While protection of the environment and preservation of wildlife is essential to survival, it does not seem to be an occupation that is valued. More than 1700 anti-poaching watchers associated with the forest department in Tamil Nadu continue to get meager wages disbursed at irregular intervals, even though the work involves high risk. The workers, mostly tribal people, are paid Rs3000 a month, hardly enough to live a decent life. They have been waiting in vain all these years for governmental intervention to ensure appropriate wage hike.
As the frontline staff of the forest department, these casual labourers walk through the difficult terrains deep inside the forests, braving climatic vagaries and wild animals to fight poachers with only sickles in hand. They are also deputed in forest fringe villages to avoid intrusion of wild elephants and prevent forest fires during summer months. In certain tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries, they are even deputed to manage tourists and to operate department vehicles and boats.
"We are doing all the works for which forest guards were deputed in the past. There is no fixed salary. The government has provided no amenities like uniform and protection gear like gloves, shoes etc. We have not even been issued ID cards. Though the work is dangerous, we don't have insurance cover,'' said M Raja, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Forest Anti-poaching Watchers Association. He said the association is organizing a strike convention in Rameswaram on April 8 to press for their demands.
Though they are forced to work round the clock and without leave, the watchers have no permanent jobs and don't get their salary on time. Many have been working for years without confirmation while others have not been paid for three or four months.
Since 1984, there has been no recruitment of forest rangers, foresters, guards and permanent watchers in Tamil Nadu. About 60 percent of the posts are lying vacant in the field staff category and most of the existing staff are above 50 years. The existing staff lack the fitness to operate on the field,'' points out K Mohanraj of Tamil Nadu Green Movement. Without these anti-poaching watchers, forest protection will not be possible anymore. Born and brought up in forest environments, they know the routes of poachers as well as animals. Only by improving their standard of living, can we protect our forests,'' he added. Raja believes that salary must be hiked at least to Rs 8,000 per month.