PALAKKAD: It has been four days since forest watcher P P Rajan of Mukkali went missing while on duty in the Silent Valley. As hundreds of forest personnel, armed thunderbolt commandos, sniffer dogs, drones, and specialist trackers from Wayanad continue their search for the missing man, the plight of officers forced to work in deep forests has come to the fore. Men and women work for long hours without proper facilities and their lives are at the mercy of wild animals, a forest watcher said.
Five to six personnel, including a forester and a guard, are posted at the camp shed at Sairandhri inside the Silent Valley National Park. At a stretch, they work for a week before they hand over the duty and return home. At present, three tribal officers, two of them women, are part of the team.
As the 22-km Mukkali-Sairandhri road is under repair, no jeep ply on the route, and tourists’ entry is banned. Hence if one of the officers is attacked by a wild animal, they could bleed to death before any help arrives, said an officer who is part of the team searching for Rajan.
Sairandhri is the most accessible camp shed in the Silent Valley division, they said. The situation is worse in the camp sheds at Neelikkal, Valakkad, Keeripara and Poochipara, which are located 8-10km away from Sairandhri, officers said. Forest personnel, most of them members of the tribal community, have to walk to these camp sheds. They carry the provisions on their heads along the trekking paths.
Caught between wild animals and tough terrain
“There is no road. We have to walk to reach these camp sheds. So we have to prepare for the worst in case of an accident or illness,” said an officer, who did not want to be identified. Apart from those in the Silent Valley division, there are camp sheds at Keralamedu in the Agali range of Mannarkkad division on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. One has to trek 8km to reach the place near the Siruvani reservoir, said a watcher.
Solar panels provide electricity to the camps. Officers said that if the authorities installs CCTV systems, that will help them take precautionary measures in case of wild-animal raids. Animals are not the only threat they face. In October 2015, Maoist ultras were engaged in a gun battle with the police deep inside the forest at Attappadi. Later in December, Maoists had burnt down the camp sheds at Aanavai and Thuduki, said one of the watchers.
Rajan went missing last Tuesday night. After having his dinner, he was seen walking to the camp shed 30 metres away. But he never reached the shed. Forest personnel believe he might have been attacked by a wild animal while crossing the road. One of the officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TNIE that there were many people like Rajan who have been working for the past two decades on a temporary basis. Forest watchers say the authorities should look at keeping a jeep ready at Sairandhri permanently, at least during nights. Forest watchers demand that personnel must be given insurance cover and die-in-harness benefits should be extended to temporary workers. They must also be provided with arms.