In June 2019, Anita Chole, a forest range officer posted in Komaram Bheem district of Telangana, had set off with her team for an afforestation programme. However, the team were confronted by the locals who had allegedly encroached on the land. The standoff soon turned violent. In a video of the incident, one can see Chole trying to pacify the mob when a local politician, part of the demonstration, hits her with a stick. The police intervene, Chole is taken away, even as the violent mob continues to go on a rampage.
Such assaults have only been increasing in the recent years. On 8 January, the Supreme Court was hearing an application on the rising number of such attacks on forest personnel on duty. Arguing on behalf of the applicant, senior advocate Shyam Divan informed the court about multiple incidents across India where forest patrols were attacked by poachers, timber smugglers and goons with axes, hammers and other weapons.
“India accounts for 31% of mortal attacks against forest rangers or officials across the world, which is high,” Divan said, referring to a 2017 study by the International Ranger Federation. According to the study, India is the most dangerous country for forest guards.
At this point, Chief Justice Sharad Bobde inquired why forest guards in states like Assam were armed but in other states “they only have lathis”. Advocate ADN Rao, the amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the case, commented that the states didn’t use the funds properly.
“What we are tentatively thinking of doing,” the bench said finally, “we will see that this money is utilized for bullet proof vests and then for arms for self-protection for officers above a certain rank, and helmets in addition to the regular thing like lathis... A forest ranger is in a situation where he cannot call for help unlike a policeman in a city. No one to help him in a forest.”
The isolation and vulnerability of forest personnel has a long history. For years, those part of the Indian Forest Services (IFS) have been calling for reforms and institutional support for personnel. In September 2020, the IFS Association wrote a letter to union environment minister Prakash Javadekar demanding an improvement in working conditions. Staffers, they wrote, needed to be provided amenities like toilets, bathrooms, potable water supply, electricity, first-aid amenities, and even firearms.
“It is time that urgent efforts are made to provide safer working conditions to these protectors of nature, as well as to extend an improved social security cover to these green soldiers, who are sacrificing their present for our future, by coming out with a national policy and general guidelines for states,” the letter stated, adding that while the Union government has notified 11 September as ‘Forest Martyrs’ Day’, it has done “nothing concrete” so far for the welfare of frontline staff.
The Supreme Court's observation on arming the forest service thus caused a lot of “halla”, a senior serving officer in the Madhya Pradesh IFS cadre said on the condition of anonymit. But, he added, it would be best if one treads cautiously on arming all forest guards, especially because the reasons for threats differ, depending on the area.
“Take Madhya Pradesh,” the officer said. “We have guns for forest guards there. But in some places, when you encounter a poacher, they [the poachers] will not confront the guards. In places like Ghategaon sanctuary near Morena, forest guards do carry a gun because of the possibilities of confrontation.”
To illustrate, the officer gave two instances: last year, a forest personnel guard patrolling in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena district was shot point blank by a poacher. In the first week of January, a tiger attacked two personnel in the state’s Harda district during patrol, killing one and injuring the other.
“In neither case was lack of guns an issue,” the officer said. “In the first case, the poacher used the gun before the guard could use his. In the second, the tiger attack happen all of a sudden. Such incidents can happen anywhere. The real problem is what happens after. Do we have an ambulance? We don’t. Do we have a system where the victims can get cashless treatment? No. What will happen to the personnel’s wife after she loses the breadwinner in the family? Guns are not the solution.”
India has seen a fair degree of success in forest and wildlife conservation in recent years. Initiatives like Project Tiger, Project Elephant and Project Lion have seen a rise in the number of these animals. Threat from poaching remains a concern, but the answer doesn’t lie in using firearms, say experts.
R. Sukumar is a Bengaluru-based ecologist, best known for his work in elephant conservation. To understand the role of guns in controlling poaching, he says, it is important to understand the different kinds of poaching.
For the most part, says Sukumar, these days animal poaching isn’t done by armed perpetrators but with wired snares. “It’s partly done for meat-consumption and partly for crop-protection. Forest personnel and NGOs like Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) conduct anti-snare patrols, which are effective in controlling this.” The second most common method is poisoning, often conducted after livestock depredation by wild predators. “This has come down after the government rolled out a compensation scheme for cattle owners.”
Armed gangs poaching animals or smuggling timber and red sandalwood are the main threats to guards, says Sukumar. To counter it, he recommends self-defence trainings for personnel. But when it comes to arming forest personnel, he adds, local sensitivities should be kept in mind. “Often, forest department personnel have a greater rapport with the local community, including in the Maoist-affected regions. Therefore the unwritten rule is you don’t do anything to [the] forest department. That’s something that needs to be kept up.”
According to data shared by WTI, since 2000, there have been nearly 35-40 deaths of forest guard fatalities every year. But most of these deaths have been from animal attacks; human attacks account for around 20% of these fatalities. (see box).
“If it is the case of anti-poaching and timber smuggling, I agree with the Supreme Court’s observation to arm guards,” says Vivek Menon, convenor of the WTI. “If you’re arming them, you also have to train them not just in firearms but also human rights. For example, what’s to be done in case they encounter resistance from villagers for stopping them from cutting forests?” As for deterring animal attacks, he adds that a separate policy has to be designed on the use of firearm.
“The observations of Supreme Court is in relation to forest personnel fighting battles with poaching and timber smugglers,” he adds. “But, to a large extent, armed poaching for illegal trade has gone down. There are some, but they don’t really resist. Sometimes, the attacks come from animals, sometimes from local villagers. Arming is not necessarily the solution. Policy is.”