With limited resources and lack of modern equipment, Forest department officials say they are struggling to investigate cases in a timely manner.

Understaffed and facing threats to life Keralas Forest Dept officials speak outRepresentational image, PTI
news Forest Monday, June 22, 2020 - 13:30

“They were nine, they had guns, country bombs, sharp knives and metal sticks for hunting. We were just four. We had a few sticks we made ourselves and our uniform. We caught a few of them, the others escaped. It was sheer luck that they didn’t shoot at us,” describes a Forest department official deployed in Kerala’s Silent Valley range.

The ordeal of dealing with poachers in the forest is quite a task for the department due to the limited resources they work with. This is just the tip of the iceberg, officials say, as they face several other threats, including fabricated criminal cases against them, threats to life, physical assault, defamation and severe work pressure.

Uncooperative local residents

Forest officials are generally looked upon as enemies of the people who live in the forest’s periphery, officials say. A few days ago, there were local media reporters that residents of villages in Silent Valley had accused Forest department officials of harassment. The residents had also accused the officials of assaulting people accused of poaching. However, the officers who were part of the team deny these allegations.

“The accused in this case had already got anticipatory bail. We don’t even have the powers to arrest anyone. If we have to arrest a person, we need to get permission from the Police department. The arrested people in the case were serial offenders. We had seized Malabar giant squirrel fur, body parts of Nilgiri Langur, and wild hens from them. They just want to put us under pressure,” an officer from the team says.

Officials say that farmers who live in the periphery of the forest rarely cooperate with the department as the officials object to their entry into the forest, stop them from encroaching into forest land and also watch out for poachers. “Why don’t they understand that it’s for the future generations that we’re protecting the forests?” one of the officials asks.

Threat to personal safety

Around five officers in the area have a criminal case registered against them for allegedly assaulting accused poachers. Officers say that they fear for their lives as some poachers even hire local goons to attack them. “In this particular case that happened a week ago, the accused hired goons to assault us,” an officer says, while adding, “Sometimes we are scared to walk alone or go out at night. We have noticed people following us. We are helpless here as even the residents support the poachers.”

Another range forest officer from North Kerala says that residents who violate the Wildlife Protection Act are always out to trick the Forest department.

“Many of these residents file false complaints and accuse us of assault. There are instances where many of us thought of resigning. But we continue to work thinking about our families,” he adds.

“If we have a police case against us, we have to fight it individually. If we face a threat from poachers, we have to take care of it by ourselves. Neither our department nor our seniors have our backs. I have heard my seniors and colleagues saying ‘he landed in trouble because he was smart, let him suffer’. And yet, many of us are genuinely concerned about the poaching and encroachment,” he says.

He maintains that the primary reason for the myriad issues forest officials suffer is that they have no law enforcement power. “We just have our uniform, for everything else we have to depend on the police. Most of the time they don’t cooperate,” he says.

No infrastructure, resources, leave or security 

A beat officer from the southern part of the state says that an added burden is the lack of infrastructure and modern equipment to work inside forests. Officials say that many are not even provided with wireless phones. He also says that the department is severely understaffed and overworked.

“To investigate a case, make the necessary arrests and draw up the spot inspection maps, there has to be a team. Here, one officer has to do all these things. We have to walk 8 to 10 km through the forest as there are no vehicles provided to us. We understand all this, but can we not be provided at least enough staff on a shift system,” he adds.

The officers also complain that they have no room for applying for leaves and rarely go home to see their families.

“I missed my child’s first birthday, many wedding anniversaries and special occasions as I couldn’t go home. When my father died, I was deep inside the forest and my family could not reach me. We work 24 hours. After 10 days of work, we get two days’ leaves. Other than that, we have no offs. Until 2010, we had no idea about weekly or compensatory off. It was only after one of the officers filed a Right to Information petition that we knew we could take an off after taking permission from seniors,” an officer from Palakkad says.

Another major issue cited by forest officials is the liability deducted from their salary if they fail to catch a person who has cut trees or encroached on forest land.

“If the culprit is not caught, the cost of the tree will be deducted from our pay. So what happens is that many are reluctant to report any tree that is destroyed,” the official from Palakkad adds.

The conviction rate for forest and wildlife crimes is very low because of these drawbacks, officials say. Currently, the conviction rate is at 10% as the department is overburdened and many officers are not investigating cases in a timely manner due to backlogs.

Officials also point out that despite playing a huge role in conservation, their accomplishments go unnoticed. “Many times, we take adivasis to hospitals when there is a need. We also play a major role in wildlife protection,” he adds.


 

 

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