Meet Budh Singh. Cowherd from the Ahir community. Fire watcher. Climate Warrior. But first let’s hear how and where this writer met him, perched on a flimsy platform some 50 feet above the ground, on a very tall tree in Madhya Pradesh’s famous Kanha Tiger Reserve. This is where he stays 10-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week through the dry, scorching summer to keep vigil at one of India’s best tiger habitats and alert park authorities in the event of a fire. His job is vital. An uncontrolled fire can reduce Kanha — home to the tiger, the endemic hardground barasingha, and many other rare species — to ashes and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Budh Singh is a daily wager. For his pains he is paid Rs100 a day. He gets no meal allowance, subsidised rations, transport, pension, gratuity, medical benefits, or leave with pay. All that has been granted to him are a thin sheet to protect himself from the blazing sun, a precarious platform fashioned from bamboo to keep from plummeting to the ground, a simple meal that he carries from home and water. With this, he maintains a lonely vigil to prevent the forest from going up in smoke. With this he guards the tiger, and its home. On him, and scores of others like him, rests the tigers’ future.
During years of traversing through remote forests, one has met many such remarkable men who take extraordinary risks against the worst of odds to protect our forests. One such person is Ranjit Mondol, van shramik at Sundarbans, ranked as an ‘expert’ in handling tigers (and crocodiles, for that matter) in conflict situations, in a landscape where man-tiger conflict is rife.
When tigers venture into villages in the delta, Mondol helps in controlling the crowd, manoeuvring the animals into cages, carrying them to a boat and releasing them in the forest. Mondol narrated an incident that highlights the risks people like him take in the course of their work. He had been involved in a particularly stressful conflict situation. He 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. It was his presence of mind — and courage — that saved him: “I held the tiger tight in a hug,” he said, leaving little room for the tiger to move or attack.
There are thousands of such Budh Singhs and Mondols. Their compatriots — forest guards, watchers, trackers, mahouts, foresters — spend a lifetime in remote jungles, living a lonely life far away from their homes and families, battling against timber smugglers, poachers and Maoists to protect our natural heritage. They constantly struggle to adjust to their dual, and sometimes conflicting, role as ‘policemen’ to control hunting and illegal grazing, and ‘arbitrators’ in conflict situations. They also try to garner community support for conservation. They are India’s unsung Green Army, the men on the front to whom we owe the tiger — and other rare wildlife — as well as the forests and the rivers that flow through them.
Most of the force — if you can call it that, given that we have failed to empower its members — are daily wagers, working on a contractual basis for years and decades with no job security or the promise of a permanent job. Forest watchers form the bulk of the protection force but are grossly underpaid. Worse, they are rarely paid on time, with wages often delayed for months. They are untrained and under-equipped, and live in chowkis that sometimes lack basic facilities, with no clean water, medical aid, protective rain and winter gear. They don’t have fixed working hours. If they go to buy provisions or collect their wages, or if they are on leave, there’s no back-up. Their beat, or patch of forest, remains unguarded.
Their lives are not insured although their task is risky. Many have been injured, or killed on duty. Even this sacrifice goes unsung. While we rightly honour our soldiers who protect our borders, there is simply no recognition for those who lay down their lives to safeguard our eco-system.
One particular worry is that when forest staff take on poachers and smugglers, they do so at their own risk and personal liability. For example, if they fire during an encounter with timber smugglers — a hardened, powerful mafia — the Government doesn’t take their side in the event of an offender getting injured or dying in the encounter. There are many forest personnel caught in the legal quagmire of court cases and up against a powerful opposition that thrives on the illegal market for timber and wildlife contraband.
At Rajaji National Park, three forest staff are facing the charge of murder under Section 302 for accidentally killing a person when they fired in self-defence against a gang of armed intruders at night. Similarly, at Similipal Tiger Reserve a range officer who fired in desperation when timber smugglers had gheraoed forest staff and were assaulting them, has been fighting — in his personal capacity — a case of murder filed against him.
Why should an officer and his family face such humiliation and harassment for carrying out his duty? Is it any surprise that few are willing to risk their life and limb to implement protection laws? How can we then expect them to save the tiger? How can we demand accountability unless we enable those on the front? If we are to protect our wildlife, we must ensure that their guardians are enabled, equipped, motivated and backed by the country they serve.
It is imperative that we motivate foresters and instil a sense of pride in their task. However, before that we have to learn to take pride in our natural assets. Forests, wetlands, mountains and rivers form the foundation on which our ecological and economic security and development rest.