My tribute to the foot soldiers who guard India's forests with their lives

Prerna Bindra
Prerna BindraOct 06, 2017 | 20:30

My tribute to the foot soldiers who guard India's forests with their lives

This is a homage to India's green army. Just as the soldiers of our defence forces protect India's borders, it is this green army which is at the frontiers of wildlife protection in our country. The story of India's wildlife is incomplete, unless its frontline warriors are part of the script. They are the first line of defence in protecting India's precious natural heritage and safeguarding its ecosystems. They are the most important, unsung elements in India's conservation success story.

I want you to know them, honour them.

Meet Budh Singh. Cowherd from the Ahir community. Fire watcher. Climate warrior.

But first let's hear how - and where - I met him: perched on a flimsy platform some 50 feet above the ground, on a very tall tree in one of India's finest tiger reserves, Kanha in Madhya Pradesh. This is where he stays, ten hours a day, seven days a week, through the dry, scorching summer to keep vigil in one of India's best tiger habitats, in order to give the national park authorities an early warning of fire. His job is vital. An uncontrolled fire can reduce Kanha - home to the tiger and other rare species like the endemic hard ground barasingha - to ashes, and release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Forest fires intensify climate change, heating up the planet.

Budh Singh is a "daily wager". For his pains, he gets about an average $4-5 (Rs 200 or so) a day. He does not get a meal allowance, subsidised rations, transport, pension, retirement or medical benefits, or leave with pay. There is no permanency or security in his job. He is a contract labourer who may be replaced any moment, any day.

All that he has are thin sheets to protect himself from the blazing sun, a precarious platform fashioned out of bamboo to keep his body from plummeting to the ground, and a simple meal that he brings from home, and water. He is armed with a lathi, lest he has a not-very friendly meeting with a bear or some such animal on his way to and fro, and a fair amount of grit. With this, he maintains a lonely vigil to prevent the forest from going up in flames - and guards the tiger and its home.

On him, and scores of others like him — India's frontline forest force — rests the future of our forests.

daulat-690_100617081721.jpgDaulat Singh at work. Photo: Daulat Singh Shekhawat

They are India's unsung green army, the citizens on the front to whom we owe the tiger and other rare wildlife, and our forests and the rivers that flow from them.

The ultimate sacrifice

They are valiant, for the job carries extraordinary risks. They walk in forests that are home to tigers, leopards, elephants and bears. Wild animals shy away from people, they don't attack wilfully - unless provoked or for self-defence. Still, these are potentially dangerous animals, who can sometimes be unpredictable and strike when surprised.

On October 18, 2013, Rakesh Sharma, a daily wager, was mauled by a tiger when on patrol duty atop a remote ridge in Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand. Dev Singh, another daily wager accompanying him, bravely fended off the tiger. Maybe he could have been saved with timely medical intervention, but with washed out muddy paths and limited road connectivity, it took more than 12 hours to reach a profusely bleeding Rakesh to the hospital, where he succumbed.

I will never forget Muhammed Umar, "Umar miyan", from Palamu. He was a "Tiger Reporter", also called the "Tiger Tracker". As the designation implies, his task was to monitor the tiger. He had been doing this for three odd decades, and was one of the most senior and beloved trackers of the reserve. He scouted for pugmarks, scats, spoors, scratches - any signs of the tiger, all of which was meticulously noted down.

Delighted at sighting them, he would immediately inform his seniors. When I met Umar in 2003, he was obsessed with worry for Rani, the lone tigress in the Betla range. As we huddled over a fire on a cold night, he confided that he was anxious about Rani as there seemed to be no other tiger, a potential mate, around. She was six - ordinarily, the tigress should have had at least one litter at that age. Her natural instincts were denied, he felt. How would the forest flourish if there were no young tigers?

potw05250711630_1007_100617081928.jpgRemember: An animal almost never attacks unless provoked. 

As we chatted, he gave every impression of the Indian father who is anxious for an unmarried daughter! That's the most endearing trait of these trackers and foresters - having spent a lifetime in the forest, they develop empathy for animals. They respect the wild within them, yet there is an affinity that comes from living as neighbours.

The next time I visited Palamu, Umar miyan was gone. He had been killed by an elephant while on patrol in 2007. Sometimes, they get lucky. The attacks are not always fatal. Pan Singh, who works in Uttarakhand's Nandhaur Wildlife Sanctuary, was attacked when he accidently bumped into a bear: she was with a cub - who ripped the side of his face and his head. He survived. A forest guard I met (his names escapes me) in Assam's Kaziranga National Park was attacked by a tigress, who was with two cubs, in the middle of a rapidly gathering mob in a village on the park's fringes.

He was helping "herd" the tigress back when the panicked cat had struck, injuring his arm. Another braveheart is Daulat Singh, an officer at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. He lost an eye when a terrified and confused tiger that was being harassed by a mob of more than 3,000 villagers, suddenly turned on him.

The common thread in all these stories is that none of the heroes blamed the animal. Kaziranga's hero told me: "She was a mother, and she feared for her cubs, she was defending them. Who could blame her?" Daulat Singh's first coherent comment when he gained consciousness was: "It was not the tiger's fault."

They are all back on duty, defending the tiger and its turf.

Animals, however, are the least of their worries. Thousands walk the forests each day, and such attacks are rare. Years of walking in the forest also instils in them an understanding of the animal's behaviour and they take precautions accordingly.

What they apprehend the most is dealing with an animal in the chaos of a conflict situation, and the mobs that build up. Many a time, the villagers turn on the forest staff, it is their animal that has "strayed" into the village or killed their livestock.

The most horrifying of such incidents took place in March 2011 in Kalagarh part of Corbett Tiger Reserve, where villagers set a caged leopard on fire. The leopard had entered the Dhamdhar village, and on sighting the furtive cat, a crowd gathered and began shouting, lobbing stones and sticks.

The leopard took shelter in a cowshed and, in the chaos, some three to four people were injured - none very grievously. The forest department tranquilised and captured the leopard, but the caged animal was doused with kerosene and set ablaze. Kerosene was also poured on the staff to prevent them from rescuing the cat.

Similarly, when a man was killed by a tiger in Madhya Pradesh's Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in October 2014, enraged villagers held the forest staff hostage, set forest offices, posts and vehicles on fire, and attacked both forest and police personnel who were called in to handle the situation.

This is the ground reality that our foresters grapple with everyday on the job.

No "conflict" story astounds me as the one I found in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans (West Bengal), where tigers entering into surrounding villages is a routine affair. Ranjit Mondol is a "Van Shramik" - a forest labourer I met during my 2009 visit. Mondol was considered an "expert" at handling tigers (and crocodiles) in conflict situations.

When tigers would venture into villages in the delta, Mondol, along with other staff and officers, would help control the growing crowd, manoeuvre the tiger into a cage, transfer it to a boat, and finally release it into the forest. On most days, they make do without tranquilising the tiger, as equipment is insufficient and trained personnel too far to always make it in time.

Mondol narrated an incident that highlights the risks that people like him take in the course of their work.

forest-gaurd-mondol_100617081439.jpgRanjit Mondol is a "Van Shramik" - a forest labourer I met during my 2009 visit. Photo: Prerna Bindra

He had been involved in a particularly stressful conflict situation, and had just succeeded in manoeuvring a captured tiger into the cage, when the door slammed shut and Mondol found himself on the wrong side of the bars - with the tiger in a tiny cage. It was only his presence of mind - and courage ("and Bonobibi", the local deity worshipped as goddess of the forest) - that saved him.

"I held the tiger tight in a hug," he said, leaving little room for the tiger to move or attack. This hug of death barely lasted a minute or two before his companions opened the door and managed to pull him away.

It's hard to swallow this tale, but nothing about these men surprises me, certainly not their valour, and Mondol's scars tell their own story. Guards are also felled by poachers, timber smugglers, encroachers, mining and sand mafia.

PD Majhi was Arunachal's Pakke Tiger Reserve's bravest soldier. He was instrumental in catching a number of poachers, seizing their guns and the metal traps used to poach large carnivores. He was shot dead in an encounter with poachers in April 2007. Officials of the reserve have instituted an award in his honour for Pakke frontline staff. In December 2013, deputy range officer Sridhar and assistant beat officer David Kumar were stoned to death near Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh) by smugglers of red sanders, a valuable wood from which oriental musical instruments are crafted and which is also used in traditional medicine.

Red sanders is over-exploited, endangered, commands huge sums and has taken a heavy toll on foresters. Sanctuary Asia reports the brutal murder of Budhaji Jadhav, a forest guard from the Kalwa division in Navi Mumbai (Maharashtra) on July 14, 2014.

In the line of duty, Jadhav confronted a man encroaching into the forest; the latter fatally attacked him, pummelling his head with a heavy object. In July 2016, a guard was killed - axed - near Shivpuri (Madhya Pradesh) in the same state where he tried to halt tree cutting. World over, every year, more than 100 rangers are killed in the line of duty. As per data from the International Ranger Federation, India loses more forest rangers each year than any other country in the world.

They protect forests, racked by insurgents, forsaken by most.

Conservationist Raza Kazmi lauds the courage of the beleaguered staff of Palamu Tiger Reserve, which has been under the siege of left-wing extremism for about two decades now. After two trackers were lost to land mines in 1998, Palamu was abandoned by all but the daily wage workers. "As the first and last line of defence for Palamau, the trackers remained true to their duty, and worked to the best of their abilities, saving what they could," he writes.

They stayed, even as the assault got deadlier. In 2003, tragedy struck again when two more workers - Tapeshwar Singh and Jitan Singh - "were slaughtered by Naxals who slit their throats". Other men lost their lives, staff quarters were burnt and a couple of vehicles blown up.

There are so many such tales of heroism and sacrifice, how does one compile and narrate them all? And I take their names, each one that I know of, for it shocks me that the sacrifice of the staff who lay down their lives to safeguard our natural heritage remains unacknowledged.

They paid with their lives, but where are they in the martyrs' roll of honour? In the nation's conscience? Where is the outrage? Are we even aware what it takes to save a forest? Many such martyrs would be daily wagers or contract labourers whose families lack a financial safety net necessary for bereaved families.

It is such daily wagers who form the bulk of the frontline forest force. They supplement the permanent staff of guards and foresters on the frontline - of which there is an acute shortage across the country, on an average about 30 per cent. In some cases, the forest is protected by just 20 per cent of the required force. In few instances, vast forests lie unprotected. Palamu's 1,130sqkm wide forest reserve suffers from a shocking 97 per cent vacancy for guards at the time of writing.

Most such daily wagers, who may be employed as "trackers, watchers, conflict mitigation squads, tree guards" work on a contractual basis for years, sometimes a lifetime, largely on the faint hope that may be absorbed into the permanent force, and gain some job security.

They earn a paltry wage that often isn't paid on time. I have come across cases where wages were delayed for six to 11 months, even in well-funded tiger reserves. Frontline staff are also poorly equipped and not empowered in their tasks. If they are armed, these are outdated, and many are not properly trained to use them. If there are vehicles and boats for patrolling, there is paucity of fuel to run them.

It is not so much about meagre budgets (though that is true of many sanctuaries, tiger reserves are relatively well-funded) as about bad governance, with funds earmarked for Protected Areas delayed for months altogether. Or, at times, inappropriate funding and undue attention to factors other than protection of wildlife.

All this goes to show how much of a priority, rather the lack of it, we place on wildlife, leaving our forests - unmanned, and open for loot.

The many faces of valour

As they quietly go about their task - of saving our forests from their lonely outposts - India has forgotten these men. Their chowkis lack even rudimentary facilities; no electricity, no network, no easy access to clean drinking water, or medical care. They work in harsh terrains: dense forests, parched, scorching deserts, bitterly cold snowy mountains and slushy mangroves in the remotest regions of the country.

In certain forests, the "roads" are washed away, streams swell, leaving the remote forest chowkis cut off for months together. There are no lean periods in their jobs, a forest has to be protected 24x7, 365 days a year. If they go to buy ration, or to pick up their wages, or on leave, there is no backup.

Their beat, or patch of forest simply remains unguarded. I know of guards who haven't gone on leave for months - who feel uneasy leaving their turf unattended. It is not just about physical hardship, it takes a certain amount of endurance to live a bulk of your life in lonely stations, without the benefit of society. They are separated from their families as most chowkis have just about three or four people, and little by way of communication. It takes a toll, and some get so attuned to the rhythm of life in the forest, they become misfits in the urban jungle or even villages and towns, which they must return to when they retire.

Over shared meals and long walks in the forest, they confide about their discomfort in civilisation. They also must work a fine balance. Most of the forest staff are from the villages and towns around the park, and are part of close-knit communities whom they police as part of their job. A forester's job is regulatory - in parks and sanctuaries they restrict grazing of cattle, lopping trees et al.

How do they take action against a person whose marriage they might have attended the week before? It's challenging and at times has put them at odds with their own people. During my years of traversing remote forests, I have spent many precious hours with our soldiers of the forest. I admire their courage, am impressed by their wealth of knowledge - they have been my best teachers - but what humbles me is their love of the forest and its wildlife. Their job is tough, fraught with risks - and while economic compulsion is certainly a driver, I also find many are motivated by the forests they serve, and the wildlife in their trust.

They inspire me.

I learnt to love the beautiful Dachigaam National Park in Kashmir from Nazir Malik, a forester; but how can I call him just that? He first walked the park as a child and has never stopped traversing it; his commitment to Dachigam is stoic; with him even refusing promotions because they would mean being transferred elsewhere.

He is a bard, narrating the story of Dachigam, whom he knows as intimately as a lover - and every time he walks the forest, it is as though he has begun the affair anew, his voice brimming with excitement as he lures you into his forest. His voice swells with pride as he speaks of hangul; Dachigam is the only place in the world to offer sanctuary to this rare, exquisite red deer; it softens when he recalls a meeting with his favourite animal, the Himalayan black bear; it dips when he worries about the threats that loom over the park. Nazir is a fount of information, knows all the birds in the park, and is equally well-versed with the flora. Nazir freely shares his knowledge, his childlike wonder is addictive. He inspires, makes you fall in love; you leave, only to come back again. Nazir is a true warrior for Dachigam.

They humble me.

I was in Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam sometime back, and visited one of the forest chowkis, in the interiors. The grassy patch outside was slushy, dented with moon-like footprints, and littered with the dung of elephants. The chowkis here stand on platforms, and all activity, and sleeping quarters are on the first floor. The monsoons flood the lower floor, which is any way too vulnerable to curious elephants and other wildlife.

The chowki was in a somewhat dilapidated condition - the stairs rickety, there was no network connectivity or electricity, with solar powered torches providing the glow to cook a meal which we shared.

I asked them what one could do to help them, what they needed. The answer stays with me: they said they wanted salt. Salt? They explained it was for the elephants. Salt is essential to an elephant's diet, it is said that an adult requires up to 100gm of salt a day. They may get it from the masses of vegetation they eat, and dig up the soil for earth and special minerals - but it is not always enough to meet their craving. Elephants had been coming there for years, a "salt lick" had been provided for by the forest department. It had been discontinued for some time now, and yet the staff still rustles up some from their rations for the elephants.

But it was not enough, not to meet the needs of herds of elephants - they hated it when the animals left "disappointed", so could we "please pass the salt"?I will only say here that we need to harness such commitment, grit and passion for protecting India's wildlife. Many of us visit parks, but are unaware of what it takes to help wildlife survive in a nation starved of political will to save our natural heritage.

Many NGOs have stepped in to train the frontline forest force, supplement provisions and other facilities. Some states have also done an exceptional job in their welfare, providing good working conditions for the staff, but these must be emulated all across and institutionalised. As a nation, we must recognise these unsung heroes and honour their sacrifice.If we are to protect our wildlife and safeguard our ecosystems, we must ensure that their guardians are enabled, equipped, motivated and backed by the country they serve.

This tireless green army puts lives on the line to defend our planet, but they battle is not just theirs, they fight on behalf of us all. And so it is imperative that we stand with them, instil a sense of pride in their task, and give them the support and recognition they deserve.

But I would say, the first step here is that we take pride in our natural assets - recognise that forests, wetlands, mountains, rivers are the very foundation on which our ecological and economic security and development rests.

Last updated: October 07, 2017 | 22:51
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