India, the world’s second-most populous nation and the largest democracy of the planet has a respectable army defending her borders with highly trained troops, as well as impressive batch of several paramilitary forces operating across the nation for the safety and security of the nation.
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Furthermore, every Indian state and union territories have police forces that take care of the law and order situation within the nation. However, most unfortunately, the ground force that is responsible for the protection of India’s vast natural forests are the most poorly paid, trained, treated and taken care of – forest guards.
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Recently, there has been a serious debate around the discrimination and differences of pay and other facilities among various divisions of the India’s security forces too. A subsidiary pay commission involving officials from both the civilian administration as well army and paramilitary higher ranks should be engaged by the government to look seriously into the debate. Moreover, they should look into the conditions of the Indian forest guards.
It is not just a question of revision of salary under a Pay Commission, but a serious change in the attitude of governments at all levels in dealing with the poor conditions of the helpless Indian forest guards. Of course, they have some positive images in some parts of the country, but we have to face the unpleasant truth that their overall situation is deplorable.
India has huge forests and the number of guards employed at the lowest level is way below what is necessary to protect the forests from encroachment, poaching, illegal harvest and looting of both major and minor forest products, prevent making the dense forests a safe passage and refuge for insurgents as well as drug, human and wildlife traffickers involved in both anti-social and anti-national activities.
The penetration of insurgency into the forest heartlands of India is an alarming issue. If something credible and sustainable is not done, then it will not only impact the economic growth and security of the nation, but also the biodiversity conservation efforts. The forest guards are ill-trained with only archaic weapons to defend one of India’s richest natural resource against a marauding force of highly trained, well equipped and well connected insurgent groups with invisible support from across her vulnerable borders.
One must remember that India has dense forests in the North East, West Bengal and the Jammu and Kashmir region sharing highly volatile international boundaries from the perspective of the security of the nation. Unless these areas are properly and regularly monitored and placed under highest level of surveillance, the forest and wildlife conservation attempts as well as regional security can be seriously compromised. With poor clothing, shoes, no proper head guard, archaic communication tools and over used vehicles, prehistoric arms and ammunitions, we are pushing these helpless and vastly unarmed forest guards towards an uncertain future and jeopardizing their personal security.
Even if we take off the insurgency factor from the equation, the normal duties of protecting forests and wildlife cannot be done with the lack of any basic facilities and infrastructure. The Indian forest guards should be applauded for the excellent job they have been doing for decades with least minimal protection and facilities made available to them. How many large mammals in India have died in the past due to use of tranquilizer overdose as the guards are not well trained in handling such delicate issues?
How many precious lives of forest guards were lost due to wildlife and insurgent attacks while on duty with vehicles that will not move, communication kits that do not work and archaic battle guns that will not fire and jam? We have no answers.
Several encroachers as well as criminals involved in crimes against wildlife and stealing forest products have been let off in the past due to lack of appropriate legal knowledge of forest guards and foresters alike. Lack of training and knowledge in modern forestry is one of the prime factor that handicaps forest departments across the nation.
The increasing incidences of human-wildlife conflicts reported across the nation could not be effectively addressed with such poorly trained and ill equipped ground force. If the conditions of forest guards were any better, the task of security forces operating in the insurgent impacted forest belts could have been much more efficient.
The conditions of the forest guards need to be reviewed seriously by the government and immediate measures have to be taken. The forest guards need to be properly educated with means of modern forestry and conservation practices, modern satellite based communication and surveillance methods, personal safety, basic medical care and in forestry and wildlife related legal matters.
Although some training programs are being run by the respective departments, they are not sufficient and well adopted to the modern day needs of forest and wildlife conservation. If India wishes to be a formidable global force, the forest guards need to be trained and developed into a highly disciplined, better paid, well trained and properly armed paramilitary force to work in the ground to protect India’s vast forest resources and wildlife.
To curb militancy and insurgency, forest guards must be well linked to the security forces providing them with quality intelligence feedback. They can be certainly transformed into another layer of security for the nation and for protecting her valuable natural resources. This will also help in reducing poaching, trafficking and stealing of precious forest products over time, and help in curbing levels of corruption in some sections of the forest guards effectively.
(The author is a Canada and India based freelance journalist specializing in global geo-political, strategic and foreign policy issues, science & technology and environment & conservation related themes.)