Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Unsung and Unheard

Some decisions are tough. More so when it involves walking through a dense jungle in the dark night, just to check on the sound of tree felling. One could step on a snake, slip on a rock or fall into a pit, and this is elephant – tiger country. Narrating how they walked a couple of kilometers in the middle of the night, Forest Officer Prabhuswamy recalled how they couldn’t even turn on the torch, for they could end up alerting timber smugglers about their presence. He, along with a couple of other watchers - Jayendra and Soma - recently caught a few timber smugglers. These courageous men don’t have a choice to make these decisions. It is their job, their call of duty and come what may, they will protect their home – the jungle.


40 year old Jayendra, a native of Coorg, joined the forest department as a MR (muster roll) Watcher in 1987. He continues to be an MR Watcher in 2011, with no hope of ever being promoted as a permanent watcher. Every morning, armed with a rifle and a wireless phone, he sets off with two other guards to patrol the forest and visit all the sensitive areas – forest state borders, caves and waterholes. He can get two days off once in ten days and he uses this time to visit his family in Bandipur town. His children attend school there and like all other guards, he is worried that with lack of guidance, his children too will drop out of school by the time they reach the 8th grade. 


46 year old Soma, on the other hand, is a PCP (Petty Cash Payment) watcher and joined the department 11 years ago. His young daughter was married off to the first suitable match last year, Soma says wanted to reduce his burden. He is on the same lines as a daily wage worker and is aware that he will never be added to the muster roll, he belongs to the pool of lakhs of such PCP workers across different government departments and their fate hangs on a pending bill in the parliament.  


Across 11 ranges and 38 anti poaching camps in Bandipur, there are around 250 PCP watchers and 57 MR watchers. All of them share the same plight as Jayendra and Soma, and some, worse. Their work is anything but hard, it is somewhere much beyond that - walking for an average of 15-17 kilometers each day, battling forest fires, helping villagers chase away elephants that enter fields in the fringe areas, taking on poachers and timber smugglers, to mention a few. Job insecurity, tough working conditions and the fact that they live deep in the jungle, isolated from the world and far away from their families doesn’t help the situation. These problems are magnified in the summer when the heat reaches its peak and the forest runs dry; and in the monsoon when incessant rains take over the landscape. Unappreciated, insecure and demotivated, they truly are THE unsung heroes. 


The APC (Anti-poaching Camp) we visited is one of the better ones, there is a concrete structure with a proper roof, a separate chamber to store supplies and a trench around the cottage to keep the elephants at bay. It has an approachable road and the forest department jeeps can access the APC with ease. A tiny bulb hangs there, powered by a solar panel on the roof. However, things 
that we take for granted, like water supply and toilets are still a luxury. The hand pump of a bore well installed there was damaged by an elephant, so water has to be supplied in forest department jeeps, 45 liters once in three days.  But, there are many APCs in interior parts of the jungle that are not easily accessible, especially in the monsoon. In such places, forest guards still live under leaking roofs, without electricity. 



Mr Hanumanthappa, the DCF of the Bandipur range says that the living conditions of forest guards have largely improved since Project Tiger came to Bandipur - funding improved, uniforms and shoes were distributed, salaries became regular and food supplies increased. They are now given nutritious food and food provision has been increased from Rs 20 to Rs 40 per day. They now have enough rations for two meals a day and have been provided bags and water bottles to help them carry food when they go out for their daily patrols. The DCF pointed out that the guards need binoculars, jackets and umbrellas. The fire fighting staff require shoes, knives, torches and some masks to protect their faces from the fire and smoke. He has been trying to procure these items for his staff.

The forest department maintains a list with data of unemployed youth from local villages and contacts them when they need to increase their workforce. Some children of forest guards have also joined the forest department in similar roles. But, given the working conditions of these guards, their children have no motivation to take up jobs within the forest department, which has resulted in a huge shortage of staff. Outsiders will not last in this jungle, he says.




Yes, this also means that guards in any forest range which is not a Tiger Reserve don’t receive salaries for months. They live in very bad accommodation and patrol the jungles in rubber slippers, armed with a stick. Most of these guards are tribesman or locals from the fringes of the forest, with excellent knowledge of the jungle. They can track and guess human/animal movements in the jungle through a broken branch or footprints, information that can be very valuable to a poacher. There is always a threat of loss of loyalty. Vital information could leak out either innocently or for monetary gain. Some sort of commitment or attachment to a forest officer is the only factor that keeps them going.

Many NGOs have arranged general health check-up camps and provided first aid kits. The guards did admit to us that they don't know what medicines to use, as many of them can't read. Some guards from local tribes are not comfortable wearing shoes but wearing uniforms motivates all of them, they said.


The Kumble Foundation is working towards providing long-term solutions to some of these core issues. With an aim to improve the general health condition of the forest guards, they have collected details of health and medical support requirements. They intend to set up a group insurance for all the guards including temporary employees. Proposals have been made to the government too. Diinesh Kumble says, they are keen on supporting children of forest guards so that they can get vocational training, guidance and counselling once they complete their basic education. The Foundation is also looking for genuine requirements of assistance for higher education on a merit basis. The Jumbo Wildlife Award and Jumbo Fund have been set up with an initiative to reward wildlife champions and recognize the contribution of forest staff, researchers, NGOs and civil servants towards conservation. 

In a jungle that has a rich diversity of species and is constantly in the spotlight with three states fighting over some space on the highway, it was eye-opening to meet the heroes who run the show silently. A vehicle passes by this road every 47 seconds, lakhs of people traverse the road every day. Yet, the tale of these guards is mostly untold. They desire very little - appreciation, security, family time ... and a ear if you can lend one, for, they have a story to tell. 

P.S Thank you Diinesh Kumble and Shreyas Jayakumar for facilitating this meet.

3 comments:

  1. So sad to see the way we treat the people who do such great service of protecting the essence of our country.
    Folks with the JLR NTP group were planning to raise funds to help these people. Not sure what happened and why it fizzled out.

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  2. Beautifully written, Radha! The plight of these guards is extremely unfortunate! Wonderful endeavour on your part to shed some light on it...

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  3. Hello Radha, That's a very nice and impressive article u've written.. I'm a Journalist(Fresher!)... Perhaps i could bring their plight in papers... Could u tel me how can i visit these antipoaching camps..as they are not allowed for general people....I'm hopeful of ur reply at adarshmkulkarni@gmail.com

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