India is blessed with a wide range of flora and fauna but saving them is not an easy task for foresters. India loses more forest rangers each year than any other country in the world. According to the International Rangers Federation, the country lost 34 forest guards in 2012, 14 in 2013 and 24 in 2014.
First, let’s talk about forest guards, our frontline warriors in conservation. From filing challans of offences to wildlife rescue and anti-poaching operations, their hands are always full. In fact, over the years, their role has only expanded: Along with guarding the forests, they are also involved in ecotourism, joint forest management, land regeneration, conserving biodiversity and urban greening. Thereare around 110,000 forest rangers, deputy forest rangers, foresters and forest guards in India who work across a wide range of bioclimatic zones, from the Himalayas to the Gulf of Mannar. To put things in perspective, India’s armed forces protect the nation with 1.2-million strong personnel, whereas only one lakh-odd forest personnel look after 23% of India’s geographical area.
The work load of forest officials will increase in the coming years since the National Forest Policy targets to increase the forest cover to one-third of the country’s geographical area. The Indian subcontinent has a wide geographical diversity, ranging from hills to the western deserts and a staggering 7,500 km-long coastline, making the environmental problems of one area almost different from that of the other area. Yet the forest department is understaffed, there are 30-70% vacancies depending on the region.
However, we must realise that much of the success of Project Tiger, Project Elephant and Rhino Conservation is due to these alert foresters. Recently the National Tiger Conservation Authority report on six tiger reserves showed that these sanctuaries provide annual benefits of Rs 8,000 crore and the stock value adds up to Rs 1,50,000 crore. This puts in perspective the amount of property the forest department is guarding.
It takes a lot of courage to save this property of the nation: Take, for example, the case of late Indian Forest Service official P Srinivasan. How many outside the forest bureaucracy know that he was the first to arrest forest brigand Veerappan? He was killed by Veerappan but his bravery was recognised when he was awarded posthumously with the second highest peacetime gallantry award, the Kirti Chakra. The story of Sanjay Singh, IFS, is equally inspiring. He lost his life due to his tough stand against mining mafia in Bihar. There are many such incidents where the foresters have put their lives in the line of fire for the protection of the nation’s forest wealth. And despite working with such single-minded focus for fulfilling their constitutional and statutory mandates of protecting and preserving the ecology of the nation, the general public perception is that we are being anti-development.
It is high time that we acknowledge the role of these unsung foot soldiers have played over the years in making our world clean and green.
To ensure they can continue with their good work, foresters must be aided with modern-day technological tools. For example, Geographical Information System is a valuable tool for managing natural resources. Surveillance with the help of remote sensing and use of drones in tough terrain can lead to better results. With India going through a digital revolution, the time is just right to roll out these multifaceted reforms and train the frontline staff in these technologies for an increased national productivity.
The war against climate change is usually initiated in international conferences but it is fought on the ground through afforestation and land regeneration. For this also front line staff needed to be trained and protected.
Parveen Kaswan and Akash Deep Badhawan are in Indian Forest Service
The views expressed are personal. Article was published in ‘Hindutan Times Opinion’ recently.