Last year, Dimbeswar Das, a forest guard who has patrolled the Kaziranga National Park for the past three decades to protect one-horned rhinos and other animals from poachers, won the prestigious Earth Hero Award from the Royal Bank of Scotland.
“He has faced poachers’ bullets and threats, survived charges from rhinos, wild buffaloes, elephants, and big cats, and had to move houses several times to evade threats to his family — all in the service to the protection of the national park, a national asset,” read the award citation.
Speaking to The Better India earlier this year, Dimbeswar had said, “This isn’t an easy job but I have loved every bit of it. I want to plant more trees in and around the forest area so as to prevent it from diminishing so that the animals who live here never lose their home.”
And he’s right about the forest guard’s job not being easy.
The best of them aren’t scared to face a poacher’s bullets, see eye to eye with natural predators like tigers, confront angry villagers, while also risking their lives in extreme altitudes and weather conditions, barely spending time with their families, and battling disease and extreme loneliness to protect our natural heritage.
But not every story has happy events like Dimbeswar’s.
There are many forest guards and their support team consisting daily wagers who assist them on the frontlines, who lose their lives, suffer serious injury and mental scars fighting against difficult odds.
In 2014, India was the highest ranked country when it came to forest ranger (‘uniformed service or the frontline staff of the forest department’) mortality. According to the statistics released by the International Ranger Federation, between 2012 and 2017, India accounted for nearly 31% of all forest ranger deaths in the world.
They operate under impossible working conditions, poor equipment, low pay, benefits and inadequate resources, but still manage to help pull off some of India’s greatest conservation stories like Project Tiger, the 29% spike in the Asiatic Lion population in Gir National Park, Gujarat since 2015 and the revival of the one-horned rhino population in Kaziranga.
Who are Forest Guards?
“In India’s institutional forestry structures, the most important administrative unit is the forest division, headed by a Divisional Forest Officer (DFO),” notes a document published by the Food and Agriculture Organization, a United Nations affiliate body. In every forest division, there are eight-ten ranges. A forest range is further divided into subranges and beats.
The lowest administrative unit is the forest beat, which may comprise 10 to 15 sq km of forest area. In a range, there are three-four beats manned by beat officers. In every beat, there will be a forest guard or forest watcher, the frontline staff, who man these protected areas and are first responders to a case of poaching, encroachment or any kind of crime.
“During the colonial period with the Imperial Forest Service, officials heading forest departments were mainly European. They would hire local forest guards who were physically fit, and their main objective was inspecting the boundaries of forests, ensuring boundary pillars remained intact and to protect the area under their supervision from encroachment. Back then, a forest guard or a range officer used to take inspections of their boundaries to see whether it was encroached upon or not,” informs Ramesh Pandey, a 1996-cadre Indian Forest Service Officer and recipient of the UNEP Environment Enforcement Award winner last year, speaking to The Better India.
He is currently posted as Director of the Delhi Zoo.
But the subsequent increase in human and livestock population and their dependency on natural resources introduced new pressure points on forests. These points were defined by activities like illegal felling of trees, unlawful collection of forest produce, poaching animals for bush meat, etc.
Today, apart from protection work, forest guards are also involved in forestry activities like preparing grounds for plantations, raising nurseries for plantations, and protecting those plantations to convert them into jungles.
Further, in the last couple of years, they have also donned the role of interfacing with the forest-dwelling communities by either being part of joint forest management committees or eco-development committees in protected national parks and sanctuaries.
“Challenges can arise any time. In the morning, for example, he goes to the nursery and supplies planting material at a site. He’s the person in-charge of overseeing the plantation. When he gets free at say 6.30 in the evening, he is probably required to go on a night patrol to prevent any illegal activity from happening. It’s a very challenging job,” adds Ramesh.
Forest guards’ salaries vary from one state to another. In some states, they are paid as much as a police constable, but in many they aren’t even paid that much.
While the forest guards are permanent employees, they also have daily wagers, known as “watchers” who support them in the field. All of them constitute the frontline field staff.
Tough Working Conditions
Apart from facing issues related to the rising human population and consequent encroachment in forested lands, what makes matters worse is that the role witnesses massive vacancies.
According to Prerna Singh Bindra’s report for IndiaSpend in late 2018, “(Forest) staff shortages average about 30% across India. In some reserves like Palamu in Jharkhand, it has hovered around 90% over the last decade and improved only recently.”
Meanwhile, this Hindustan Times report in 2017 notes, “Forest guards, both the regular and temporary, cover large swathes of forest land. There are about 200 forest guards, both temporary and permanent at the Rajaji National Park, with each guard covering anywhere between 500 to 1,000 hectares.” Vacancies, on an average, however, stand at around 50% and during the peak season, one forest guard has to do the work of two.
Moreover, these frontline staff work in remote areas. A higher workload with inadequate infrastructural support in terms of accommodation and vehicles has resulted in an increase in poaching cases. Finally, the resources to protect our forests by both state and Union governments are not seeing an increase in budget allocation.
“The hardships were countless. First, some of the places they are posted are unbelievable. Take the Sundarbans for example. The floating camps in the middle of the core area of the forest are suffocating small, dark, dank boats that are shared by 4-5 forest guards. It’s frightening. There’s no easy access to freshwater, limited rations, no phone network, no source of entertainment, not even land to step on. Some are posted in these camps for years, on a single boat in the middle of nowhere,” said natural history filmmaker Ashwika Kapur, to Mongabay.
Hardware & Socio-Emotional Care
Forest guards need adequate hardware (infrastructure facilities) and socio-emotional care.
“I’ll take the example of the Indo-Nepal border, where protected wildlife zones like Dudhwa, Valmiki Tiger Reserve or Manas National Park are situated. There are border guarding forces like the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) on the Indo-Nepal or Indo-Bhutan border. The border outposts of SSB are far more inhabitable than the dilapidated chowkis of the forest department. These facilities are gradually improving in national parks but not in all of them, which needs attention. Improvements should not be merely restricted to tiger reserves, but to each and every forest area. Besides chowkis, they need vehicles, fire hydrants, rations, a variety of allowances, medical facilities and transit hostels for their children, among other facilities,” says Ramesh Pandey to TBI.
But he believes that the time has also come to address the socio-emotional care aspect as well with a special focus on mental health. How do you keep forest guards happy, connected with the cause and motivated?
“For many guards, it’s just a beat and not a tiger reserve. They don’t see that saving tigers means saving humanity. For him, it’s a beat, living in a dilapidated chowki and going out for night patrolling. He doesn’t oversee things,” he adds.
“We have to really explore the emotional aspect,” says Ramesh, who during his previous posting as Field Director of the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, was working on an initiative to address socio-emotional care that forest guards need since they live in remote areas far away from their families with no electricity and communication networks. But he was transferred before he could take any steps in this regard.
Recognition & Compensation
“What we want for forest guards, who are fighting this battle and losing their lives in the process, is that the spotlight must shine on them like it does on police personnel or soldiers. Forest guards working in remote areas are fighting a battle that many people know nothing about,” says a veteran forest service officer, who wishes to remain anonymous.
This senior officer feels that the Union government must play a bigger role in looking after forest guards with adequate infrastructure and mental health facilities.
“While they take credit for the success of conservation projects like Project Tiger or successful afforestation initiatives on various international or multilateral platforms, what is the point of making these claims if they don’t strengthen or empower frontline staff who are actually working towards ensuring that these achievements are met? For example, when governments claim that so much carbon sequestration has been done, it’s somebody working on the field who is ensuring that this is happening. Why aren’t they being looked after properly?” he asks.
Every year, the government claims certain achievements like increasing the tiger, rhino or lion population. If the policies for wildlife and forest conservation are set by the Central government, why don’t they claim responsibility to look after infrastructure support as well?
“I am not suggesting you give a vehicle to every forest guard, but at least at the beat level, the Central government can supply water hydrants. If the force working on the field is not strengthened, there is no point talking about the big conservation issues. Somebody has to do that work on the field and that is the frontline forest staff who will stop poaching and encroachment. They are our first line of defence in protecting our forests,” he adds.
A lady forest guard on patrolling. (Image courtesy Twitter/Parveen Kaswan/Jason Burton)
Even in terms of compensation for the kin of those who have died in the line of duty, he believes that aside from the state government, the Centre can play a bigger role. If not anything else, at least give their children a scholarship.
Meanwhile, compensation from state governments for forest guards killed in the line of duty, also varies from one State to another, but oftentimes proves to be inadequate.
In Maharashtra, for example, given the spurt in human-animal conflicts, the government has raised the human death compensation to Rs 15 lakh from Rs 8 lakh.
But when Sadashiv Nagthane, a forest guard deployed in Bhor, Pune, single handedly sought to quell a blazing fire and died in the line of duty in 2018, the Maharashtra Chief Minister granted a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to his family.
Ramesh shares the story of Sukhpal Singh, a forest guard in Dudhwa, who was murdered while on duty. While his family received Rs 25 lakh from the Uttar Pradesh government, he says slain forest guards normally don’t receive state honours like their compatriots in the police or armed forces.
“When state forest departments hire forest guards, half of them end up leaving. We must improve their pay scale and look after their health. In remote areas, mosquitoes, leeches, diseases and loneliness are bigger enemies. It’s a 24/7 job, and the pressure on them is intense,” says the veteran forest service officer.
While we tout the bravery of medical professionals at a time like this, it’s time to recognise forest guards who also save lives.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)