India’s reputation of saving its wildlife species, especially its iconic species, is commendable. This is laudable at a time when species such as the tiger or Asian elephant is facing local extinction in many of its range countries. A key element to the success of tiger conservation in India and, in fact, of most conservation-dependent species, is the frontline staff of the forest department.
These barefoot soldiers toil everyday to keep wildlife habitats free from threats that could cause decline of the species they strive to protect. They help the country keep the conservation flag flying high. However, a lot needs to be addressed to improve the well-being of this neglected group. Several untoward incidences in the recent times, including two personnel severely injured by a sloth bear in the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, have again brought the issues related to these foot soldiers to limelight.
In India, within the frontline staff, there are people who are permanently employed through the regular government service process. They are part of the administration system and receive their salaries and benefits as any government employee would. They face a plethora of complications compared to their counterparts in other government departments carrying out similar duties of protection and law enforcement.
However, there is an additional group of frontline staff who are largely neglected and face an even more uphill task but slog and sweat to protect wildlife with no benefits or welfare measures except a rudimentary salary structure. These are the temporary staff, and when employed in protected areas, mostly work at anti-poaching camps (APCs). These APCs are small outposts within remote areas of the forests where their basic duty is to carry out patrolling efforts against poaching, timber smuggling and to ward off other threats to wildlife.
These temporarily employed staff (tho-ugh many have worked for years and dec-ades) are given a short break in the records during the end of the financial year to show discontinuity in their services so that they cannot legally claim to be employed on a long-term basis. They are employed on an ad-hoc basis with no official formalities and are termed as the ‘daily wage staff’. They receive a basic per day pro-rota salary and receive no benefits of salary hike, daily allowance, assured pay at the end of the month or other benefits that a regular government employee would draw.
They sweat during hot summers dousing forest fires, walk their patrol areas facing threats from wild animals as well as from those who try to illegally benefit from forests, risking their lives in the line of duty. However, they have little amenities at their ‘work places’ (APCs) even while the wildlife benefits a lot from their labour. Not wildlife alone, but wildlife biologists, forest officials, government and the society as a whole benefit due to their industrious work.
The government takes no active steps to improve their benefits, as they fear that it would be applicable to all temporary staff employed in various government departments. Though the working conditions and job profile are much severe for those who work within the wildlife sections of the forest department, the government does not make any distinction based on the hardships. Although some officials have taken positive steps to enhance their working conditions, they themselves are in super minority.
If this pathetic situation continues, it could be hard to get these positions filled in the future. As the country heads towards economic progress, labour wages have been increasing. In some parts of the country, daily wages in cash crop agricultural sector is reaching over Rs 600 a day. Despite higher wages, of course, justified due to price rise, there is a severe shortage of manual labour in the agricultural sector.
Coupled with higher wages, popular governmental welfare schemes such as the MGNREGA that aim to enhance employment security for people, provisioning of highly subsidised food grains and other similar benefit policies have had both positive and negative impact on labour availability.
Take it seriously
Under these circumstances, it could be extremely difficult to find people to be employed in wildlife protection sectors. Low wages, delayed payments, salary cuts, life in inhospitable conditions, away from families for long periods, zero health benefits; all makes it less and less attractive to take up temporary employment opportunities within the forest department.
If the government does not take this issue seriously there could be large-scale vacancies at the frontline protection arena in the near future. The issue of on-ground foot protection, which is one of the key aspects of defence against illegal activities, would become obsolete in wildlife conservation if issues of these staff are not addressed immediately.
Assured medical benefits, support to families during accidents, assisting children’s education, special allowance are some of the socio-economic amenities that need to be compulsorily given to these staff. Ensuring that the legally prescribed wages are paid on time directly to their bank accounts is an important step to encourage people working in these posts. Ad-hoc dismissals should also be curtailed and formal process needs to be implemented for taking them out of their jobs.
Many of these temporary staff come from tribal or socially oppressed communities and do not possess the social skills to voice against unfair treatment meted out to them. Many perhaps are even unaware of the wages they are entitled to.
The world looks at India for its conservation leadership on saving some of the endangered species. It would be well worth for the country to take similar course in enhancing the welfare of its wildlife protectors, who struggle to shield them from orchids to mammoth elephants. Or else, the strong foundation of wildlife protection will crumble, and perhaps, crumble quite fast.