Why tigers fear Indian forest service officers

Published: Wednesday 31 January 2007

Why tigers fear Indian forest service officers

-- A forest officer

"Untouchability has not been eradicated from the country. There still exist classes of people who have to perform chores for their lords with unquestioning servility. Any attempt at protesting means a long exile in jungles with very little facilities for families of the banished," says a forest guard.

He is referring to the fate of forest guards, foresters and range forest officers the executives of the forest department whose primary job is not to protect the tiger from extinction, but serve officers of the Indian Forest Service (ifs). People engaged to perform domestic chores of these officers and for taking care of their children are routinely slotted down in the muster rolls of the forest department as forest protection labourers. Getting newspapers, repairing fans, even cleaning toilet seats are among the chores expected of the lower level forest staff.The forest guard adds, "I am amazed that the tiger has not gone extinct in spite of all efforts of the forest department and the public. Officers of the forest department are supposed to be custodians of forests, but then, you have to understand their plight."

Forest and wildlife management are low priority for our forest managers. They have other imminent callings pleasing local political bosses, circumventing the Supreme Court ban on new rest houses in forests and discovering loopholes in the law, very often to facilitate mining in areas in the vicinity of wildlife sanctuaries.

The moment an ifs officer is posted in a forest circle, the whole machinery of the department is galvanised into locating a bungalow for him. The officer then starts scavenging up all forest rest houses in his jurisdiction for furniture, utensils, refrigerators and television. If there is no television, one is procured-- ostensibly for use in the forest rest house and is then conveniently added to the officer's drawing room.

Then the services of the executive staff are engaged to secure the officer's children's admission to the local school or college. If seats aren't available, other officers including those of the Indian Administrative Service flex their muscles and get space made. Vehicles purchased under Union government funds to protect the tiger from poachers are conveniently placed under the officer so that his children can go to school and his wife can go shopping.
Different rules But then, one might ask aren't the lower executives sufficient enough to protect the tiger? No. Recruitment of forest guards, foresters and range forest officers is among the lowest priorities in all forest departments. Lower-level forest personnel number exactly what they were 25 years ago. There has been little or no recruitment in the last 10 years for these posts. The average age of the forest guard in sanctuaries is over 55 years.

Forest guards prefer city postings to forest areas because of minimal facilities in remote areas. The forest quarters in these areas are barely-maintained. Most of the funds for maintenance are diverted for rest houses and for furnishing the quarters of ifs officers (these are usually camouflaged under office or rest house repairs). So, it's little wonder that our wildlife sanctuaries are poorly manned. The vacant beats are allotted to existing staff as additional duties without extra remuneration, consequently each forest guard has to protect three or four beats covering over 40 sq km. The guards have no vehicles and are expected to patrol on foot with nothing more than a cane stick.

The state governments care little for the forest executive staff their plight is never brought to the notice of the government by the ifs officers.Moreover, recent rulings of the Supreme Court against conversion of forestland for non-forestry purposes (including development of roads, water canals) are enforced by the higher ups but forest guards and range forest officers become easy targets for politicians in front of their vote banks.

Let's take all
All this while, the number of ifs officers is increasing. These officers have taken advantage of their job as policy makers by creating vacancies and posts at higher levels. So the forest department has become top heavy--there are more managers than workers.

Take the case of Maharashtra's forest department. Earlier, a principal chief conservator of forests (pcf) headed the department. The state now has three pcfs. A number of posts have been created under the designation of additional chief conservator of forests. Under these are innumerable chief conservators of forests and deputy conservators of forests.

But the last recruitment for the post of range forest officers was done way back in 1984. The same is the case with the posts of forest guards and round foresters.

The story is the same in neighbouring Goa. This tiny state with almost 33 per cent forest cover was headed by one conservator of forests and seven deputy conservator of forests 15 years ago. Now the state has two chief conservators of forests and two conservators of forests and ten deputy conservators of forests. Only six of the 300 forest guards in the state are below 45 years of age. Posts of 130 forest guards lie vacant. Of course, ifs officers will show you advertisements issued to fill up the posts. But there have been no efforts besides.

Number crunching
The creation of new posts for ifs officers is an amazing, but simple story. In Goa, when the conservator of forests was the head of the department, he had the added responsibility of ex-officio secretary to the government. In a proposal submitted to the government for the creation of a chief conservator of forests (ccf), he recommended that this post be that of a joint secretary in the state secretariat. The ccf had to liaise between the state forest department and the government and the post could have been filled up from the existing ifs posts in Goa, without adding to the financial burden of the state. But once the government approved of this new post, the number of other ifs posts increased.

Moreover, due to wrong transfer policies, the state once had two ccfs. So it conveniently upgraded the post of managing director of Forest Development Corporation to this rank. Similarly when the state had two conservators of forests, one was conveniently placed as officer on special duty in the electricity department.

When an ifs officer is transferred from the state, the vacant post is immediately filled up, but the transferred officer continues to draw salary from the state. While ifs officers make every effort to promote their own tribesmen to higher posts even in the absence of vacancies, they resort to red tapism in the case of the executive staff quoting rules and absence of definite vacancies.

While ifs officers draw equal salaries throughout the country and are at par with ips and ias officers, they ridicule lower executives demanding equal or equivalent pay scales.How can anybody expect the range forest officer, custodian of over 200 sq km of prime forest, when the salary he draws is less that of a primary school teacher? How can anybody expect them to protect the forest when all the new vehicles purchased for the protected area are kept for ifs officers, while they are given old useless vehicles? How can anybody expect them to keep away from the temptation of easy money while their senior ifs officers are greedily lording over all government facilities for protection of tigers?

When the lords are behaving thus, how can one expect the lower staff to remain alert to protect the tiger? Yet, let any newspaper or the public complain about the forest department, the same ifs officers will not hesitate to make a scapegoat of the lowly executive officers.

These officers also manage to keep the lower staff from revolting or complaining by traditional methods used by the British in the pre-independence era--divide and rule. By favouring and rewarding a few, and threatening and punishing others with transfers to remote postings, they manage to keep the staff divided.

Given this state of affairs, it's quite amazing that the tiger hasn't become extinct. But then, such things will continue with neither the states/centre nor the judiciary keen to make amends. The ifs officers hide facts from the judiciary and the ngos as usual, wanting fame and publicity, but will do nothing for the lowly executive staff.

A range forest officer puts the state of affairs quite aptly "I would give the tiger another decade, if not less to be totally extinct."

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