Controversy

Attacks on foresters increase across the country during lockdown

Print edition : November 06, 2020

A forest guard who was attacked while on patrol duty in Madhya Pradesh in August. Photo: by special arrangement

A forester who was attacked with axes and other tools used to fell trees, in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, (right) receiving a representation from Indian Forest Service officers seeking protection and social security for forest staff, in September. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Attacks on foresters by encroachers and the timber mafia have increased during the COVID-induced lockdown.

“Every year several green soldiers make supreme sacrifices in the line of duty, while several others become disabled for life, thus impacting their ability to provide a sustained future for their family members.… India is not [a] safe country for forest officials. In fact, India is often touted as one of the deadliest countries for rangers where the highest number of on-duty forest staff lose their life. According to the International Rangers Federation (https:/www.internationalrangers.org/), 162 foresters lost their life in India while on duty from 2012 to 2017. This is the highest in the world and accounts for as high as 31 per cent of the total ranger (frontline) deaths across the world during that period.” These words are from a letter, written on September 2 by the Indian Forest Service Officers Association, to Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment and Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC), highlighting the dangers forest staff face and seeking better protection and social security for more than 50,000 forest staff most of whom work in remote areas.

The letter was triggered by a spate of attack on foresters during the six months of the COVID-induced lockdown when illegal activities increased manyfold in forest areas. Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in particular saw brutal attacks on foresters. In most of these cases the victims got little support from the police or State governments. Appalled at the state’s cavalier attitude, the Nature Conservation Society, Amravati, through its member Kishor Rithe, filed an interim application (I.A.) in the Supreme Court on September 18.

The application brought to the notice of the court “the alarming increase in the frequency and the ferocity of brutal assaults on the forest officials in the last 6-8 months in various States, particularly Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan”. It stated: “The problem is widespread in other States also. The involvement of a large number of people, mostly encroachers and belonging to [the] timber mafia armed with deadly weapons, has led to serious injuries to the forest personnel on duty, many of whom have been hospitalised and are in critical condition. These attacks have had a chilling impact on the morale of the Forest Department and it has become increasingly difficult to protect the forests in the absence of proper police protection and administrative support.”

The application further points out that “the forest mafia are taking advantage of the lockdown situation and encroaching fresh areas and resorting to violence which is not only causing serious injuries but is also having a demoralising effect on the officials of the Forest Department.”

Rithe has sought protection for officials while on duty, strict action against offenders, a stay on criminal proceedings “falsely” initiated against officials under The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and “urgent directions to the Union of India and the concerned States to provide full administrative backing, including the support of the police force, in dealing with and preventing serious forest offences which is resulting in large-scale destruction of forests”.

The application describes five incidents, but according to Rithe there have been many more which are being compiled and will be presented during the course of hearings. The examples are supported by photographic and video evidence and GPS locations.

Police apathy

Shockingly, the police had to be forced to register first information reports (FIRs) in some cases, and in three cases they refused to file FIRs. All the attacks had resulted in severe injuries to foresters. In one case, a forester’s heel was almost cleaved through. In none of the incidents did the respective State government stand by its own officials. The application says, “The States have a constitutional duty under Article 48A of the Constitution to protect and preserve the forests…. [I]t is therefore incumbent upon the States to provide adequate protection to the forest officials on duty.”

All the incidents have occurred in remote areas where groups of individuals are very likely able to overpower foresters who often patrol in twos. Besides, foresters do not routinely carry weapons. In fact, one of the points in the letter to Javadekar by the IFS Officers Association is about permission to carry arms.

Mount Abu case

The most brutal case was on May 23 in the Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan where five men assaulted Balaji Kari, Deputy Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Mt Abu, forest guard Swaruparam and nature guide Jaisingh. The forest team was on a foot patrol near the Agneshwar temple inspecting the fire line and noticed large amounts of garbage and plastic strewn about. Near a temple they saw a person who looked like a sadhu who told them he was going into the forest to cut trees. Four more people in the same garb then appeared and asked the team who they were.

When the DCF identified himself and told them plastic was banned inside the sanctuary, they suddenly attacked him and his team with a hammer, axe and a wooden stick. The men also claimed political connections.

The application says, “The axe narrowly missed the neck of the DCF. Finding themselves unarmed and outnumbered, they ran until they were able to shake off the attackers.” One of the forest guards shot a brief but disturbing video of the assault. The visuals show men in the garb of sadhus raining blows on Balaji Kari who had fallen down and the audio has voices of someone shouting maro, maro (hit).

The police initially refused to register an FIR, but did so after five hours of persistence. Subsequently they dropped Section 307 of the Indian Penal Code (attempt to murder), thereby diluting the charges. Worse still, the police soon registered an FIR against the DCF’s team under the provisions of The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Rithe’s application says, “The said FIR has been filed as an afterthought only to harass and to demoralise the forest officials.” The DCF also wrote to the Chief Secretary of Rajasthan on June 16, but no action has been taken until the second week of October.

In the video of the violence inflicted on the DCF, the attackers are in the garb of sadhus and the man who has signed the FIR calls himself Sant Bal Krishna Giri. There had been a similar case in Telangana last year in which encroachers assaulted a female range officer and later filed an FIR under the Atrocities Act on her. But the court seemed to recognise it as a false accusation and ordered a stay on the proceedings.

The Mt Abu sanctuary is a small one of 288 sq km in the Aravalli range. Its forests are a crucial catchment area for streams and rivers that sustain agriculture in the plains below. The perennial water sources within the sanctuary are lifelines for the wildlife, but as the application says, these “have been systemically encroached and occupied by the criminals and encroachers. They have erected structures and have started residing within the sanctuaries illegally. As a result, the habitat of the animals has been severely disturbed. The animals have no access to drinking water in dry summer months.”

Thane incident

The other incident was in Thane district in Maharashtra on May 28 when encroachers who were engaged in making illegal structures assaulted a squad of two forest officers and four forest guards, three of them women.

One of the encroachers, who identified himself as Barku, and a few others suddenly attacked the Forest Department team and pelted them with stones, causing injuries to three of the officials. An FIR was registered and all the injured officials had to be admitted to hospital.

The Kalwa-Mumbra forest area where this occurred has a history of encroachments. In fact, the Bombay High Court had passed orders in July 2013 directing the District Collector and the Deputy Conservator of Forests, Thane Division, to carry out demolitions of unauthorised constructions and encroachments on forest land.

But it is in Madhya Pradesh where violence against forest officials has become almost a norm. Says Rithe’s application: “The situation in the State of Madhya Pradesh has become so alarming that violent incidents are taking place almost every day causing serious injuries to the forest staff. The frequency and brutality of violence, involving a large number of people, is extremely disturbing and is a matter of serious concern. The Forest Department finds itself outnumbered and ill-equipped to deal with serious offences in the forest laws in view of a large number of people taking law into their own hands.”

In his application, Rithe says he believes this situation gained impetus “after the Chief Minister had warned of strict action against the district administration and the Forest Department if pattas under The Schedule Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act, 2005, are not granted to all the applicants whose applications were rejected earlier. These warnings issued to the officers by the Chief Minister have emboldened the forest and timber mafia to take the law into their own hands and indulge in brutal violence against forest officials….”

Third parties who are neither tribal nor traditional forest dwellers are entering the space using this as a cover and trying to acquire forest land for commercial benefit. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister’s statement has given an impetus to the forest mafia who view the transfers of Forest Department personnel as their victory. Illegal mining, cutting of trees and appropriating forest land have accelerated in the State and forest staff are attacked with impunity.

On July 9, a large number of people armed with guns, axes and gorphans (large catapults capable of killing small animals) encroached on forest land in Burhanpur (Madhya Pradesh) and started cutting trees and vegetation. Forest officials who intervened were attacked and six of them were injured seriously. A similar attack was made on August 7. The victims lodged a complaint with the Collector against the repeated attacks on them.

On August 26 in Damoh district, forest guard Mayank Vishwakarma was on patrol when he was set upon by villagers from Sallaiya village. It was apparently in retaliation against a forest offence that had been filed against them earlier for cutting trees illegally. In this case, too, the police refused to file an FIR saying there was no medico-legal certificate report to prove wounds and injuries. This was despite visual evidence of a guard whose heel had been almost chopped through. No arrests were made because the assailants had disappeared by the time the police appeared.

Soon after, at midnight on August 31 , forest guard Joginder Singh, in charge of Sringrampur beat, was alerted about illegal felling and transportation of timber. He and fellow guard Ram Dube and a watchman named Bhura went to the site and saw logs of illegally cut teak trees being loaded for transportation.

When questioned about the source of the timber, the offenders abused the officials and attacked them with axes and lathis. The guards were so badly attacked that they lost consciousness. An FIR was registered.

The application was to be heard by the Chief Justice of India on October 8 but has been postponed and the date is still to be given. It would seem like a cut-and-dried case. That the attackers were in the forest with a clear intent to carry out illegal activities is obvious—they were armed, they were out and about during a lockdown and they had no legal explanation for their presence there. All eyes are now on the apex court for justice.

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