Improved fire-fighting equipment and proper training for forest guards is a must to ensure that fires like the recent ones don’t occur again. In the first of a three-part series, Geetanjali Krishna looks at the burning issues that need to be resolved.
An overpowering smell of smoke hangs over Bhimtal, days after most of its forest fires burned out. Although it has been raining here since May 7, burnt undergrowth, blackened trees and ash everywhere bear mute testimony to the infernos that blazed on these hills just a week ago. The question that many are asking is: why did Uttarakhand’s forest department allow the situation to get so out of hand? The only way to answer this is to examine the condition of the men in the field -- the forest guards who are responsible for guarding their specific beats in the jungle.
“Each forest guard is given a beat encompassing 2,000-4,000 hectares,” says K C Suyal, joint secretary, Forest Rangers Association Uttarakhand, and a ranger himself. The Forest Rangers Association has long been fighting for the rights of forest guards and rangers.
Unlike the plains, where forest guards are able to traverse long distances on cycles, those posted in the hills have to patrol on foot. “How can one individual be expected to patrol such vast distances on steep mountainsides?” questions Suyal. Many environmentalists believe that the forest department must engage with local communities to safeguard the forests efficiently. Again, the job of engagement falls most often on the forest guard. “Many guards have as many as 150 small villages in their beats. It is impossible for an individual to visit each village often enough to establish any meaningful dialogue!”
More crucially, forest guards are neither armed nor trained in policing the forests. Poachers, timber thieves and locals, therefore, neither fear their wrath nor care if they’re spotted by the guards. “Just imagine what happens when one forest guard or ranger on foot comes across some armed poachers or arsonists in the forest?” asks Suyal. “What is he supposed to do? Hit them with the sticks that the government has seen fit to provide?”
These demotivating irritants aside, the lack of promotion prospects further makes the job of a forest guard in Uttarakhand an unenviable one. Unlike their senior officers who have several avenues for promotion, forest guards have none. “When Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand were a unified state, there was one chief conservator of forests. Today, in Uttarakhand, there are 10!” says Ajay Rawat, a retired professor in Nainital who has been closely studying Uttarakhand’s forest fires for the past decade. “In comparison, the number of forest guards in the state (about 3,500) has not gone up substantially since the British set up the forest department before Independence.”
Local observers have noted that many of the field staff of the forest department has gone beyond the call of duty to tackle the forest fires this year -- but have been limited by the meagre resources at their disposal and the sheer enormity of the task at hand.
In Binsar, when reports of the fires came in, forest guards and rangers rushed to put them out and clear the fire lines (gaps in vegetation that act as barriers and slow/stop the progress of a forest fire) -- wearing slippers and carrying rakes.
“Had they had protective gear and proper fire-fighting equipment, they might have been able to make some difference before the fire spread so drastically in Binsar,” says Mukti Dutta, a Binsar-based environmentalist.
Every year, the forest department collects around Rs 10 lakh from the entry fees from tourists coming to Binsar. This money could be used to buy some decent fire-fighting equipment for the field staff.
Given that forest guards, much like the beat constables in the police, are the first line of defence against any disasters in the forest, the uncontrolled fires this summer have highlighted the burning need to improve their morale.