on naxals and forests

At a conference on Forestry Administration in Left-wing Extremist Areas, the Union Home Secretary GK Pillai accused forest guards of “collaborating” with the banned CPI (Maoists)… that the forest department was encouraging extremism. What the Home Ministry suggested, nay demanded, was that the department should help the police and other para-military forces in fighting the naxal menace.

It appears that the ‘honourable’ secretary has never been in a forest pillaged and ruled by naxals. Certainly not met with the forest guard they accuse of collaborating with the naxals struggle, more often than not, without timely wages, basic facilities and weapons in a lonely outpost, trying to protect our national animal, and the eco-system.

A trip to Similipal, the tiger reserve in Orissa which suffered a naxal attack in March, 2009 is recommended. There were 25 simultaneous attacks by naxals in the reserve over two days—communication towers were blown up, staff threatened and beaten, chowkis burnt, Mahendra, the elephant and an ‘employee’ of the forest department shot at.

One year later, the staff is back on the field, but crippled with shortage, malaria. They fight unarmed, having surrendered their guns to the police since it is a ‘naxal area’. In which case, why does the state not provide the risk-zone allowance it accords to the para-military forces and the police deployed here?

The staff is routinely threatened, morale has dipped, and the park in dire straits. In the absence of proper protection and vigilance, over 15 elephants have been poached.

There have been repeated pleas to deploy the CRPF to support forest staff, but to no avail. Not that it matters—given that the well-equipped and well-armed Special Operation Group deployed hovers on the edge rarely venturing inside the core areas.

The powers to be in Delhi could go farther towards the south—in the proposed Sunabeda tiger reserve, where Maoists gunned down a forest guard in May this year, and chained his body to the checkpost. Or they could appraise Saranda in Jharkhand. The list of attacks on foresters and forest property is long and bleak. One senior officer barely escaped a bid on his life last year when his jeep was blown into bits. A few years back a ranger’s head was cut off by the naxals. Interestingly, while the forest infrastructure—all the rest houses and chowkis and camps have been burnt and ravaged, the iron ore mines that gouge Asia’ finest Sal forest thrive. Is it black gold that is oiling the naxal industry here? This calls for close scrutiny. It is well-documented that trade in timber and wildlife derivatives has fed insurgency in the north-east, and other areas. The issue is a complex one with murky undertones and links. For instance, according to intelligence information, extremists are linked to the ganja mafia at Sunabeda. Ganja is grown inside the forest. Repeated attacks ensure that the region remains unstable, and largely unprotected so that business-as-usual continues.

Another criticism at the meeting was of foresters attending a naxal ‘event’, giving the unlawful group legitimacy. I am unaware of the particular incident referred—but when you are working—defenceless and outnumbered—in a naxal area, the thumb rule is: They call, and you go. Knowing that you may never come back. And knowing with even more certainty that you will not live, if you don’t.

The forest staff operates in places where even the police fear to tread. They are browbeaten, and their life made difficult. In Similipal, the naxals even cut fruit trees—a form of sustenance in far-flung outposts—and poured lead into drinking water wells of anti-poaching camps. Admittedly, forest personnel are not the main target. One reason is the mandate. Their job is to protect the forest and wildlife, not usurp the extremists. This is perhaps the only reason that the forest staff is able to operate-even if under constant threat, and at the mercy of the LWE. If they join forces with the paramilitary, they won’t survive. And our forests will lose any semblance of protection further fueling insurgency. They must be allowed to function, not just for the forest, but also to maintain some administrative functionality in the field.

The roots of unrest is the subject of another story, but it must be said that lack of good governance has ensured that people in such areas subsist without even basic facilities; even after six decades of independence and despite many welfare and development schemes targeting rural and tribal populations. This has played its part, as has the lack of focus on protection and the rot of corruption, which has left our forests open for plunder.

*this is an edited version of something i wrote on the subject. this was published in The Sunday Guardian. on 10/10/10

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