Every year, the International Tiger Day is celebrated on 29th July. This year, it was a day of celebration for India when the figures of the Tiger Census held in 2018 were released. According to the report by India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority, the numbers have more than doubled since 2006, having gone from 1411 to 2976. The end of July was marked by another lesser known day, the World Ranger Day. It recognised the relentless efforts undertaken by rangers across the world to protect our natural heritage, and commemorated those who were injured or killed in the line of duty.
In India, forest guards play a critical role in protecting the country’s natural resources and thereby, in ensuring our water and food security. They work tirelessly under challenging conditions and sometimes without access to basic facilities such as drinking water. While working in the forest, they face several threats, including attacks by wild animals, poachers and villagers. Starting from March till the end of summer every year, wildfires add to the long list of difficulties forest guards face.
It is then little wonder that in 2014, India ranked highest in the world in forest ranger mortality. According to the statistics released by the International Ranger Federation, India lost 72 rangers between 2012 to 2014, while the countries second on this list had less than 10 mortalities per year.
Recently in Telangana’s Komaram Bheem Asifabad district, a woman forest officer was attacked by a mob. The incident took place when the officer went to Sarasala village for a plantation drive on forest land and the villagers objected, claiming ownership to the land. Two days after the incident, forest guards in the same district were met with resistance and were assaulted by villagers when they took action to stop encroachment of forest land. Unfortunately, such instances of violence by locals on forest staff are not uncommon. Illegal mining, extraction of forest resources and grazing of livestock, lead to conflict between the department and villagers and it is the guards who bear the brunt of it.
In December 2016, I had the opportunity to interview forest guards while carrying out a research study to understand the interface between guards and communities in Pench Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. While explaining how they go about doing their daily work, the guards pointed out that they have to maintain a delicate balance between protecting natural resources and managing villagers’ demand for subsistence needs of fuel, fodder, etc. This is done for two major reasons.
Firstly, guards fear that if they implement law strictly by the letter, it might end up causing more harm to the forest at the hands of villagers and can also pose a threat to their own personal safety. Secondly, the guards are dependent on the communities as they aid in protection activities by serving as extra pairs of eyes, and help in fulfilling daily needs such as water, milk, etc. Forest guards posted in remote areas are also dependent on the villagers for socialisation needs. Understandably, managing villagers becomes complicated when the guards live among or near them and often have to take action against them. When situations turn for the worse, the entire village stands against the guards, denies them basic necessities and shelter, and poses a threat to their personal safety.
Along with villagers, forest guards also have to deal with political pressure, especially when they take action against a villager for committing an offence. Village Patels, members of local administrative bodies, and MLAs support the villagers. It is not uncommon for the local mining mafia to use their political influence to get forest guards transferred elsewhere whenever they do not yield to threats. Even in the incident where the woman forest officer was attacked in Sarsala village, the video footage shows the involvement of the Vice-Chairman of the Zilla Parishad who also happens to be the brother of a TRS MLA.
Several forest guards live away from family when they are posted in remote forest locations so that their spouses and children can have a stable life. During festivals when most people are at home celebrating, forest guards are out, working in the forest. Like all of us, they yearn to spend time with their children, be home for family occasions, celebrations, and in times of need. During one of the interviews I conducted with a female forest guard working in the buffer zone of Pench Tiger Reserve, she teared up while talking about her children whom she got to see once every few weeks as they stayed with her parents in the town area.
Despite the crucial role that guards play in protecting forest and wildlife, they don’t feel valued by the Forest Department for the work they do. A guard felt that the lives of tigers are valued more than theirs as television channels and top officials visit promptly when a tiger dies, but not when a forest guard loses his/her life in the line of duty. The fact that forest guards are underpaid despite long working hours with few holidays adds further to their feeling of being grossly undervalued.
While we work towards policy changes for the betterment of the forest, we must realise that the fate of the forest is dependent on forest guards. It is critical that we provide at least basic infrastructure to ensure decent working conditions for them. It is also necessary that the efforts of the guards are recognised and appreciated by both, the Forest Department and society. However, such recognition needs to begin fundamentally at the individual level with each of us valuing the guards for securing forests that provide the clean air and water we all benefit from. So, the next time you visit a forest, spot wildlife, and breathe the fresh forest air, remember that it is all because a green soldier continues to persevere despite the odds.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.