Hyderabad: Officers and staff of the forest department are among those in the state government who wear a uniforms have the powers to arrest people violating forest laws and rules, and prosecute them. But they are a hapless lot.
It is not uncommon to see the field staff of the forest department being attacked, beaten up, and their vehicles damaged by mobs, when they attempt to do their job — protect forests. The latest incident that occurred in the Amrabad tiger reserve in Nagarkurnool district on March 27 shows that the forest department staff, more often than not, ends up being at the receiving end.
During the late hours of March 27, a team of forest staff, including fire watchers on a night patrol, saw a fire. When they reached it a few kilometres from Mannanur village, they found a group of tribals, Lambadas, with a few large bags with Mahua flowers they collected for brewing liquor.
What happened after degenerated into a “we said, they said” event but the immediate outcome was a strict dressing down from the tribal welfare minister who instructed district officials to immediately take action on the “erring forest department staff” who allegedly beat up 19 tribals including women, who were escorted out of the forest by the staff.
While the forest department officials denied they beat anyone, the tribals, who alleged the opposite, gathered in numbers the next morning, and beat up six of the department staff and damaged a jeep belonging to the department at a base camp of the staff next to Mannanur village.
Tasked with protecting the forest and working under very tough conditions, field level staff in various districts complain that every time a political leader 'instructs' the department not to touch forest encroachers, or those setting fires or illegally camping inside the forests, it makes their job tougher. "Each time something like this is announced, people, who already do not care about us doing our jobs, get bolder and tell us on our face how they have been allowed by so and so in the government to do what they please in the forests," a field level official, requesting anonymity said.
There are other ramifications for incidents like the one in the Amrabad tiger reserve, with fears that if incidents of political leaders supporting one group over the other continue, the situation may well end up like the one in undivided Adilabad district where the forest dwelling tribal communities and the Lambada settlers from other states have been on a war path against each other for some years now.
There are now fears that if the sensibilities of the Chenchu tribals who perceive themselves as victims in the current scenario are not addressed, they might stop seeing eye to eye with the plains dwelling Lambada tribals, in what could become a repeat of the situation in Adilabad.
There are already some meetings being held by some Chenchu activists seeking to protect their tribal bretheren in what they allege are unwarranted attacks by politicians looking to get quick benefits, as in the current case. They believe that the instant support to the group of Lambadas, even before all details of the March 27 incident came to light, was done with one eye firmly on the Nagarjunasagar byelections which has some 35,000 Lambada voters.
“More than anything else, if our hands are tied repeatedly like this by the government that tells us not to touch anyone in the forests, whether they are encroachers or others, the field staff are likely to take it easy and prefer not to get involved in political battles that are much bigger than they can ever get into and emerge unscathed," one official said. "What will suffer in the end, will be the forests of Telangana," another official added.