By Jay Mazoomdaar
There are more guns than tigers or elephants inside Jharkhand’s Palamu tiger reserve, but none with the forest department. Forest guards here don’t wear uniforms or carry firearms, try to avoid the loggers, poachers and sand mafia, and suffer violence from both the Maoists and the security forces. Caught in their crossfire in two of India’s poorest districts, these guards struggle daily to save this precious forest, its wildlife and their own lives.
It’s early April, barely a week before the Lok Sabha polls on 10 April. We are on the north-south Betla-Mahuadanr blacktop road that cuts through Jharkhand’s Palamu tiger reserve. Even before I set out for Maromar, I had gathered what seemed like an open secret. A 200-strong contingent of Maoists was apparently camping at Latoo village, a few kilometers from Kujurum across Burha river, for a few days. The CRPF camp at Baresand, it seemed, did not have orders to venture in and engage the rebels.
Every 15-20km on this arterial road, security forces have set up fortified camps. Maoists have blasted a number of Forest Rest Houses, such as Mundu (2004), Maromar and Kujurum (2007), for housing security forces but that has not stopped the CRPF from fortifying and permanently occupying forest facilities at Kerh and Labhar.
“Nobody knows at how many points these roads are rigged. They (Maoists) put 30-50kg explosives at undetectable depth when the road is laid or repaired. Later, they just dig through the flank [and place a detonator\ whenever they want to trigger a blast,” warned a CRPF commander I spoke to the previous day.
In December 2011, in one such blast, the Maoists targeted Chatra MP Inder Singh Namdhari’s car a few kilometers from Garu village. Eight policemen shadowing the legislator in another vehicle were killed. We drive by the charred remains of that armored Tata 407, still lying where it was tossed aside, on our way to the Maromar FRH that was taken over by the CRPF for poll duty.
The officer occupying the only room with a functional toilet seems puzzled that I was issued a tourist permit to stay there. But he graciously offers me tea and some advice. “We control five kilometers around each camp. But don’t go towards Kujurum. They (Maoists) are holing up there since we have intensified flushing operations. Besides, some of our guys are new in this area and may feel edgy.”
Barely a month ago, a jittery CRPF patrol and a team of Jharkhand Jaguars, the state police’s anti-Maoist unit, fired at each other in the neighboring Kuku-Piri forests, injuring three including a CRPF deputy commandant. “Mistaken identity,” the officer says, shaking his head disapprovingly at my crew cut hair.
A few kilometers down the road at Baresand, I leave my SUV on the blacktop road and look out for a forest guard Shivkumar. “Aap ko Kujurum dekhna hai toh hum chalenge (we’ll go if you want to visit Kujurum),” he assures me. “Par apka marji, wahan koi garranty nahin hai (but it’s your call, there’s no guarantee for safety there).”
On 30 March this year, I am told, Maoist rebels warned the forest staff to stay away from their strongholds of Kutku and Kujurum forests bordering Chhattisgarh. The 15-km dirt track to Kujurum village in the core of the reserve starts from Baresand where Maoist rebels beheaded two ‘informers’ just outside the forest rest house last year. “Before that, in 2011, they shot another two barely 500 meters from here,” said Hiralal, a local wildlife tracker with the forest department, at the Baresand check-post.
Earlier in the day, I met one of the seven forest staff beaten severely by Maoist guerillas inside Baresand FRH compound some six years ago. “They had warned us against repairing the dirt road to Kujurum. Then one evening, as we sat around a fire here after the day’s work, they walked in, tied us up and thrashed us mercilessly,” he recalled. The road works have not resumed since. * * *
Shivkumar shouts for Ajay, a young forest guard, and two shiny green motorbikes gifted by a Mumbai NGO. We take the dirt track from Baresand through Jumri village into the forest. Suddenly, the landscape turns red. It’s a riot of fiery palas, flaming kusum and semal in late bloom.
Kujurum is one of the relatively less degraded stretches of this splendid forest dominated by sal, mahua, bamboo, saaj, khair and dhaora. Spread across 1,000 sq km, Palamu tiger reserve (PTR) was one of India’s first nine notified in 1973. Part of the Hazaribagh (land of thousand tigers) landscape, it remained a blind spot on the nation’s development map and became a hub of Maoist insurgency in the 1990s.
Decades of subsistence and commercial poaching almost wiped out the deer population outside the Betla national park area. But the elephant numbers are up, particularly around Kujurum. “It is very difficult to use this road after 4pm when jumbos take over. Also, one needs to watch out for bear attacks,” cautioned Ajay, adding that the 300-odd residents of Kujurum have to risk it all to reach the nearest referral hospital at Garu, 35 km away, in medical emergencies.
The dirt track bears no sign of maintenance. Ajay drives cautiously, dodging tree trunks laid as roadblocks. At one such barricade a few kilometers from Kujurum, he slows down to honk in a Morse code-like sequence. “This is to signal that we are from the forest department,” he whispers to me while scanning the trees around us. Not a twig cracks. He quickly changes gear and takes off.
The village is picturesque. We drive by a large pond, skirt a makeshift school and reach Kujurum FRH, rebuilt recently after the original structure was burnt down by Maoists in 2007. Across a patch of cropland stands an unfinished construction. A pucca sarkari school building was coming up but the construction work has been stopped. The village panchayat apparently ‘used up’ the sanctioned funds.
As we walk around, a message arrives that we should hurry. Or so I guess, because there is a hushed, terse aside between the villagers and the forest staff. I’m told life is not easy in Kujurum. The poverty is there for anyone to see. Elephants routinely raid these fields and leopards target livestock. There are also tales of occasional tigers. Many residents apparently bought into the government’s idea of relocating the village two years ago, but nobody talks about it anymore.
However, like all villagers inside Palamu, they enjoy Maoist protection. There are several instances when forest staff have been hauled up by the rebels and fined for booking wildlife offenders in the reserve. One forester who seized a cycle with langur meat had to buy the poacher a new cycle. Only a few weeks ago, another was picked up and humiliated by Maoists for beating up a villager involved in illegal felling.
“Two of us have been posted at Kujurum. We are safe as long as we do our job as per rules and don’t act highhanded,” Ajay shifts on his toes. The shadows are lengthening. “Par voh jab bhi bulate hain, andar kanp-kapi lag jati hai (but it sends shivers inside every time the Maoists summon us),” adds Shivkumar warily. “You never know…” More....