The field staff of the Kerala Forest Department alleged that their safety is at stake as all of them have to be present on duty every day. They said that they have been left in the lurch as authorities have failed to listen to their repeated demand to regulate working hours, in order to ensure physical distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. Three field staff of the department have been infected with COVID-19 so far, and personnel on the ground say that authorities have not woken up to the situation yet.
The field staff alleged that working regulations that have been in effect for other uniformed services like the police, the Fire Force and the Excise Department havenât been implemented in the Forest Department. The field staff includes forest beat officers and forest guards. The police in May had implemented a rearrangement of duty. As per the move, all police units, including stations and battalions, will operate with 50% of its strength while the other rest at home as a reserve force.
âThis is particularly dangerous for staff members who are from tribal communities. A Forest Department staff member, who belongs to a tribal community, was a primary contact of one of the staff members who tested positive from the Naduvathumuzhy Range of Konni in Pathanamthitta. He had to be quarantined in a plastic shed near his home as there were no other facilities in his hamlet,â a field staff of the department told TNM.
âPhysical distancing may not be possible there, considering the social environment. This makes the threat even bigger,â he added.
The Kerala Forest Protective Staff Association will observe a black day on July 28 across the state in protest for not enforcing duty regulations in light of the pandemic.
There are around 4,000 field staff in the department who mostly work in interior areas. The field officers are also on duty at inter-state check posts like Muthanga, Walayar, Kumily and Aryankav, which only increases the risk of exposure.
âWe have to be on duty every day and it's a round-the-clock job. We mostly stay in the workplace as itâs not possible to return to our homes, which are far away. If the laxity in regulating the duty hours of the field staff leads to a person from a tribal community being infected, that would put several people belonging to tribal communities in danger,â the staff added.
More than 100 forest guards across the state are currently in quarantine.
âThree forest guards died in a forest fire in February this year and one was killed by a wild elephant. Even during the time of the pandemic, concerns about our lives are not being addressed by officials. Itâs an internal arrangement that should be done within the department,â another field staff told TNM.