BENGALURU: All alone in a thick forest in the death of the night with wild animals all around might seem something out of your worst nightmares. However, for a forest watcher or forest guard, it’s just another day at work.
Panchalingaiah, a forest watcher at the Ramnagara Division (Bengaluru Circle), was out chasing wild elephants near his village in Magadi on September 9, 2016. Unfortunately, he didn’t return home. During work, he was trampled by one of the elephants, and died leaving behind his wife and two infant children. He had served in the department for 10 years, and died just two days before the Forest Martyrs Day.
A year after his death, Panchalingaiah’s wife, Vedavati BU, her two children aged five and two and a half years, and her two brothers, attended a Forest Martyrs Day event in the city on Monday. Panchalingaiah and four other forest watchers and guards who died while on duty (in different incidents), were honoured on the day.
Vedavati says, “We were married for just for five years and then he left us.” Dayanand K, Vedavati’s brother, talks fondly about his brother-in-law and says, “He was dedicated to his job, and there was a time when he did not take a single day off for a year — he was on duty day and night.”
Vedavati now lives with her parents in Hesseraghatta. “One of my children is studying in LKG. I have to do menial jobs to make ends meet now,” she adds. Panchalingaiah’s father passed away a few years before his death, and his mother is also a widow now. “She works as an agricultural labourer and is quite old,” she adds.
While the forest department has already given a compensation of `5 lakh, Panchalingiah’s wife and brothers claim that they were promised a total of `25 lakh and a job. Dayanand, says,”We have been running around from Ramanagaru to Bengaluru regularly for the last year to get the rest of the compensation.”
K Lingappa, deputy conservator of forests, Headquarters, Bengaluru, says that forest watchers and guards are usually given a compensation of `5 lakh. There is some talk in the department to increase this amount substantially. It was only in the case of a forest guard, Murigeppa Tamangol, who was charred to death in Bandipur National Park while trying to put our forest fires, that a compensation of `25 lakh was given. Murigeppa was also honoured on Monday. With regards to jobs, a certain criteria such as qualification is followed, but a job is usually a surety, adds Lingappa.
From 1966 to 2017, there have been 42 deaths of forest guards, watchers other people from the state forest department. Forest watchers Ramaiah and Dibbanna died in Bannerghatta forest while chasing wild elephants. Doddashetty, another forest watcher, was also killed by elephants. They were also honoured on the day.
Monetary benefits for forest staff on the anvil
Although they risk their lives everyday, forest watchers and guards do not get much in terms of compensation in case of death. This is set to change with the Forest Department being in talks to bring in a number of changes with regards to various monetary benefits. Kishen Singh Sugara, principal chief conservator of forests (Head of Forest Force), says that for starters, the compensation of the staff in the forest department would be increased from the present ` 5 lakh to `25 lakh. He says that a proposal has already been prepared on the same. “Once approved, the compensation would be on par with that of police services,” says Kishen Singh.
Another benefit that will soon be extended is scholarships to the children of those who fell in the line of duty. “We are deciding on the modalities of the scholarships, such as the amount, whether it should be dependent on the course or college that has been chosen, and other factors. A committee to decide on this and other monetary benefits is still deliberating on the issue, and we hope that things will be finalised in the next few weeks,” says Kishen. There is also the issue of insurance policies for forest staff. At present, there is no ‘definite’ policy, says Kishen Singh, which is why the matter has also come up for deliberation. Another plan is to have bravery awards and medals on the lines of many defense and police forces. “It will be something like a chief minister silver or gold medal for bravery. A proposal has already been sent to the government on the same,and we are positive that it will
be approved very soon,” says Kishen Singh.