On a July morning two years ago, a patrol team in the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand set out on its daily round. They had been out only a few minutes when Jai Kishen (42), who was lagging behind the others, sensed movement behind him. In a flash, a tiger was upon him.
Kishen miraculously survived the attack. His elder brother, Hari Ram was not so lucky. Last year in April, Hari was killed by a tiger when he had gone out to extinguish a forest fire in the night.
For these guards, life at its worst means dodging forest fires, only to fall into the mouth of a tiger. If a wild animal doesn’t maul you first, there is always the threat of a disease looming in the jungles.
Both Kishen and his brother are daily wagers, the kind that India’s wildlife management system depends on heavily. Of the 50 tiger reserves in the country, 37 out of 38 for which data is available with the Wildlife Trust of India have high vacancies for the formal staff.
The manpower shortage— which is sometimes as high as 70% like in Jharkhand’s Palamau — is covered by employing people on a daily wage. It is cheaper and convenient.
They are a labour force that is poorly paid, under-trained and doing most of the dangerous jobs in some of the most hostile environments.
Forest personnel often compare themselves to army men. But there is an important difference — the army doesn’t rely on contract labour to protect the nation’s borders.
Contract workers are the lowest in the pecking order in the forest management system. Above them are the forest guards who are full-time government employees, a job that comes with higher and regular income.
Pay Low, Very High Allocation
Kishen has given 15 years to this job and earns Rs 6,000 a month. Most temporary guards, even those who worked at a national park for decades, earn as little as Rs 4,000-10,000 a month. In May, Kishen also has not been paid for three months — a phenomenon not unusual for daily wagers.
Many contract workers aspire for permanent government jobs, but with eligibility requirements demanding a minimum of class 10 or 12 pass, they can’t even think of applying for it formally.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) did a study to fix an economic value of six selected tiger reserves in India: Corbett, Kanha, Kaziranga, Periyar, Ranthambore and Sunderbans.
Annual benefits for the six reserves were estimated at almost Rs 8,000 crore and the stock benefits, including from firewood, tourism and carbon reserves was valued at almost Rs 1,50,000 crore. In this year’s budget, the allocation for Project Tiger was Rs 345 crore.
These astronomical sums seem out of line with the paltry wages paid to those protecting the country’s seemingly invaluable resources.
Dealing with Hostile Environment
Forest guards, both the regular and temporary cover large swathes of forest land. There are about 200 forest guards, both temporary and permanent at the Rajaji National Park, with each guard covering anywhere between 500 to 1,000 hectares.
“Even if he walks a month, he cannot cover such a beat,” director of the park Sanatan Sonkar said of the guards.
During monsoons, the parks are closed to public, but the guards remain as numerous rivulets gush forth.
“We walk for kilometres just to get our ration,” says Harpal Singh (47), who became permanent guard five years ago after 20 years of service as a temporary worker at Rajaji National Park. Some states allow contract workers to become regular employees under limited time scheme but this is not a standard practice across the country.
Forest guards spend weeks, sometimes months away from their families in shelters that even lack basic amenities like power and drinking water.
In the face of menacing threats, the training and equipment given to the frontline staff seems woefully inadequate. Over the years, poaching has become a heavily militarized activity and conservation techniques have evolved. But very little has been done to help forest guards keep pace with changing realities.
Death & Assurance
In life, their hardships might be almost similar but in death the distinction between a regular forest guard and just a hired hand becomes even more glaring. Many state forest departments offer the permanent staff relief in the event of death or injury, but not to contract workers.
Some non-governmental organisations are stepping in to fill the gap.
This year, WWF-India launched an ex-gratia scheme for frontline staff in partnership with ICICI Prudential and has partnered with Apollo Hospitals to provide medical treatment to guards and other forest staff on a case-by-case basis.
The Wildlife Trust of India also has an ongoing ex-gratia scheme, which was launched in 2001 and has benefited 115 families in 23 states.
However, these schemes have limited scope.
Special Tiger Protection Force
The problem of an inadequate force has not gone entirely unnoticed. The Corbett is gearing up to set up a special task force that will comprise well-trained educated young men. The reserve is also reorganising the beats, so that the area under each forest guard is of a manageable size.
But Kishen will not be part of it, the Corbett is hiring younger guards for the force. Despite the attack and his brother’s death, he will continue to serve as a guard. “I have four children. Who will feed and take care of them?” he asks.
Singh at Rajaji echoed the sentiment. “If we get scared how will we take care of our children?”
He is relieved to have become a permanent employee five years ago as he knows his family will receive some assistance from the government if something happens to him.
Kishen has no such assurance but he remains bound to the troubled forests. “The forest has taken so much away from us, but where else will we go?”