NO ONE GUARDS THE GUARD
So why are forest guards who protect the tiger from poachers treated like bait ready to be sacrificed?
Akash Bisht Sawai Madhopur
On a cold winter morning, while the sun is playing hide and seek with the clouds, a spine-chilling breeze sweeps across the landscape forcing the inhabitants of the sleepy town of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan to remain indoors. The roads wear a deserted look and the only people out are the ones huddled together around small fires lit in different corners of the town. In contrast, the few buses that ply are carrying hordes of foreign tourists who have come to get a glimpse of one of the most beautiful and majestic predators to ever roam the Indian forests - the Royal Bengal Tiger. Famous for its proximity to one of India's tiger paradises, Ranthambhore National Park, this obscure township of Sawai Madhopur is a touristy hotbed, especially among foreign nationals.
It's hard to miss the pictures of two playful tigers at the massive office of Project Tiger. Inside the campus, the buildings are in a dilapidated state; the rooms are poorly lit, stacked with dusty files. The stink of urine, damp wood, rotting paper, and a general state of ritualistic decadence, pervades the entire corridor.
Out in the open, braving the chilly wind, several men dressed in khaki are huddled together stamping documents, pasting pictures on papers, vigorously sipping tea from small plastic glasses. They pay no attention to the officers walking by. An officer informs, "We would be conducting entrance examinations for the posts of forest guards that have been lying vacant for a long time. We have 37 vacancies and more than 35,000 people have applied. These men you see here are the forest guards of Ranthambhore National Park, who have been asked to assist us in sending admit cards to the applicants."
Most seasoned forest guards have one thing in common - age. All, barring one or two, are well above 50 and have spent most of their lives inside the jungle. Their wrinkled hands and weather-beaten faces are testimony to the hardships they have endured living inside the jungle. Guarding any of the gates, or on a risky patrol, these forest guards are a classic example of how these resilient men, who so tenaciously protect the forests and tigers, are so decisively alienated from the high-profile tiger conservation programme.
Hansraj lost a leg in an accident while patrolling the forest. He is still waiting for the prosthetic leg that had been promised to him by the government. He becomes speechless when asked about the details. Other forest guards confide to Hardnews that he is afraid of the wrath of the officers if he utters a word. "He would not only lose the prosthetic leg, but also his job," says a frustrated forest guard.
Guards narrate another incident wherein a forest guard had to spend more than Rs 3 lakh on his treatment for a wound inflicted upon him by villagers. "Phool Chand was asking the villagers to take their cattle outside the protected area when he was attacked with axes. He was hit by an axe on the head and has yet not fully recovered from that injury. He has spent a lot of money on his treatment without any support from the government," says a local. In the past, several forest guards have been attacked by wild animals, including tigers. There are many tragic narratives.
"We save the tiger, we patrol the forests, we are smashed by the villagers, we don't get to see our children for long periods, we are bitten by snakes and scorpions, and we are the ones who are never looked after. The forest officials have everything at their disposal. They have a fleet of cars while we are provided with none when we need them in distress. We never get promotions while they get promoted for merely helping some minister get a glimpse of the tiger. When each tiger is so important, then why not a thought for us who fight against all odds to save the tigers," says another forest guard. Predictably, not one forest guard would want to be named. Or else 'disciplinary action' would be initiated against them, and they might even lose their jobs.
This reporter and photographer are surrounded by several forest guards who want to narrate their stories. Anonymously. "Write about us, help change our lives," they plead. "Every day, we start as early as 5.30am and trek the area designated to us. We are back by 11am and then cook a frugal meal. After resting for a couple of hours, we are back in the forest for patrolling and return only by 8pm. We cook our dinner and eat by 10pm. By this time we are so dog tired that we sleep, only to follow the same routine round the year," says a senior guard. During their treks, the guards have to be very watchful for traps by poachers, destruction of forests and trees, pugmarks and human footprints for clues that should raise suspicion.
To their dismay, they are seldom given any holidays and even the established 'festival/government holidays' are rarely allotted. They hardly get to see their children. "I don't want my children or even relatives to ever consider this job. This is full of hardship, without any recognition or reward," says a guard.
According to sources, the forest guards are not provided proper kits, uniforms, shoes, arms, or other basic provisions that are crucial for survival in forests. "Let's talk of the basics. The lack of potable water is a big problem, but no one cares. Sometimes I have to walk for more than one kilometre to fetch water, and it's even worse during monsoons when clean water is hard to find. During the rainy period we actually live and drink water like animals; and yet, this is the season when we have to be very alert as this is when poachers are most active," says a guard. Sometimes, if they run out of basic food commodities like salt, chilly, flour, rice etc, they have to manage without those items.
Others say that some of the uniforms and shoes they have received are part of the donations provided by NGOs. "These NGOs care more for us than our own department and government," is the unanimous refrain. "Wildlife poachers, the timber mafia, cattle grazers, among others, are always baying for our blood and we have only lathis to fight them. Is this how the government intends to fight the poachers and save tigers?" asks a staffer.
Forest guards have also been asked to take care of NREGS work in their respective areas and this has added to their burden. "If wages aren't paid for five days, enquiries are initiated against us. We are no experts on NREGS and are made scapegoats if anything goes wrong," they say.
Whenever a poacher is caught by forest guards, apparently, it is always the forest officer who is rewarded, while the guards are ignored. "The tiger is safe because of the experience, courage and commitment of the forest guard as he is the foundation of the tiger conservation project. If the protectors of tigers and forests at the grassroots are alienated, frustrated and unhappy, how can the project be successful? They should be given respect and the chance to grow in the profession. They should be given higher training, better salaries, social security and good living conditions. You can't make the pillars of conservation successful if the foundation is constantly ignored and treated with such indignity. The forest guard's knowledge of the terrain and wildlife should be respected. You can check it out. Some officers who are routinely promoted can't even differentiate between the pugmarks of tigers and dogs," says a guard who knows the forests like the back of his hand.
This lament is like a cry in the twilight zone. An alarm call in the forest. But, are the big shots of Project Tiger listening?