By Joseph Hoover/TNN
Bangalore: Imagine chasing poachers in the pitch of night, sleeping under an open sky with tigers and leopards stalking prey around you.
Imagine battling the vagaries of nature without appropriate clothes, caps and shoes.
Imagine surviving on a morsel of rice and a sprinkling of curry; quenching your thirst at water holes where elephants gambol.
Imagine earning Rs 89.90 per day as an MRE (Monthly Rated Employee) with the Karnataka State Forest Department and being paid once in four
months. This is what the protectors of our forest live through. Yet, they don’t give up their fight against poachers and smugglers, who lord over our jungles with state-of-the-art guns and ammunition.
These men are indeed the heart and soul of the forest department, without whom the tiger would be wiped off the face of our forests.
For Kudhus, Mara and Thimma, the storyline is the same. “We have a family to look after. Only if we work can we feed them. But we get salaries once in four months. And during these dry months we have to depend on the local grocer and the money lender. The grocer often charges us twice the cost of the commodity, the moneylender charges 3 per cent interest. So at the end of the four months, almost our entire pending salary goes towards repayments. This is our fate,” is their heart-rending refrain.
Officers directly in charge of these sentinels are helpless. “We ensure that they get supplies in the core of the national park. To see them braving the heat and cold without proper gear hurts us. With no help coming, we turn to NGOs to provide caps, shoes and uniforms. But they expect us to reciprocate. It becomes very difficult,” said assistant conservator of forests Aswath Narayan Gowda.
With funds hard to come by, the department repeatedly appeals to the state government to borrow money from the employees’ benevolent fund to pay the MRE. This fund is replaced when the Government of India grant materialises. “This year again I have sought the government’s help to pay the staff,” said A K Varma, principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife). Varma was also hopeful that the government would regularise the 2000-odd forest staff who come under the MRE category. “Sympathy is there with the government. In fact, former forest minister was considering regularising their services. I am sure the present minister C Chennigappa will look into this matter as well,” said Varma. Chennigappa directed R M Rai, principal chief conservator of forests to answer queries. “All I can say is that things are looking up for the FD. We are no longer orphans. I had a two-hour meeting with the minister. The enthusiasm and energy he has shown I haven’t seen in anyone else. But we will have to see how much is put into action,” said Rai.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE HERE
Can the mind’s eye forget our forest staff, equipped with .303 rifles taking on the AK-47 might of the dreaded Veerappan? Never.
Our forest guards may be poorly paid and ill-equipped. All is not lost for some of them have been given better arm power now. But the same cannot be said of the manpower situation, that has improved just marginally. Most guards trudge the national parks with outdated guns. But now, some have been provided American sling guns to fight poachers. “We have acquired 100 American sling guns and have trained our staff at the Sports Authority of India” said A K Varma, principal chief conservator of forests. Shortfall of guards: The general ban imposed on recruitment in 1984 still seems to affect the performance of the department.
Need for vehicles: Go to any national park or wildlife sanctuary, you are sure to hear the choke and stutter of a forest vehicle, mostly jeeps. Reason: most vehicles have lived beyond their times. As a matter of fact. it has been almost ten years since their fleet of vehicles was replaced.
In the past, NGOs would provide a vehicle or two, but now there are no takers. Perhaps, corporates can chip in for the cause to save our forests.
WWF and other agencies have pumped in literally crores of rupees into our country...where is all the money going?