In the summer of 2017, Rajesh (name changed) who was working as an anti depredation watcher (ADW) was driving through the Nilgiris forest along with seven others in search of a wild elephant that had entered a village. Rajesh, who was new to the job then, thought it would be an easy task to drive the elephant back into the forest. However, what came after scares him till date. “The eight of us were driving through the forest according to the tip-off received from villagers. As we were entering a narrow trail inside the forest, we suddenly saw a wild elephant standing tall in front of us.”
“In a fraction of seconds, the jumbo effortlessly lifted the jeep with its tusks, and threw us to one side. The jeep, with the eight of us petrified inside it, shattered on a tree. All of us were saved only because of the tree; if not for it, we would have died by falling off the hill into the river,” said Rajesh with a nervous smile.
Like Rajesh, several ADWs and Anti-Poaching Watchers (APWs) that TNM spoke to narrated similar life-threatening incidents, coming face-to-face with wildlife during their work in the forest. But when asked if they were paid for their service, many lamented about pending salaries, low wages and job uncertainty.
These workers, who are hired on temporary posts by the forest department, have a slew of responsibilities. The ADWs and APWs tell TNM that they do round the clock work from snake catching, guarding the villages in case of possible threat from wildlife, taking the carcass of wildlife for autopsy, animal rescues, preventing forest fires or putting out fire, and keeping their ears to the ground on illegal activities. On the whole, these temporary forest warriors act as ‘forest intelligence’.
Ashok (name changed) who has been working as an APW for more than five years, said, “Many of us are dedicated to the job. We promptly act in case of emergencies. Yet, we do not get paid on time and our salaries are fairly low considering our job.”
Ashok even recalled how one of his colleagues was nearly trampled by an elephant while trying to drive it inside the forest and said in case of any untoward incident, their families will be left helpless with no means of income.
Speaking about the support Ashok and his colleagues received from their supervisors, he said, “Through my years here, we have gotten great support from our supervisors. If the salaries are delayed, our supervisors, be it a forester, a ranger or even District Forest Officers (DFOs), have lent us money. But it is high time the government to regularised us with salary revision,” added Ashok.
"My daughter recently fractured her leg and I had no money to take her to hospital. But a kind-hearted supervisor lent me money and encouraged others to help also," said Vincent (name changed), who works as an APW.
It was found that the ADWs in Gudalur division are yet to be paid six months’ salary (from March till August) in 2018 and likewise six months’ salary from April are pending in 2021. The APWs of the Gudalur division are yet to be paid salaries for three months in 2021.
However, owing to Deepavali, the forest department paid three months’ salary to ADWs and one-month salary to APWs. Yet the six months’ salaries from 2018 are unpaid, confirm sources to TNM.
An official on the condition of anonymity said the Gudalur forest division has funds shortage because of lack of revenue from tourism and other activities. Tamil Nadu tourists venture to Ooty and Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR). Gudalur division gets minimal tourist footfall thus causing financial issues.
Speaking to TNM, Chief Wildlife Warden Shekar Kumar Niraj said, “Though there were only 35 positions open, we had to hire over 100 contract workers due to the workload. However, owing to funds shortage to pay salaries, I conducted a meeting with District Forest Officers (DFOs) of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) and Gudalur and others last month and decided to take a loan of Rs 25 lakh to pay salaries.”
“Although there was an initial delay to pay the salaries due to the task of capturing MDT-23, we have started to pay the salaries for the pending months. All the workers have been paid before October 31,” said Chief Warden Shekar.
According to the Nilgiris forest department, 91 ADWs in Gudalur division were paid April salaries. The May and June salaries of Rs 11,800 per month were paid to the Gudalur Forest Division from the MTR Foundation. And July's salary of Rs 11,800 per person was paid with funds from Ooty. So the salary for the three months (May, June and July) has been paid to them, the department said.
The Chief Warden said that there is no salary pendency from 2018 but assured that he will check for lapses.
Speaking about salary revision and regularisation, the Chief Warden said, “From the next financial year, steps will be taken to provide uniform salaries for both APWs and ADWs, which is currently not the case, along with increasing their salaries.”
“We are considering job regularisation as it will avoid the hassles of salary delay. Additionally, we are also considering employing workers permanently through the standard hiring process so that we can provide them with rightful promotions and salary hikes,” he added.
It is important to note that Madras High Court in April 2014 ordered the Tamil Nadu government to ensure proper recruitment laws for APWs, and to regularise the post of those who have completed ten years with the department.