Nobody’s heroes: our forgotten forest watchers

M D Madhusudan & Pavithra Sankaran

It was an hour after dawn. Siddarama, a forest watcher, was walking to the Tiger Reserve’s headquarters from his village a good six kilometres away, when he heard the faint sound of voices. Suspicious, he approached quietly, and saw three men sitting by a stream, smoking and chatting. Two guns leaned on the rocks behind them and a dead giant squirrel lay on a sackcloth. Siddarama was alone and unarmed, but all he could think of then was that he simply had to catch the poachers red-handed. Figuring quickly that the roaring stream would drown any sounds he made in his approach, he crept towards the men on his belly until he was within reach of the guns. He felt certain that one of them would still be loaded. In a swift move, he grabbed the guns, taking the poachers completely by surprise. In no time, he had one of the men tie up the other two. Tying up the third himself, he marched the trio through the forest to the park headquarters and handed them to over to his superiors.

A week later, the poachers roamed free again. Siddarama had risked his life for nothing.

Tens of thousands of men like him guard our forests and wildlife, working in extreme conditions for little more than a paltry wage and a khaki uniform. In a job that depends heavily on individual motivation, there are few incentives for people to give their best. Yet, there are not one or two, but dozens of Siddaramas, willing to take extraordinary risks to protect our elephants, rhinos, hornbills and turtles.

Although they are the bottom rung of a large and rigid hierarchy, even lower in rank than a forest guard, it is through them that the law makes contact with local people. They are thought of as unskilled workers, but in reality, they bring a practical understanding of ecology, society and politics to their jobs.

Forest watchers often come from impoverished local communities, which have few employment opportunities besides those the forest department offers. To their superiors, they are the face of local resistance; to local people, they represent the oppressive establishment. Caught in this bind, they also bear the brunt of other conflicts played out in our forest areas—many have been kidnapped and even killed by Maoist forces.

Despite such extreme threats, many of these people in the frontiers of wildlife protection in our country are merely daily wage workers—their jobs are not permanent positions in the government; regardless of how sincerely they serve, they are dispensable contract labour. Salaries are sometimes delayed by several months, but these men continue to work, hoping that their services will one day be regularised. Jayaram, a watcher for 22 years, nurses hopes of becoming permanent employee, but it is only a hope. Committed and sincere, he has job offers with researchers and tourist resorts, but finds it hard to abandon the years invested as a watcher—if his service is confirmed, he may receive large pay arrears. But dozens of watchers we know have grown old and left the service, their hopes fated to die with them.

The forest watchers who toil to protect our natural wealth—unlike the jawans who guard our borders—are nobody’s heroes. These foot soldiers for conservation get neither benefit nor credit for their struggles to save wildlife. Theirs is still a life of ramshackle field camps, measly rations, overbearing superiors, angry neighbours and neglected families. If we care so much for our wildlife, must we not also care for their guardians a little bit better?

An edited version of this post appeared in the Times of India, 31 December 2010

7 thoughts on “Nobody’s heroes: our forgotten forest watchers

  1. Guys, that brought some tears, remembering the many in other places exactly like those you have mentioned..these are the real workers out there..still getting paid Rs 1500 to 3000, sporadically..still hoping for that miracle of becoming regular

    and everyone keeps talking of filling vacancies for forest guards etc as an end to the problem, filling the reqd. criteria with mandatory schooling etc.

    Part of the problem could be addressed by making these men who give their lives for 20-30 years in an area, regular or at least some decent pay and amenities.

    None of those people I have known had a shred of formal education, yet they were the most knowledgable, experienced and right there all those years to do the job and doing it..

  2. Very very well written article containing extremely relevant points about park management and wildlife conservation in India! More than often, it is the work and dedication of the foot soldiers which keep a system from completely breaking down.

    1. Aparajita & Annie, many thanks for your comments.

      A point we often sadly miss when we talk of the plight of field staff of forest departments is the distinction between forest watchers and forest guards. The watchers are very often (but not always) temporary staff from local communities who work on a daily wage basis, but the guards are almost always permanent, full-time, government employees. Unsurprisingly, the problems of forest watchers are often very different–and much worse–than those of forest guards. While employment and work conditions have generally gotten better for our forest guards, things continue to remain rather bleak for the forest watchers. So, the next time we think “foot soldier for conservation”, hopefully we will first think forest watchers and then, forest guards.

  3. A nice article.. I had written along similar lines after an experience in Kerala’s forests and as you rightly point out, we often miss the distinction between the guards and watchers. I too did not mention them specifically in my blog but I do believe that they are the true guardians of life in the forests. The least one can do is interact with them whenever possible and let them know that they are not alone in their crusade.

  4. Thanks for that story. Having worked on a similar story as a volunteer for a news magazine a few years ago – I was struck by the plight of both the guards and watchers. At least in Jharkhand the politics of the issue had totally ground the issue of increasing their pay etc to a halt. Another interesting thing is that because forest guards had not been hired in years because of the same political gridlock(15-20 years if memory serves me correctly), and the average age of a forest guard is in the 50’s – the real foot soldiers are in fact the watchers – and they could be easily hired because they are temporary. One forest worker had been temporary for more than a decade with no benefits of his long service.

    I remember feeling predatory when reporting on their plight- in a – I report their plight and then I am gone kind of way. And I really do wonder what can one do for these hard working people? Clearly, the current forest department systems are painfully slow at evolving. And one wonders if perhaps NGO’s cannot facilitate in some way with out of the box thinking. Perhaps additional training could be provided to further enhance their robust local knowledge, financial support and infrastructural support. Is some of this already in place?

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