Strengthen the Sentinel, Save the Forest!
The Covid Era has re-defined the medical fraternity as ‘frontline heroes’ or ‘first responders’ and rightly so! So, who are frontline heroes? If the Merriam -Webster Dictionary were to be believed, then they are those people who are in the most advanced,
The Covid Era has re-defined the medical fraternity as ‘frontline heroes’ or ‘first responders’ and rightly so! So, who are frontline heroes? If the Merriam -Webster Dictionary were to be believed, then they are those people who are in the most advanced, responsible, or visible position in a field or activity. Our forest guards, beat guards, watcher, the frontline forest heroes who have been given the task, as their title suggests, to guard the forest. Sounds simple enough, but the reality is discomforting, to say the least.
In India, forest guards are appointed by the State and serve as the first (or last?) level of official in the hierarchy. The Forest guards are expected to invigilate and notify about the happenings in the forest, these brave heroes walk through the jungle and in the name of defence get only a Lathi (a long wooden stick), or sometimes a 202 rifle if they are lucky!. He knows the boundaries of his Beat thoroughly and prevents encroachment, and protects his Beat against injury from fire or other causes. He is expected to patrol the forests constantly in his Beat to prevent offences, and where the offences are detected he must record the offence promptly to the Range Officer. He should maintain the boundary lines and boundary marks in forest blocks in proper order and repair. He should cut creepers and climbers during his perambulation in the Forests. He is supposed to prevent poaching, negotiate with the locals, and ensure that the ‘forest sahibs’ are comfortable during their stays in the forest rest houses… the list is endless. Visits and experiences at the field level have also revealed that in a country where community identity is supreme, it is always a challenge to balance one’s job with this identity. For example, a forest guard celebrates a festival with people whom he might have to take action against someday. And if he does his job, it does not win him accolades or appreciation from the community.
Another pressing issue is the huge vacancy that has compounded over the decades, which has not been filled up and has been instead substituted with daily wage workers, who might don the uniform of a forest guard, but is neither trained nor skilled to carry out its duties. Given the job profile, not trained in the profession, increases the threat and gradually reduces the purpose for which such a position has been created. Essentially, such workers have even lesser security and benefits than those who have been procedurally recruited and exposes them to threats that they may not even be aware of. What has remained constant though, is the apathy of governments, across party lines who have remained insensitive to the plight of these front liners, and have miserably failed to address this deplorable situation.
Recently, the Hon’ble Supreme Court (T.N. Godavarman vs Union of India, Order dated 08.01.2021) has taken cognizance of the danger and helplessness to which the forest officers and staff are subjected in the course of protecting flora and fauna in the forests. The Court has acknowledged and brought to the fore another pressing issue, that the action which is taken by the forest officers are met with the counterblast in the form of an FIR prosecuting them in return for some or the other act. The Hon’ble Court has also gone to the extent of stating that it is difficult to imagine how any law can be enforced by the forest officers and staff who are poorly unarmed against poachers who are likely to be heavily armed.
But would such an Order by the Apex Court have any consequences, or would it be a case of too little, too late? It can be safely assumed that precious little has changed since the Order was pronounced on 08.01.2021.
The internet is replete with instances of these unsung heroes who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of the forests and wildlife. There are some who have also received awards and accolades, which have neither changed their lives nor made it any safer.
It is hoped (almost against hope!) that the intervention by the Apex Court will revolutionize the situation as it exists today. And hope they say, is what makes the world go around!
Eisha Krishn specialises in environmental law and is a partner at Enviro Legal Defence Firm (ELDF), New Delhi. This copy was published in a special arrangement with Paryavidhi - The Environmental Law Quarterly.