Unsung heroes

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

(This year, a Forest Guard was killed in Nepal Border by mining mafia, a Range Officer killed in Chhattisgarh by jungle mafia, a DFO was nearly killed in Jammu by timber mafia, and there are countless incidents of assaults on forest personnels and wrongful confinement of our officials even by the authority. Last year also, there have been killings of forest guards by wild animals in Ranthambhore and Nilgiris. This article is a tribute to those unsung heroes who laid down their lives for the cause of forest and environment)

This article is not going to talk about the architects of forestry in the country like Brandis, Schlich or Champion, nor on Maneka Gandhi who ushered in the Forest Conservation Act, the landmark Act which is the most effective tool for forest protection.

This article is not going to talk neither about Sunderlal Bahuguna for his Chipko or MedhaPatkar for her Narmada BachaoAndolan. They have all been applauded for their efforts and contributions and glorified, they have become popular figures. Today, let us talk about the people who played a great role in conserving our forest and environment but least talked about, forget appreciating them.

We all wish for a cleaner environment, better air to breathe and cleaner water to drink and wish that the earth be safer for our living. We look towards forest for our various needs. When there is a tremendous pressure of population explosion and increase in our consumption habits which drains our natural resource base, we blame the Forest Guards.

When deep in the forests, people are clearing forests for jhuming, we blame them, when local people in connivance with the unscrupulous elements, hack down forest in remote areas, we hold them responsible. When, security forces with modern and sophisticated arms remain confined most of the time in the barracks to avoid confrontation with the insurgents, when even in district headquarters, no office is safe, we demand from them full check of the highways, bare handed and unarmed.

When they confront some VIP's consignment, they are transferred against their wishes, we hardly bother for their morale; still we expect the best out of them. When, we go for smuggled woods for our homes for the sake of saving some paltry money we expect the Forest Guards to check smuggling, we cherish the wild meat for our tables we expect the Forest Guards to protect wildlife.

For our pots and gardens, we buy the rare wild plants which have been mercilessly pulled out of their habitats and we expect the Forest Guards to save them.

I can't imagine a forest without these people, though there have been attempts to take the Forest Guards out of the scene. Whatever forest and wildlife we have, all would have gone long back. Unpraised and unrecognised, they are relentless and unfettered, they contribute, and silently they work. We owe them the present environment, without them it could have been much worse.

While, we are sitting in our living room looking for channels from Discovery to National Geographic to Animal Planet looking for something amazing to watch, someone in the woods is risking life and limb. While we sit on the couch and use a remote to tune in to a channel to watch a documentary on the life of an animal, there is someone in the forest who is struggling with the poachers and smugglers bare-handed.

They are the first line of defence. He would be sitting on a rock having a nutritionally inadequate meal that merely satiate the hunger after a long wandering in the forest ready for the next encounter, may be from a wild animal or a wild man. A Forest Guard in India struggles, suffers, succeed and make history each day, the only difference is that these legends remain unheard and poorly paid.

We have discontinued implementation of Pandey Committee Report (ROP, 1999 partially implemented it for some time), maligned them for demanding it, though they actually deserved it. Yet very few people know what the job of a forest guard is.

The forest guards are the people who knows the forests, herbs, shrubs and trees and its denizens he is someone with distinct and detail knowledge of the core areas of the forests. No scholar can do research without their knowledge. They are guides to imminent photographers, naturalists and botanists, who you often catch on your TV screens and read about their research on various wildlife magazines.

Despise their tough lives, these dedicated people put their heart and soul in serving in the different national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India. They are the resources, our foundation, if he has faults, it is the system we need to change, it is we to introspect for rendering them to the tools of our will and misuse with little facility to them, as little as possible.

Let us be very kind to their virtues and as little blind to their faults. These Forest Guards are even taunted as Man of Forests who cannot walk properly in the city place, they are named bosses of bullock carts (in olden days bullock carts were main means of transport of firewood) and people are right in calling them so, because placed in remote areas with round the clock duties, they are cut off from society for years.

They patrol deep inside the forests, single handedly, or in two only, due to our Beat protection norms, but at present times with changing law and order situations and people claiming more and more forest land to be their own, the forest patrolling norms need to be equated with that of security forces, where, the minimum strength is half a section and build up suitable strength for that.

We need the unsung heroes, in various fields not only in our environmental frontiers, but in our armed forces, social reformation and others. But, there is always something that we can do for these unfortunately overlooked heroes many of whom have fallen prey to gangsters, dacoits, unwanted elements. Their dedication, zeal and devotion deserve to be appreciated and shared. No matter if they go unnoticed; let us show our respect for their work and dedication.

Let us honour their valour and sacrifice. Let us all salute these Forest Heroes and condemn poaching, smuggling and raise voice for their protection and for their other rights. Appreciating their contribution would certainly go a long way in checking the environmental degradation and saving the planet.

We all have to admit that the environmental security is equally important as physical security; in fact the environmental insecurity a bigger threat to our safety. Let us recognise their service and reward them.

During his visit the Union Minister of Environment and Forests and Climate Change, Anil Madhav Dave (May his soul rest in peace) at Imphal in 2016 expressed his concern about the service condition of the Forest Guards and field staff.

Again, during All India Forest Sports Meet at Hyderabad, he again talked about the importance of Forest Guards in our forest management set up. He told that the role that they are playing in protecting our environment needs to be appreciated. That recognition would go a long way in ensuring environmental safety.

There have been some efforts here and there to acknowledge their services, some activities by corporate houses under Corporate Social Responsibilities (Please see "Citizens and PA Management", TSE, 24 Jul, 2013), some philanthropists and some senior officers at their levels like one I have seen in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, but these are neither at state level nor at national level and not structured at all. These are good gestures no doubt, but highly inadequate.

The National Forest Martyrs Day (September 11) also was a lacklustre affair without any national fervour and political recognition. There has been no gallantry award for those people who laid down their life to preserve our environment other than late P. Srinivas, who was posthumously awarded Kirti Chakra.

Back home, we had one of our Range Officer gunned down in his office by underground elements at remote areas of Jirimukh a few years back. The frontline field staff needs their life insured by the government, they need such a scheme considering the hazards of their profession and threat perception.

I feel that it is high time to consider to declare the Forest Guards and other frontline field staff to be in active service (we had one order in the past, but not implemented in letter and spirit) with allowances and all just like their pals in security departments and lift their morale high, because these lesser known staff and least appreciated people play most important role in protection of our forests and environment.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on December 29, 2017.

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