BENGALURU: Poor tribal youths working as fire watchers in some of the tiger reserves are being cheated of a part of their daily wages as they are forced to pay commissions. Every summer, all tiger reserves hire 250-450 fire watchers to tackle forest fires in each of the protected areas, depending on the area, its sensitivity and beat size. From January to April-May, youngsters from different tribal villages are selected and handpicked for the job. They are provided accommodation at anti-poaching camps so that they can keep a close watch and vigil to check any outbreak of fires.
This season, nearly 1,700-2,000 tribal youth have been hired for this job with local terrain knowledge and capabilities. In the 13 ranges of Bandipur, more than 450 have been hired; for Bhadra’s four ranges, it is 300; while for Nagarhole, it is another 300. Apart from rations, they are provided daily wages, totalling `9,000 per month. The principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF) and head of forest force has directed that wages of all fire watchers should be deposited directly into their accounts. However, many of them have complained about irregularities as they have to pay a certain percentage as “commission” to the officials.
Sanna (name changed), a youth from the Soliga community, complains that although they are supposed to receive an amount of `9,000 deposited directly into their accounts, disbursing officials have been transferring wages of all watchers to one single account. After a cut of `1,500, payment is made in cash. “Anyway, this amount is insufficient as I have to feed a family of nine. On top of that, any cuts in this amount is a big burden for me. I want to quit my job, this is sheer injustice,” he says.
An activist from Chamrajanagara said, “Fire watchers in BRT (Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple) tiger reserve have been complaining of irregular payments and collection of commission. Each watcher has to pay `1,500 to `2,000 every month in cash and ultimately, they are left with a pittance of `7,000-`7,500 only. This situation may be prevailing in other tiger reserves but in BRT, most fire watchers are facing this problem.”
G Veeresh, an activist from Chikkamagaluru, adds, “Some range officers and range office clerks are collecting the watchers’ wages and depositing into one bank account and then making payments in cash with cuts. This method of payment should immediately stop as many watchers are quitting their jobs. Further, tiger reserve managers claim they have hired more number of fire watchers but the ground reality is different. ‘Hiring of watchers’ is done only on paper, while at the ground level, fire vigil work suffers and goes for a toss.”