By B.K. Sharma
It was Friday, September 11, 2020, National Forest Martyr’s Day, when we commemorate those who laid down their lives to protect India’s forests and wildlife. On that day came the tragic news that ranger Rathram Patel of the Bhairamgarh Forest Range in the Indravati Tiger Reserve, Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh, had been hacked to death by militant Maoists. Patel had travelled to Kondronji village to pay labourers engaged in creating roads to facilitate accessibility for locals. This did not suit the militants, who had threatened Patel a few days earlier. He paid the price for putting duty before self with his life.
Months earlier, 60 militiamen belonging to a Hutu rebel group in Rwanda attacked a convoy of vehicles and killed 12 rangers and five civilians in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Virunga harbours one-third of the world population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. Without protection from the rangers, the gorillas would soon be picked off by organised poaching gangs who take advantage of regional political instability, bushmeat hunting and deforestation. As many as 200 rangers have been martyred protecting Rwanda’s wild in the past two decades.
The killings in Chhattisgarh and Virunga are not isolated incidents. The International Rangers Federation revealed that between 2009 and 2018, as many as 871 rangers died in the line of duty. A global survey conducted in 28 countries by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) confirms that 1,038 rangers were killed between 2009 and 2019. Asia reported 502 (48 per cent) deaths, and Africa recorded 381 (37 per cent) of these killings. Armed organised poachers working for syndicates were the greatest threat, accounting for nearly half of the total rangers’ death worldwide.
Pitted against poachers, smugglers, disease, forest fires and loneliness, the lives and working conditions of wildlife protectors are often as deadly and dangerous as those of the men and women serving in the armed forces of nations. It should be a wake-up call for us that between 2012 and 2017, 162 out of 526 rangers killed worldwide were killed in India. That equals the total of the next five countries on the list.
While deaths have been meticulously recorded, non-lethal assaults and attacks on forest officials are too numerous to be properly documented. In June 2019, forest ranger Chola Amritha and her colleagues were brutally attacked by a group led by local political leader Koneru Krishna in the Adilabad district of Telangana while on duty. The attack evoked country-wide condemnation, leading to the arrest of some of the perpetrators, including the leader.
In July 2019, officiating Field Director of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai and her staff were attacked while inspecting the collapsed walls of huts illegally set up on forest land. Around the same time, five forest officials, including a woman Forest Beat officer, were attacked and seriously injured by a group of Guti Koya tribals in Kothagudam district of Telangana, when they attempted to prevent a fresh bid to encroach upon forest land.
In October 2019, Forest Beat officer Swapna was attacked and injured by a group of villagers when she and her team were clearing encroached forest land in the Mancherial district of Telangana. Forest officials were also assaulted by encroachers in the Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh, leading to the hospitalisation of several officials on duty in August 2020. Around then, the arrest of two villagers illegally hacking down sal trees prompted hundreds to vandalise the Ultapani Forest Range Office in the Kokrajhar district of Assam. Many such forest officials and staff are locals themselves and the brutal and frequent attacks on them are often instigated by gangs profiting from the illegal pillage of forest ecosystems. The stress on the families of those risking their lives working for natural India, which is critical to the food, water and social security of the subcontinent, is not even a factor taken into account when criticism is heaped on these dharti sevaks.
Forest staff are specifically targeted by armed cadres and militia in Maoistaffected States. In February 2018, over 20 armed Maoists of Vistaar Dalam, in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, attacked forest officials at two outposts in the Kanha National Park. Guards were beaten up and their outposts vandalised. A second attack in Kanha took place in March 2018 when they set fire to a forest post at Lathawar.
These are not random assaults. Intelligence inputs suggest that Maoists want forest protection staff to withdraw so that the militants, who use timber and wildlife contraband to finance themselves, can extend their reach through Balaghat, Mandla and Dindori along the Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh (MMC) tri-junction. In one way or the other, no one can deny that the destruction of the forest eventually degrades the life of tribal communities, with armed militants using justice as a fig leaf that funds crime.
Way back in 1994, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (now the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, MoEFCC) had appointed a Committee headed by Dr. S. Subramaniam, former Director General of CRPF to recommend steps to prevent illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. One of the most significant remedial measures suggested by the Committee was to “upgrade the morale and motivation of the Protected Area staff.” The recommendation holds good even today. A major step in that direction would be to provide for a comprehensive health and life insurance scheme, in line with similar benefits available to police and paramilitary personnel in disturbed areas. The National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031, drawn up by the MoEFCC, recommends a Priority Project on “appropriate insurance scheme to deal with mortality/disability of frontline staff in the course of their duty”. Many states have implemented insurance schemes for forest staff in remote and sensitive areas. However, in the absence of uniformity and adequate monetary compensation, it would be ideal to have a national comprehensive insurance policy with general guidelines to the states for its implementation.
The ability for self defence in the face of growing incidents of organised attack, especially while performing duty in inaccessible areas is vital. Provision of firearms with strict guidelines of use and appropriate training will boost confidence levels and serve as a deterrence to criminal networks. Providing a backup of armed contingents, either of police or trained forest personnel, at Range or Division level will also aid ground level staff in conflict situations.
Security assessment of facilities and individuals in key positions or sensitive locations needs to be taken up at regular intervals so that not only vulnerability of posts and personnel are identified, but counter measures to mitigate the risks are initiated in time. Existing communication facilities providing high-definition HF or VHF sets, or satellite phones must be upgraded for use in dense and inaccessible forest areas. Collection of intelligence on known threats and habitual forest offenders through legal technical surveillance and other means is vital to safeguard our protection staff and infrastructure in remote areas. Institutionalised coordination with police through regular meetings both at supervisory (DFO and District Superintendent of Police) and cutting-edge level (Ranger and OIC or SHO of Police Station) would help project a unified face for the administration and ensure speedy rescue/assistance when required.
Every instance of assault on forest personnel in the course of discharge of official duty must be registered as an FIR in the jurisdictional Police Station, treated as a Special Report (SR) case, investigated by a police official of appropriate seniority. As a deterrent it is vital that the accused be arrested on the basis of prima-facie evidence. Every case of death of a forest official in the discharge of his or her official responsibilities should be investigated by the State Crime Branch. The charge sheet in all such cases must be filed within the statutory limitation period and prosecution monitored through the Public Prosecutor to ensure fast-tracking of the trial and conviction of the accused. While every human must be liable for a criminal act, it has been seen that frivolous and often fabricated accusations of assault, and even rape have been levied by those against whom action is taken for poaching, timber smuggling and fresh encroachments. Such accusations must be investigated and if found guilty, punishment must be meted out. But criminal cases registered against a forest official alleged to have been committed in the discharge of official duty must first be sanctioned by the competent authority in line with the provisions of section 197 CrPC.
With more and more information coming to light on the connection between biodiversity and ecosystem health and the survival of human life, it is imperative that our forest staff be recognised as protectors of India’s natural heritage.
Odisha: The state has a long history of Maoist attacks, the most infamous being the organised attack in March 2009 when an armed group blew up two forest posts, ransacked a Range Office and burnt three vehicles inside the Similipal Tiger Reserve (STR). Earlier in January 2007, Maoists killed three forest guards and smashed their heads in the Kankada forest area of Dhenkanal district. In May 2007, in Mayurbhanj, a group of armed Maoists had stormed into the Sargada Forest Beat House, set it on fire and killed forester Rabindranath Patra. In July 2009, Maoists bombed the Panigunda Forest Beat house in the Gajapati District. In October 2010, the Forest Range Office of Ramgiri in Koraput district was attacked. Two forest guards, Pintu Durua and Laxman Kumbhar, together with a group of villagers in Malkangiri district were abducted and subjected to a kangaroo court trial (“Praja Court”) in July 2015. In April 2019, a group of seven armed militants, assaulted the forester of Kuanria Range Office in Daspalla area, ransacked the office and escaped with four country-made pistols that had been confiscated. They left after pasting handwritten leaflets on the office wall threatening to kill one of the contesting candidates of the Daspalla Constituency to the Odisha Legislative Assembly, in the election then underway. Death threats were also issued against the Inspector-in-Charge of the Daspalla Police Station together with threats to blow up police stations. jails and courts in the Nayagarh District. Earlier in 2008, they had attacked the district armoury and killed a dozen police personnel. A case of dacoity with house trespass was registered in the Daspalla Police Station (FIR 58 of 2019, under sections 395/458 IPC, read together with sections 25 and 27 of the Arms Act, 1959). However, the identity of the attackers could not be established, and the investigation had to be closed earlier this year in February 2020.
Jharkhand: In April 2019, Maoists bombed three Forest Department buildings in the Jharkhand-Kuida forest area of West Singbhum District. In July 2020, over a hundred CPI Maoist cadres attacked nearly 20 forest officials, snatched their cell phones and other valuables, held them hostage for hours and bombed 12 buildings with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Berkela forest area of West Singhbhum district.
Chhattisgarh: In November 2009, Maoists abducted Deputy Forest Ranger Gokul Tandi and beat him to death in Deobhog, Raipur District. In March 2011, Maoists abducted forester Madhusudan Patil from his house and killed him in the Gariaband Forest area. In December 2014, abducted forest guard Ramsai Vadde was falsely entangled in a murder case, which led forest officials to threaten going on an indefinite strike against being posted, defenceless, in areas where Maoists were active.
Maharashtra: Maoist guerrillas in June 2020 ransacked the Forest Beat Office at Gatta Jambia in the Gadchiroli district, assaulted two forest guards, looted personal belongings including cell phones and issued death threats against guards protecting workers laying electric power connections and building patrolling roads in remote forest areas.
United States of America: In September 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the security requirements of four federal agencies – the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) detailed as many as 360 attacks on posts and personnel between 2013 and 2017, resulting in damage to property and injury as well as death of officials.
Kenya: The Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS) has lost 73 rangers in the line of duty over the last 30 years, according to an announcement at the 14th Conservation Heroes Day celebrations on December 5, 2019.
Brazil: Several officials of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Renewable Resources (IBAMA) have been killed or brutally assaulted while fighting organised crime syndicates targeting the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Such syndicates are hired variously by loggers, miners, ranchers and industrial farmers.
Philippines: Five Environment Officers were killed in 2019 by illegal logging syndicates, making the Philippines one of the deadliest countries in the world for anyone working to protect the land or environment.
B.K. Sharma is a Senior IPS officer of Odisha cadre with 34 years of distinguished service; he has worked in the CBI as SP and DIG, and in the State as commissioner of Police, Bhubaneswar-Cuttack, Head of Crime Branch and Director General of Police.