Forest Workers: India’s Missed Conservation Opportunity?

By Adam Runacres • PhD Anthropology


“They, the officers, don’t understand, isn’t it? They sit in their offices and we do 24 hours duty without any holiday or rest. I don’t know what they do over there.”

Local Villager and Forest Worker, Panna Tiger Reserve, January 2018

“They don’t understand. Actually, they are lazy people. They don’t want to work or use their minds. Why should they be dependent on the government?”

Forest Department Official, Panna Tiger Reserve, February 2018


The relationships between forest department officials and local communities across India are usually described in terms of antagonism and conflict, both in the popular and academic press. The literature on Indian conservation has addressed the historical and contemporary exclusion of communities from forest areas, their persecution by department officials and constant disputes over livestock and crop depredation, village relocation and livelihood interference. The necessity of protected areas and the resultant antagonism with local people has been called the ‘gridlock’ of tiger conservation and politics (Rastogi et al. 2012). The above quotes taken from my notes during ongoing fieldwork around Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, point to much of the same. The relationships between forest department officials, from the beat guards that patrol the jungle to the Field Director in charge of the entire park, and the local villagers, from the poorest tribal farmer to the richest local politician, are filled with moments of antagonism, overwhelmed often by an atmosphere of discontent and lack of mutual understanding. However, as most commentators point out, “if tiger conservation is to succeed, there may be no way around support from local communities” (Rastogi et al. 2012: 335). So, is there anything to be done about this gridlock? 

In the early stages of fieldwork, as plans of studying a village relocation in situ or understanding the local impact of a river-linking project seemed increasingly unlikely, I decided to return to the basic question of what is broadly termed ‘village-forest relations’, something often noted at the end of a ‘suggestions’ section of many papers on Indian conservation under the sub-heading ‘needs improving’. Rarely had I found any detailed or nuanced account of relationships between forest department officials and local villagers as anything more than antagonistic. Following the calls to re-evaluate ‘village-forest relations’ and see conservation landscapes as ‘mosaics of localities’ (Nagendra et al. 2010; Read 2015), I sought out places where instead of only ‘exclusion’, I might find where the forest department and local people came together. As luck would have it, I found a room in a village on the border of Panna Tiger Reserve owned by a local forest worker who had just been made permanent after many years of daily wage labour service. He was a cook in the forest rest house. The man who quickly became my best friend was a safari guide and my closest neighbour a driver for the range office. I found myself amidst villagers whose lives were tied to the conservation effort as forest workers, daily wage workers who performed various tasks for the forest department, a group that moves between ‘forest’ and ‘village’. 

Daily wage workers are a crucial part of government operations across India and this is nowhere truer than in the forest department. The forest department relies on workers to fulfil a variety of office and field positions, ranging from drivers and clerks to those tracking tigers via radio collar and even elephant handlers who come from different states. All receive a daily wage resulting in a monthly salary of seven to nine thousand rupees (75-85 GBP) and enjoy none of the benefits of being a permanent government employee. The forest officers and officials and the lucky workers who have been made ‘permanent’ receive salaries double that of workers, housing, health and education benefits for their families as well as insurance and pension. Most of all, they have jobs for life. A government job is the ultimate security in India and often provides an entire family with certainty for generations as many children or spouses take up positions when someone retires or passes away unexpectedly. This protects the family from the overwhelming issue of non-regular employment and gets rid of any ‘tension’ about the uncertainty of the future. Their lives are ‘set’. 

For regular villagers, the department is a source of even greater uncertainty in what is already considered a precarious life. Yadavs and Adivasis make up the majority of the original population in Panna, the former traditionally buffalo and cattle herders (the milk business) and the latter traditionally gatherers of timber and non-timber forest products, such as mahua and tendu fruit, as well as stone cutters for building houses and boundary walls. Both groups, and many others, are also reliant on farming, which is regularly plagued by drought and especially by crop depredation. Whereas before the arrival of the forest department, the jungle was a place of plenty and filled with resources that might supplement a year of failed farming, it is now a source of wild animals that eat the crops and government agents who imprison livestock, send farmers to court and interfere in their traditional livelihoods. Moreover, it is seen as the major reason why Panna is, in the villagers’ own words’, still so ‘backward’ (underdeveloped). So what do the forest workers think? 

They are engaged in the conservation effort to protect and preserve the wild flora and fauna both as part of and beyond their job. This is particularly poignant in Panna, as the entire local tiger population has been brought back from extinction through a successful reintroduction project over the last nine years. They appreciate and understand the jungle and, like everyone else, are fascinated by the tigers. They appreciate good leadership and hardworking forest officers, with whom they regularly socialise and even sympathise (most have been posted from other districts, far from families). However, when it comes to matters of conflict, the forest workers side with the village. They see their work only as something out of necessity, something they do because there is no other option. They are disappointed by the low pay, long hours, arbitrary transfers, and their dependence on friendship and indebtedness to the rangers to take holidays or attend to personal issues. These forest workers are crucial actors in conservation efforts through their work but most importantly the first line of contact between forest and village. Their position as the points of regular and meaningful engagement between forest and village make them a potentially central part of ‘village-forest relations’ and a group undervalued in scholarship and practice around conservation in India. If we are recognisant of how crucial local people are to conservation across India (and elsewhere) people like my landlord and my neighbour represent a missed opportunity to foster good relations. As one forest worker said to me at the bus stand one day, “Only because of us does this park run. If villagers wanted to, they could set the whole jungle on fire. But we are here”. 


References

Nagendra, H., Rocchini, D., & Ghate, R. 2010. Beyond parks as monoliths: Spatially differentiating park-people relationships in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in India. Biological Conservation, 143(12), 2900–2908.

Rastogi, A., Hickey, G. M., Badola, R., & Hussain, S. A. 2012. Saving the superstar: A review of the social factors affecting tiger conservation in India. Journal of Environmental Management, 113, 328–340.

Read, D. J. 2015. Legitimacy, access, and the gridlock of tiger conservation: lessons from Melghat and the history of central India. Regional Environmental Change.

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