his monthly salary till the date of retirement to the Trust. Although officials have talked about fulfilling this wish, they haven’t,” he says.
Nonetheless, the state did rename a government college after him following pressure from local residents, which is today called the Shaheed Sanjay Singh College. Meanwhile, the IGNFA have not only started an annual lecture in his name, but also facilitate IFS probationers who finish first in Forest Management and Environment Conservation with the Sanjay Kumar Singh Memorial Gold Medal. After Sanjay’s demise, his family donated all the medals he had earned during his stint in school, college and IGNFA to the IGNFA, Dehradunm for posterity, which is there for all young trainee officers to witness.
Meanwhile, for subsequent generations of IFS officers, Sanjay’s life remains an example.
“Officers like Sanjay Singh are motivational figures for all IFS officers. The way he cracked down on the mining mafias involved in illegal mining in Bihar and committed the supreme sacrifice for the conservation of natural resources is a source of motivation for all green warriors in this country. Being an IFS officers, we should never forget the work of these officers and must always keep their spirit alive. A man of dedication, integrity, exceptional courage and an unbending will to preserve his principles while serving the people are all qualities we must imbibe,” says Kundan Kumar, DFO, Haldwani.
“Despite our intense sadness at his demise, I also feel a real sense of pride whenever I talk about Sanjay because he touched many lives. Wherever I go in this country, many civil servants, particularly young IAS officers and Sanjay’s peers from school and college, pay me a lot of respect. After my son’s demise, I had visited the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) in New Delhi, a training centre for high level bureaucrats. There, many officers shared their regards and words of solace with me. In fact, when the Chief Conservator of Forest in Rajasthan at the time found out that I was Sanjay’s father, both him and his wife touched my feet,” says Ghanshyam.
Officers like Sanjay Singh and forest guards who do an unenviable job of protecting our forests, unfortunately, aren’t remembered in the same light as soldiers. It’s time that changed and we celebrate these eco-warriors with the same rigour.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)