By Pranav Capila
In the last three months alone, three forest guards have been killed in the line of duty. For these forest staff on the frontlines, death is a companion they patrol with every day. Our writer went to live with two lonely guards in a remote forest chowki in Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand. He had always loved the forests and written about them often, but that was never going to be enough to prepare him for the disorienting, frightening days ahead.
Devender Singh is on the upper deck of the machaan at Mundal, slashing at the rain with the edge of his hand.
For half an hour he is relentless, pausing only to look at his cellphone, then stops and stares out over the riverbed. He checks his cellphone again, gives up and climbs down.
Mundal chowki is some fifty meters to the southeast, across a swatch of elephant grass and a dry moat. It is a squat structure; boxy, distempered that sickly government-housing yellow, with four small rooms and a woodshed and outhouse around the back. A radio mast leans its peeling shoulder on the far wall.
Raghubir Singh, gnarled as a bristlecone, sits on a charpai on the porch, watching his young colleague's pantomime. He clears his throat awkwardly as Devender wades toward us through the tall grass: “Abhi yeh phir bhi naya hai yahan... He’s still quite new here, that’s why... It takes years to get used to it. Now I – it feels like I’ve spent my whole life here in the jungle.”
* * *
Lokesh, age 38, trampled by wild elephants in Bandipur National Park, Karnataka. Budhaji Jadhav, age 50, murdered near Rabale, Mumbai, for objecting to land encroachments in a forest area. Krishnan, age 56, mauled by a leopard at the Dhimbam forest checkpost near Thalamalai, Tamil Nadu. Just three of the forest guards that have been killed in the line of duty, in just the past three months.
For frontline forest staff across India, death is a companion they walk out on patrol with every day. Yet while the guards operate in the harshest conditions, they are poorly paid, untrained and under-equipped – and what is perhaps just as bad, ignored and unappreciated.
A few years ago I wrangled a temporary posting at the Mundal forest chowki in Rajaji National Park, walking the metaphorical mile in the shoes of the two men stationed there. Sadly, what I learned then is still relevant now. Very little has changed, between yesterday and today, in the lives of forest guards across India.
Rajaji National Park is an 820sq km reserve forest sprawled across three districts – Haridwar, Dehradun and Pauri Garhwal – of the state of Uttarakhand.
It is September 2010, the last draught of an especially lush monsoon. Jeep tracks into Rajaji have turned to sludge and much of the forest is impassable even on foot.
"Bahut kathin samay hai jangal mein abhi... It's an incredibly difficult time for our forest guards," MS Negi, the range officer at Chilla had said before sending us off to the outpost; "they are cut off from the world once they’re out there. But it’s a good time to see how difficult things can get. You’ll stay with Devender and Raghubir for six days, eat what they eat, walk where they walk. You'll see what the Forest Department is able to provide its staff out in the field."
* * *
The walk to Mundal takes us up an ancient riverbed flanked by impenetrable forest. No mighty river seems to have run through it in several hundred years, but it is zigzagged, crosscut bank to bank, by a seasonal creek that ribbons off the Shivalik hills past Mundal and Chilla down toHaridwar. There are nine crossings of this creek, between knee and ankle deep, before we reach the outpost.
With no clear path to walk we take a south-easterly heading toward thehills, squelching through water and reedbeds and elephant grass. Raghubir carries a kilo sack of atta, Devender his .315 bore rifle and a shoulder bag of vegetables. Forest guards, even those stationed in the most remote outposts, have to buy their weekly rations out of pocket – a major point of strife within the department.
As we move further upstream we begin to see an abundance of patterans by the water's edge – wet puzzles of hoof and paw that the guards are able to interpret: "Sambar... Leopard... Aur yeh tiger; female, came to drink not more than half an hour ago." (Devender, a teacher’s pet in uniform, asserts to Raghubir's beaming approval that tigresses have narrower paws and more shapely toes than the male's beefy, squarish pugs.)
Two hours in, 6km from Chilla, we reach a small plateau. The riverbed sickle-curves around it before forking through a grassland on the other side, but we clamber up the slope and arrive at Mundal.
* * *
The machaan is the first thing I see at the outpost, a gleaming witness to all of the area’s grand theater. It is the newest and best maintained construction at Mundal – perhaps because it is for tourists.
In the dry months, coming up the jeep track on safari from Chilla, the machaan is where you are ushered to watch the animals break cover for a drink. Look the other side, further into Rajaji, and you can see why this is one of the most stunning jungle vistas in India: a vast prehistoric savannah washes up against the sinuate horizon, a great rippling lake of tall, white-tipped grass stalks interposed by the occasional tree.
When the park is closed to visitors during the monsoons, as darkness creeps over the hilltops and the wind combs its fingers through the northern trees, the machaan is the choice seat from which to view the season's unfolded artistry: clouds marching in under cover of distant cannon fire, thunderclaps like Tolkien's stone giants at battle, lightning flashes to rival the primal Fiat Lux.
Spend enough time at Mundal, though, and the machaan begins to lose its sheen. As the days pass I go to it less and less for spectacle; it begins to look forlorn, leaning perceptibly towards Chilla. It has seen too much, perhaps, of the chowki's quiet desperation.
* * *
There’s an invisible man at Mundal Chowki. Like me he is Raghubir's roommate: his shirts hang on a peg in the room we share, his soap dish lies on the windowsill, his trousers are folded on his bed, his trunk is under it. But he isn't there.
Bikram Singh Negi, aged 55, is the third forest guard posted at Mundal. A 22-year veteran of the forest service, he was recently sent to Dehradun for basic training. ("Itne saal baad," Raghubir laughs, "After this much time in the service he should be giving basic training not receiving it!")
Devender, a young man who might actually benefit from some formal training in his career, has had none. “Whatever he knows of jungle craft he has learned from me,” Raghubir says proudly.
"Isko load aur fire karna mujhe dikhaya thha," Devender says, displaying his World War II relic: "They showed me how I could load and fire this when they gave it to me – but I've never practiced it since."
Devender's relationship with his rifle is telling: he treats it as an ornament, a symbol of his tenured status in the profession. He ties a polythene bag over the muzzle to protect it from the rain when he is out on patrol, but wouldn't know how to oil it or clean it or otherwise ensure its efficient functioning as a firearm. It is doubtful he seriously considers it as such.
I don’t know what is worse. The fact that Devender may not be able to shoot in an emergency or that he may go to jail if he does hit anything. Not only do forest guards lack comprehensive weapons training, they don't have the requisite legal protection – the kind that policemen, for instance, get under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973 – to discharge their weapons in the course of their duty. If a guard shoots at and injures an armed poacher, he is liable to be tried for the shooting as a civilian, without any assistance from the government.
(Two years after my stay at Mundal, forest guards in Rajaji shot at and accidentally killed one of several intruders into the park during night patrol. The miscreants reportedly outnumbered the forest staff and had initiated the firefight. The former director of the park and several of the frontline staff are still personally fighting murder charges in this case.) More....