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Remember to honour sacrifices of forest guardians

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National Forest Martyrs’ Day

By Sunita Vijay

As children, we have heard hair-raising stories about the dense forest as an abode for dangerous animals, the fearful travellers passing through the thicket being attacked by demons, dacoits and predators. We are also aware of the perils faced by forest dwellers, savage animals, animals carrying disease, and the wide variety of fungi, fruits and berries, which, if not known, can cause moderate to lethal damage to health.

On the other hand, forests are gold mines, rather invaluable. They have abundant natural resources. Forests are, so we are! We cannot take forests for granted. They keep the earth green and cool. They help us breathe, make rain, and prevent flooding. They are home to half of all species. They replenish groundwater and clean up dirty soil and air. They muffle sound pollution while providing timber, resins and herbs. They help us relax as they encapsulate captivating sights.

We all should be forest custodians, but the official responsibility lies with the forest department. The hierarchy starts with the forest guard, the caretaker of about 7 square kilometres of forest beat, deployed at ground zero! They’re puny yet potent figures against the monstrous dangers that exist in the form of forest mafias, wildlife smugglers, natural disasters and wild animals. They live in inhospitable and remote environments far away from family, all alone, with limited perks. Their duties include safeguarding forests under their jurisdiction from illegal tree felling, poaching and encroachment. A forest guard patrols her area on foot deep inside the woods where no motorable mode of transport can run to ensure that all is well there.

The lurking predators, armed poachers, the potential danger of being trampled under wild elephant’s feet, becoming a meal to a hungry carnivore, bitten by a venomous snake, or consumed by furious fire or flash flood always exists. The lack of forest protection forces puts these ground-zero heroes in a vulnerable position. Their morale stays low with meagre perks and humongous risk, but they remain duty-bound. These brave hearts, the guardians of the forest, are at the frontlines to bear all the brunt while protecting the country’s rich resources. Unfortunately, many have died to date in the performance of this duty.

September 11 is National Forest Martyrs’ Day in India, each year, as a tribute to those who laid down their lives defending the forests and wildlife.

This day holds enormous significance because it honours and recognises the sacrifices made by forest personnel who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Hats off to these wardens who work tirelessly 24/7 to protect our nation’s green wealth, even in the gnarly conditions that no human body can endure for long!

A forest may look serene and inviting, but the dominating survival instincts make it a cruel abode. In 2015, Bharat Singh Bisht was killed by a mother elephant while on patrol. In 2021, Dinesh Lal, Forester and Hari Mohan Singh, forest guard, died while dousing a fire. An article from June 23, 2019, in TOI, mentioned that Bahadur Singh Chauhan, a forest guard, was shot dead by timber smugglers after he tried to stop them from cutting down trees. And the list is long. The board on the memorial is full of names.

This day came into being while commemorating the anniversary of the Khejarli Massacre in 1730 when about 363 members of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan lost their lives; a few were beheaded and others killed as they hugged the trees to protect them from felling. On this day throughout India, the Forest Department pays its homage to our green heroes.

The sacrifice of forest martyrs is as significant as the jawans who lay down their lives at the border. The government, and within it the forest department, thus endeavour to provide vital support to the deceased family members.

The forest department in Uttarakhand assembled at the Forest Memorial and paid heartfelt tribute. The staff shared genuine concerns with the PCCF (Head of the Forest Force), Anup Malik, that may help improve the bereaved family’s lives. He was very supportive and agreed to look into it. All the senior forest officials and staff in Dehradun were at the memorial.

Matt Haig, author of The Humans, said, ‘Finland is officially the world’s happiest country. It is also 75% forest. I believe these facts are related.’ Haig is right. The fate of the forests defines the fate of our well-being. Forests are home to millions of trees, the central oxygen producers in terrestrial ecosystems. We need to enforce and strengthen the forest protection force that plays a crucial role in saving rich forests that are so rejuvenating and inspiring.