Protecting India’s forest frontline is the major concern of the government as well as environmentalists while considering the humanitarian aspects of the guards and workers from several states of the nation. As a forester got killed by the poachers in Odisha’s Similipal tiger reserve very recently marking the second such death within a few weeks when another forest guard was shot dead. In the face of a series of poaching incidents, the consecutive murders of forest officials by poachers within Similipal Tiger Reserve have revealed the susceptibility of frontline staff in the state’s largest tiger habitat. Despite the presence of its dedicated tiger protection force known as ‘STPF’, sources indicate that the STPF has not been significantly effective in combating poaching activities within the tiger reserve. Additionally, it is worth noting that out of the 81 positions within the force, approximately 30 positions remain unfilled. This situation highlights the urgent requirement for the deployment of armed forces to address the pressing need. It’s time to address this long term fight against poachers, illegal miners, tree-fellers, mass encroachers, and insurgents by the frontline forest staff, including contract laborers, guards, foresters, and rangers. The existing laws in India that aim to safeguard and provide adequate support to foresters, condition of forest staff in our nation over the past five years, along with the necessary measures that the government should prioritize and examine are some pressing matters that we are looking at.
Forest officers are public servants employed by the Government of India for the administration and governance of forests across the national territory. As we all know forest is listed in the concurrent list subject under 7th Schedule of Indian constitution. Considering Indian forest act 1927 as the base, all the Indian States have formulated their own legislation for governing forests in their territory. Apart from this the wild life( protection) act 1972, and the forest conservation act, 1980 are some other supporting laws prescribed by the nation. The primary duty of forest staff is to protect precious and scarce resources, including endangered wildlife, trees, sand, boulders, minerals, and forested areas. Consequently, they confront an ongoing and unyielding assault and attack from the opponents.
This risky position and duty always raise great concerns of protection and security of these persons, as they are conditional armed staff ,Forest guards may not always be without weapons. Depending on the state, they might be provided with different types of armaments. Nevertheless, owing to unpredictable law and order circumstances, particularly in regions affected by insurgency, forest guards frequently encounter limitations on the possession of these weapons. In the instance of Simlipal, which is situated in the red corridor extending from Indravati tiger reserve in Chhattisgarh to Valmiki tiger reserve in Bihar, forest personnel had ceased carrying firearms for similar reasons.
They are limited from the proactive use of weapons, Similar to any other individuals, forest personnel are exclusively authorized to exercise their right of private defense as specified in Sections 96 to 106 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Consequently, they can employ force, including weapons, solely for the purpose of safeguarding themselves or others from immediate harm or peril. Even in situations devoid of insurgents, weapons can indeed introduce risks due to specific challenges (such as potential accidents or misuse of firearms) and factors that emerge while carrying and utilizing them. Forestry personnel frequently come across conflicts between wildlife and human life, encompassing situations such as animals raiding crops, wild animal attacks on humans, and human settlements encroaching upon forest habitats. In India, forest institutions often prioritize cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and administrative affairs over the well-being and support of the frontline workforce. It is problematic as it creates a lot of vacant posts in the department. This causes insufficiency in the number of personnel on the field to ensure effective protection of the forest and their own safety as well. As per the International Ranger Federation, a total of 31 forest field staff members lost their lives while performing their duties in India in 2021. Among these incidents, only 8 were categorized as homicides, while the remaining were attributed to factors such as forest fires, attacks by elephants/rhinos, and motor accidents. In certain cases, the fatalities occurred not due to the absence of weapons but because the personnel lacked the knowledge of operating their firearms.
Taking some real incidents into consideration since 2016 Uttar Pradesh tops the list of wildlife crimes.Forest guard Sayar Singh was killed in April 2013 by illegal sand miners in Bundi, Rajasthan. This tragic incident was followed by the killing of Kanti Lal Bhil from Jalore in 2016. Timber smugglers shot down deputy ranger DN Pandey in Gorakhpur’s Ramalkhana forests of Uttar Pradesh in 2018. Members of a timber mafia killed Arjun Yadav and Hiralal Kushwaha in the Valmiki tiger reserve in West Champaran, Bihar in 2019. And in 2020 Maoists killed forest ranger Rathram Patel in Bijapur of Chhattisgarh.
Assam made a notable move in July 2010 when it decided to enforce the regulations stated in Section 197(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) for all forest officers. This measure provided them with immunity from arrest and legal actions, unless an inquiry conducted by a magistrate concluded that the use of firearms was considered “unnecessary, unwarranted, and excessive.” The state was obliged to examine and accept the outcomes of the investigation. Maharashtra, in response to a string of tiger poaching incidents in 2012, also introduced a comparable directive.
Meanwhile, why are forest officers denied such privileges even if these lesser precautions cause severe threat to their lives?
The role of forest officers is vital in protecting forests, wildlife, and their habitats but it is crucial to exercise caution to prevent unintentional harm to ecosystems and wildlife when employing firearms. The misuse or unjustified use of firearms can potentially have adverse consequences. Granting excessive powers to foresters raises the potential for misuse or misconduct. To prevent the improper use of firearms, it is crucial to establish checks and balances that ensure foresters adhere to legal guidelines and regulations. Maintaining oversight helps uphold accountability and ensures that foresters operate within the boundaries of the law. The primary responsibility of foresters lies in conservation and environmental protection, rather than law enforcement. Endowing them with excessive powers in utilizing weapons can create a blurry distinction between their conservation roles and the obligations of law enforcement entities. This has the potential to generate confusion and conflicts in their duties. Equipping foresters with firearms in isolated jungle regions may heighten the vulnerability of the local population. The introduction of guns to foresters’ possession has the potential to escalate conflicts and lead to unintended outcomes, particularly in areas where tensions already exist between foresters and local residents.
India still has to implement some diplomatic steps and actions In order to make this workforce more effective and secure, like providing comprehensive training which helps them to carry their duties potentially. It should help them to acquire necessary skills and knowledge for dealing with the complexities and struggles of their work. They should be well equipped both in terms of resources and infrastructure. They deserve fair and decent compensation and incentives for their great service. It is crucial to establish a robust legal framework that safeguards foresters and allows them to carry out their responsibilities without undue interference or intimidation. Nonetheless, this framework should be designed in a manner that not only ensures the protection of foresters but also prevents any misuse of power or the unnecessary use of force against forest communities by these officials.