Talking the walk
A daily wage worker, earning between Rs 100-150 a day, is posted to help each guard with patrolling, maintenance and cooking. Food supplies come from the nearest village market a few kilometres away. The guard and the worker share the food cost.
There are small mercies, though. "At least we have walkie talkies now. When I joined the service in 1972, our only option was to walk to the range office," said forest guard Ramakant Mishra at the Indri camp.
"This is our only means of communications; sometimes days go by without meeting another person," said Maravi, the walkie talkie hooked to the belt of his khaki trousers. At the Koppedabri camp, Maravi climbed to the roof of the two-room house to talk to the deputy ranger at Khisli camp. "The signal is good only on the roof. Otherwise I can hear them, but they cannot hear me," said Maravi, 29.
A walkie-talkie can be the difference between life and death for a guard. Mishra recalled how in 2005 a bear attacked a forest worker of Indri camp cycling through the forest. After it left him alone, he managed to get up and limp to Simti camp, where he found nobody. He cleaned the wounds with an antiseptic and half-walked half-crawled to Indri. "He would have died if he hadn't the determination to reach the camp no matter what," Mishra said. Then there is the tale of a forest guard killed by a camp elephant in 1994.
In forest guard stories, wild animals seem different from the wildlife documentaries--on foot, one does not get to see too much wildlife, only signs of their presence. On his beat, Maravi pointed at a patch of flattened grass and said it indicated a bison had rested there, probably the previous night. Mishra had a stint with wildlife research he kept watch over a tigress and her two cubs for 10 days. All he could recall was that the cubs obediently followed their mother.
The guards said the villagers surrounding the forest dislike them because the department routinely says no to all their demands. But, unlike the officers, the guards interact with the villagers. Earlier, two guards lived in a nearby village, but it was very uncomfortable living in close proximity with people who are always at odds with the department. The guards moved out.
A team of armed ex-military men, hired under the Tiger Protection Programme, have what the guards do not firearms. "They complain often about the hardships of living in the forest camps," said a range officer. "It surprised me. Surely army life is tougher? But the men say that in the army, all arrangements are made for them. On a scale of 1 to 10, they rate army life as 9 or 10. And life here 1 or 2," he said.
Patrolling the borders attracts more romance and privilege than patrolling the source of water, air and biodiversity.