CHENNAI: The seasonal elephant migration is set to start next month yet hundreds of frontline temporary personnel of the Tamil Nadu forest department, who risk their lives to mitigate human-elephant conflict, are not offered basic insurance cover.
The sanctioned strength of anti-poaching watchers in Tamil Nadu's 13 forest circles is 1,119. District forest officials hire additional manpower depending on their requirements.
Most of these frontline workers come from vulnerable sections such as tribal communities or backward classes. Yet if an APW is killed or permanently disabled in an animal attack while on the job, there is no social security cover.
"Apart from the compensation provided by the government to the victims' families, there is no significant recognition of the high-risk and critical role played by APWs and anti-depredation squad (ADS) members. Term insurance and health cover are the bare minimum to ensure their families don't suffer," said K Sivaprakasam, president, Tamil Nadu Forest Staff Association.
A recent example is the death of APW S Sundaram from Dindigul forest division who was trampled by a wild elephant. Apart from Rs 5 lakh government compensation, the family received no other benefit.
The incident revived the demand to regularise services of APWs and heralded some change. Forest officials in Sathyamangalam and Anamalai tiger reserves subsequently initiated steps to provide insurance cover for their frontline staff.
"We have 250 frontline staff in Hassanur and Sathyamangalam forest divisions. We have provided insurance cover to all 105 personnel in Hassanur, and the process will be completed in Sathyamangalam division in the next few weeks," said Devendra Kumar Meena, deputy director of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve.
"We tied up with Indian Bank and a few NGOs provided financial aid to pay the premium. The term insurance provides Rs 10 lakh mortality benefit. An additional life cover of Rs 2 lakh is provided under Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana," he added.
In Anamalai tiger reserve (ATR), a hotbed of human-elephant conflict, an insurance cover of Rs 3 lakh has been provided since 2017. But in 2022, policies were not renewed as insurance companies increased the premium from Rs 450 to over Rs 3,000 by placing APWs and ADS members in high-risk category.
Acknowledging the issue, MG Ganesan, ATR deputy director said Rs 10.5 lakh was released from the ATR Foundation a few days back to provide insurance cover to all 219 frontline staff. "We are in discussion with banks and insurance firms to provide the highest possible insurance cover," he said.
Of the 18 people killed here over the past five years, two were forest department personnel. Hosur forest division, another high-conflict area, has also started providing insurance cover of Rs 13 lakh each for its 72 APWs.
However, no other tiger reserve or forest division has taken concrete steps to provide insurance for frontline staff. "Some initiatives were taken up by forest officials with the help of donors, which may not be sustainable in the long run. Instead, the State government should offer group insurance to all APWs and ADS members. Also, frontline workers lack basic safety equipment. They patrol the forest wearing slippers, with a stick in hand," said N Sadiq Ali, founder, Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust.