Devender Singh is on the upper deck of the machaan at Mundal, slashing at the rain with the edge of his hand.
For half an hour he is relentless, pausing only to look at his cellphone, then stops and stares out over the riverbed. He checks his cellphone again, gives up and climbs down.
Mundal chowki is some fifty meters to the southeast, across a swatch of elephant grass and a dry moat. It is a squat structure; boxy, distempered that sickly government-housing yellow, with four small rooms and a woodshed and outhouse around the back. A radio mast leans its peeling shoulder on the far wall.
Raghubir Singh, gnarled as a bristlecone, sits on a charpai on the porch, watching his young colleague's pantomime. He clears his throat awkwardly as Devender wades toward us through the tall grass: “Abhi yeh phir bhi naya hai yahan... He’s still quite new here, that’s why... It takes years to get used to it. Now I – it feels like I’ve spent my whole life here in the jungle.”
* * *
Lokesh, age 38, trampled by wild elephants in Bandipur National Park, Karnataka. Budhaji Jadhav, age 50, murdered near Rabale, Mumbai, for objecting to land encroachments in a forest area. Krishnan, age 56, mauled by a leopard at the Dhimbam forest checkpost near Thalamalai, Tamil Nadu. Just three of the forest guards that have been killed in the line of duty, in just the past three months.
For frontline forest staff across India, death is a companion they walk out on patrol with every day. Yet while the guards operate in the harshest conditions, they are poorly paid, untrained and under-equipped – and what is perhaps just as bad, ignored and unappreciated.
A few years ago I wrangled a temporary posting at the Mundal forest chowki in Rajaji National Park, walking the metaphorical mile in the shoes of the two men stationed there. Sadly, what I learned then is still relevant now. Very little has changed, between yesterday and today, in the lives of forest guards across India.
Rajaji National Park is an 820sq km reserve forest sprawled across three districts – Haridwar, Dehradun and Pauri Garhwal – of the state of Uttarakhand.
It is September 2010, the last draught of an especially lush monsoon. Jeep tracks into Rajaji have turned to sludge and much of the forest is impassable even on foot.
"Bahut kathin samay hai jangal mein abhi... It's an incredibly difficult time for our forest guards," MS Negi, the range officer at Chilla had said before sending us off to the outpost; "they are cut off from the world once they’re out there. But it’s a good time to see how difficult things can get. You’ll stay with Devender and Raghubir for six days, eat what they eat, walk where they walk. You'll see what the Forest Department is able to provide its staff out in the field."
* * *
The walk to Mundal takes us up an ancient riverbed flanked by impenetrable forest. No mighty river seems to have run through it in several hundred years, but it is zigzagged, crosscut bank to bank, by a seasonal creek that ribbons off the Shivalik hills past Mundal and Chilla down toHaridwar. There are nine crossings of this creek, between knee and ankle deep, before we reach the outpost.
With no clear path to walk we take a south-easterly heading toward thehills, squelching through water and reedbeds and elephant grass. Raghubir carries a kilo sack of atta, Devender his .315 bore rifle and a shoulder bag of vegetables. Forest guards, even those stationed in the most remote outposts, have to buy their weekly rations out of pocket – a major point of strife within the department.
As we move further upstream we begin to see an abundance of patterans by the water's edge – wet puzzles of hoof and paw that the guards are able to interpret: "Sambar... Leopard... Aur yeh tiger; female, came to drink not more than half an hour ago." (Devender, a teacher’s pet in uniform, asserts to Raghubir's beaming approval that tigresses have narrower paws and more shapely toes than the male's beefy, squarish pugs.)
Two hours in, 6km from Chilla, we reach a small plateau. The riverbed sickle-curves around it before forking through a grassland on the other side, but we clamber up the slope and arrive at Mundal.
* * *
The machaan is the first thing I see at the outpost, a gleaming witness to all of the area’s grand theater. It is the newest and best maintained construction at Mundal – perhaps because it is for tourists.
In the dry months, coming up the jeep track on safari from Chilla, the machaan is where you are ushered to watch the animals break cover for a drink. Look the other side, further into Rajaji, and you can see why this is one of the most stunning jungle vistas in India: a vast prehistoric savannah washes up against the sinuate horizon, a great rippling lake of tall, white-tipped grass stalks interposed by the occasional tree.
When the park is closed to visitors during the monsoons, as darkness creeps over the hilltops and the wind combs its fingers through the northern trees, the machaan is the choice seat from which to view the season's unfolded artistry: clouds marching in under cover of distant cannon fire, thunderclaps like Tolkien's stone giants at battle, lightning flashes to rival the primal Fiat Lux.
Spend enough time at Mundal, though, and the machaan begins to lose its sheen. As the days pass I go to it less and less for spectacle; it begins to look forlorn, leaning perceptibly towards Chilla. It has seen too much, perhaps, of the chowki's quiet desperation.
* * *
There’s an invisible man at Mundal Chowki. Like me he is Raghubir's roommate: his shirts hang on a peg in the room we share, his soap dish lies on the windowsill, his trousers are folded on his bed, his trunk is under it. But he isn't there.
Bikram Singh Negi, aged 55, is the third forest guard posted at Mundal. A 22-year veteran of the forest service, he was recently sent to Dehradun for basic training. ("Itne saal baad," Raghubir laughs, "After this much time in the service he should be giving basic training not receiving it!")
Devender, a young man who might actually benefit from some formal training in his career, has had none. “Whatever he knows of jungle craft he has learned from me,” Raghubir says proudly.
"Isko load aur fire karna mujhe dikhaya thha," Devender says, displaying his World War II relic: "They showed me how I could load and fire this when they gave it to me – but I've never practiced it since."
Devender's relationship with his rifle is telling: he treats it as an ornament, a symbol of his tenured status in the profession. He ties a polythene bag over the muzzle to protect it from the rain when he is out on patrol, but wouldn't know how to oil it or clean it or otherwise ensure its efficient functioning as a firearm. It is doubtful he seriously considers it as such.
I don’t know what is worse. The fact that Devender may not be able to shoot in an emergency or that he may go to jail if he does hit anything. Not only do forest guards lack comprehensive weapons training, they don't have the requisite legal protection – the kind that policemen, for instance, get under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973 – to discharge their weapons in the course of their duty. If a guard shoots at and injures an armed poacher, he is liable to be tried for the shooting as a civilian, without any assistance from the government.
(Two years after my stay at Mundal, forest guards in Rajaji shot at and accidentally killed one of several intruders into the park during night patrol. The miscreants reportedly outnumbered the forest staff and had initiated the firefight. The former director of the park and several of the frontline staff are still personally fighting murder charges in this case.)
* * *
At 7am we are out on patrol, heading towards the Ghori range. Along the left fork of the creek, through the white-tipped grass and up into the hills: Garesrot to Mahender Ghati, Mundal Compart 1.
This is the bones of what the forest guards do. For most of the year they head out in the morning with a tiffin lunch, returning late in the afternoon to note their observations in the patrol register – pugmarks, animals seen and when, in which ‘compart’ (patrol ranges are divided into compartments). Tiger sightings, animal injuries or deaths, the unusual movements of people are noted and radioed to Chilla.
Now, in the monsoon, the rounds are shorter, near half the normal circuit. The forest grows thicker, the streams are more urgent, the trails are paved with mulch. The Shivaliks, mere footstools to the Himalayas, aspire to the treachery of taller peaks.
Yet daily the guards go forth, since that is the nature of their work. East-southeast from Angarisrot to Hilltop one day, 11.5km, three-and-a-half hours. Northeast the next, Garesrot to Bhuthiavad via Sidori, returning by the Mahender Ghati track: 12km. Each day, one swathe of the dial that constitutes their range, then again and over again.
They walk the forest that no one else knows. Brooks that flow clear or muddled as if by caprice. Massive rock falls of almost-round boulders, discards of some captious giant sculptor. Trails that snap spontaneously out of existence, where the undergrowth is so thick that one feels disembodied, as if the sensation of feet on ground belongs to someone else.
Late one morning, as we huddle under umbrellas in a clearing on the way to Bhuthiavad, Raghubir tells me what they think of it all. “Aise nahin hai ki humein yeh sab sundar nahi dikhta. It's just that...we see it every day. We know how beautiful this place is, but it is normal for us. You see a tiger for the hundredth time, it's a tiger. You respect it but that's all. You see a tiger or elephant and you want to get away without disturbing it – stopping to admire it is for people in jeeps. Living in the jungle like we do, if you hurt yourself or get sick, no one will come to help you."
* * *
Fear is an easy enough concept to understand out here.
On our way back to the chowki one afternoon I am caught up in taking pictures and begin to fall behind. Raghubir and Devender are just a few meters in front of me until I look up and find that they aren't. I have no point of reference in the elephant grass, no sense of where to go, but quicken my pace on the premise that going somewhere is better than standing still. And then I can't move.
I have stumbled onto a jeep track and am waist deep, sinking.
There's a lone sambar on the far bank of the riverbed. It looks down at me unsympathetically, then issues a sharp alarm call and backs away into the foliage. I voice a half cry, then louder, more urgently. The sound dies within a few feet, smothered in the rain.
There is a riot of pugmarks around me. I flashback to the tiger prints Devender had pointed out to me just, what, 20 minutes ago? We had followed them for a kilometer and found them circling around behind us before trailing into the lantana. "Bagh aksar aisa karta hai," Raghubir had joked; "Tigers are curious, like cats; this one probably wanted to see the new creature in the jungle."
I am lightheaded by now, panic-drunk. How long has it been? I don't know if I should shout again, or how loud. Should I make a noise? Will I make a noise – If a man screams like a frightened child in the middle of the forest and there is no one around to hear him, does he make a noise?
There's a rustle in the grass behind me, and a flash of movement. I grab desperately at a reed cluster for leverage and pull...
But that isn't the half of it.
The many chance hazards of daily patrol: maulings, flash floods, raging summer battles with forest fires; the managing of human-animal conflict; face-offs with villagers who live on the park buffers; potentially deadly encounters with poachers, illegal miners, the timber mafia – forest guards around the country know these asthreats that they have, in a sense, signed up for. They accept these because they are men without too many opportunities, and a government job is worth a lifetime's employment.
It is why Devender shrugs off my question about wrangling a posting elsewhere, outside the forest – "Naukri yahin ki hai, paisa issi ka milta hai: this is the job, this is what we're paid for."
It is why even Raghubir, a daily wager who like too many others in the forest service has a year's worth of salary in arrears, stays put. At the age of 62 he has been working with the department for fifteen years (cumulatively, spread over 30-odd years). He has left the service on several occasions because of wage issues. He has always returned because as an unskilled worker – and what sort of system brands a man with 15 years of jungle experience 'unskilled' – his choices arelimited. He will be paid something of his Rs 3,500 a month, even if a year late. He has four married daughters and two unmarried sons. He will not be a burden on his family.
It isn't just the fear of physical harm – however omnipresent – that fans the guards' desperation. It is the belief, septic, festering, that they are irrelevant. They are neglected by the government that employs them and for all the big noise about the importance of conservation; they are invisible to everyone else.
* * *
There’s an abandoned tubewell in the field across from the chowki. Three years ago the Forest Department had initiated a project to create a waterhole on the valley floor below. When the stream would dry out to a trickle every summer the waterhole would attract animals, which would draw more tourists to Mundal.
The tubewell was dug and fitted with solar panels, but theycouldn't generate enough water pressure. Still the panels lie next to the well, ignored if not forgotten.
"Hum jangal mein aise hain mano humein bas chhod diya hai," says Raghubir, "it is as if we have been dumped here." He is from Kasanj village (which makes him a local) and has been in Rajaji throughout his service. He knows every range in the district, which paths to walk in the rains and where to dig for water in the summers. He is an expert tracker and knows what Chilla's four tigers – two full grown females, a mature male and a younger one – are up to at most times. “I know every mood of the jungle," he says, "they could employ me as a trainer. But no one here is prepared to think that way.”
Now, as he sits on the porch massaging the ache out of his knees, he is more resigned than bitter: "Ab hamara kuchh nahi ho sakta. Nothing will happen for me at this stage. I've spent my life here but couldn't become permanent. As a daily wager I don't even get a pension – if they kick me out tomorrow I will have nothing."
"But then again, who knows," he shrugs, "sometimes when I'm in the village, with family, I don't know how to be with them. Maybe I've been here so long Ihave become permanent."
* * *
Devender received the 'permanent' status Raghubir covets as inheritance – he was admitted to the service in place of his father, who died two years ago. As a tenured employee he gets a monthly salary of around Rs 11,000, usually on time. (It is the daily wagers, forming the bulk of the forest staff, who continue to face issues with wage disbursements.)
He is a quiet man, this 31-year-old, not unfriendly but keeping largely to himself, keen however to know about city life – the malls, which he saw when he last visited his brother in Mumbai some years ago, and the swimming pools, which he has always been curious about. He prays at the small temple adjoining the chowki every evening and has calendar art posters of several Hindu gods in his room. Placed beneath the posters is a curious tableau: three toothbrushes, each smaller than the other, the last child-sized.
Devender's wife – his face lights up when he speaks of her – is in Jajoli village, Pittoragarh, Uttarakhand. They have been married three years and have an infant son, Milan. She calls him at least thrice a week, except when the weather disrupts the already faint cell signal at Mundal. He spends an hour at the machaan every evening, looking out at the same view, waiting. Sometimes he slashes at the rain.
Devender and Raghubir don't talk much. Perhaps they are all talked out – two men living alone in the jungle, one twice as old as the other, infrequent contact with the outside world, how much would they have to talk about? They know about each other's families but it's not like they have to ask what happened at home the night before.
Politics? Movies? Cricket? They buy a newspaper on their weekly trips into Chilla, rationing it out between them, reading a little bit every day. The February issue of Yugvani (a political journal of Himalayan state governments) or the November 2009 issue of Parvat Jan is dusted off and reread some exanimate afternoons. When the weather permits they tune in to All India Radio, usually while Raghubir is preparing dinner in the tiny kitchen.
They have grown accustomed to the slow melt of time in Rajaji – past and future puddling into one unending ‘now’. In me it breeds an anxiety to timestamp everything that happens, a desperation to affirm my presence in the moment – I am here, doing this, watching this. But to them the concept of hours has blurred. Days and dates mean little, except when they are making an entry in the patrol register. They talk in terms of haftey and mahiney, weeks and months, and then mostly to indicate a passage back into civilization – the weekly trek for rations to Chilla, two-and-a-half months since Devender saw his family.
Living here is so different from visiting here. The human talent for pattern recognition gives us the delusion of a universe made especially for us, but out here you get no response. The forest sways to deciduous beats over eons and you are insignificant to it. Search for meaning all you like, but if you stand still for too long you can feel it begin to overgrow you.
It's easy to overlook that when you're popping by for a few days– to see the forest as a wellspring of grand epiphanies, to take away wisdom and beauty in a doggie bag. The difference in what you and the guards experience is underpinned by volition: crucially, the ability to leave. Live here like they do, like lifers, captives of circumstance, and you will be stripped of your pastoral fantasies. You will feel the evolutionary fracture between man and jungle of millennia past; you will know the slow creep of loneliness and boredom, the dull teeth of indifference and unbelonging.
I can only have the vaguest sense of it; my term is short; at the end of the week I get to go home. I am, like Barton Fink, just a tourist with a typewriter.
* * *
This is as good as it gets for forest guards in the field. In MS Negi they have a superior officer who has known the hardships his men bear and who is sympathetic towards them. Mundal is 30 minutes by jeep from Chilla when the park is open; it is also a range surrounded by other ranges, so the threat of poaching is reduced and there is little chance of human-animal conflict. And the guards have each other's company, such as it is – there are chowkis within Rajaji itself that are completely isolated and where sometimes just one person is posted.
The range assigned to a forest guard changes every three years though, so Devender may already be worse off even if Raghubir has seen it all.
What does conservation mean to men in this position? They understand their role and its importance – though they are certain no one cares. "Jangal mein naukri to tough hai hi," Devender says. "People say that the forests need to be protected. That is true; we patrol every day and poachers stay away. But don't you think we should be taken care of when we are protecting the forests?"
Raghubir concurs: "National Park bannein se phayda to hua hai. Things have improved for the animals, for the trees and plants. There used to be a problem here particularly with van gujjars (nomadic herdsmen) grazing their cattle, but not anymore. But from what I have seen over the past 30-odd years, nothing has changed for us. They have put solar panels on some of the chowkis, and that is all."
What the guards want, the amenities they demand, are nothing more than the fulfilment of basic needs: a solar electric fence for better security, so that they don't wake up so often to leopard pugmarks in the yard, or the gouge marks of an elephant tusk on the porch (from a late night visit the previous September). An outhouse that actually works, so that they don't have to venture beyond the chowki grounds at night. Some basic training – on administering a field dressing for instance, or handling snakes that find their way into the rooms, or firing the ornamental weapon in a pinch. Rain gear – gum boots and raincoats may serve them better on patrol than Velcro sandals and umbrellas. And an extra ahaar bhatta (food allowance), if a 'hardship allowance' of the sort the army gives to jawans in forward areas is too much to hope for.
* * *
While authorising my visit in an email exchange before the Mundal posting, Sargam Singh Rasailly, the (then) director of Rajaji had written: "I'm sure the view [on conservation] from the grassroots will be entirely different from that which you and I are used to. Ideally they should be the same, but that is possible only if [someone becomes a forest guard] because of his passion and not just because it is a government job. Then again, it is the duty of blokes like me to instil a sense of pride and fulfilment in anyone who ends up as a forest guard in his quest for a job, any job. Perhaps it is the failure of people like me that is reflected in the state of the forest service today."
This, then, is the grassroots view of conservation: we are doing a job here, show us that you know we exist. And while officers can provide training and push for better working conditions, political will is – as in everything to do with the environment – vital.
The current political dispensation though has already shown an antipathy towards conservation, evidenced by its dilution of the National Board for Wildlife to fast-track clearances for development projects. One can only hope that the new minister for the environment, who recently dropped the pearl that “if borders are defended environment is automatically protected,” is able to cultivate some sympathy for the men and women of the green army at his command.
As for pride and fulfilment, those can only come from a wider acknowledgement of the forest guards’ importance, a celebration of their role on the frontlines of conservation.
At the moment though, even among those who claim to care about conservation, few speak about the forgotten men that bulwark its tenuous successes in India. At the moment, apart from a handful of NGOs – like the World Wide Fund for Nature and Wildlife Trust of India, which run training programs and help equip forest staff, or the Bagh Foundation, which lobbies concertedly for policy reform to improve the guards’ working conditions – no one is paying them even lip service.
* * *
It has rained heavily up in the hills through the night and as we arrive once more at the riverbed on our way back to Chilla, we find the creek overflowing its tranquil course.
The ground is so sodden that we can progress only by stepping from one reed cluster to the next, and as tributaries spill into it through the jungle the creek grows deeper at each downstream wading.
We are armpit deep in the last of our nine crossings when the dam breaks. Or at least that's what it sounds like, the loud cracking probably that of trees being sheared off shearing off the banks as a flash flood courses through the valley.
A year prior, in a different almost-drowning during a kayaking course on the Ganga – which this creek eventually pours into – I had found the experience to be almost tranquil. I was suspended upside down in my kayak mid-river, arms swaying in the undertow, resigned, waiting for my lips to open, my lungs to flood. This, though, is much more violent.
In an instant the world is all muddy water. I see – or swear now that I did – a massive tree trunk float by, roots and all, earth clinging wetly to the roots, a colony of ants clinging to the earth. We are straws in a storm, clutching desperately at each other. And then by a miracle – or more probably, a quirk of current – we are spat out, spluttering, tumble washed, near the power station at Chilla.
We hurry to the village where I leave Devender and Raghubir at the boom barrier near the range office, hitching a scooter ride onward to Haridwar. I look back but we do not wave to each other.
What has become of them? I don't know. These four years to tell their story have just been another indifference. Perhaps they are still standing there, looking out from the wrong side of the barrier, waiting for someone to remember that they exist.
Pranav Capila is an independent writer-editor based out of New Delhi. He is a trustee with the Bagh Foundation and founding editor of PlanetWildlife magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.