New Delhi: Following the deaths of several forest officers and staff on duty from Covid, the Indian Forest Service Association has asked all states to recognise forest staff as frontline workers on an immediate basis, just like their colleagues in the police and revenue departments across the country.
In a letter dated 14 May and written to chief secretaries of all states, the IFS Association stated, “While responding to their call of duty, several forest department employees unfortunately contracted the virus and many sadly succumbed to it. Those who lost their lives include employees from all the ranks of the department, ranging from senior IFS officers to the daily wagers, who were involved in protection of nation’s ecological wealth.”
The association felt that the deaths of the forest service staff during the pandemic has gone unnoticed.
“It is unfortunate to note that several States of the country have not yet granted the status of Frontline Warriors (FLWs) to the forest staff, thus depriving them the preferred healthcare attention when required, as well as the chance for an early vaccination,” the letter added.
As the representative of over 3,000 IFS officers across the country, and the guardian of over 25,000 field forest staff, the Association has requested states to immediately grant the status of FLWs to the forest staff, who are working in extremely challenging areas with forest-based communities, often with poor access to healthcare facilities.
“This will also ensure extension of preferred healthcare support to them if they get infected during their work,” the letter adds. “Such steps will immensely boost the confidence of the forest staff while carrying out their official duties and while undertaking public dealing as part of their work. Additionally, such an action will also reduce the risk of spread of virus from an infected staff member to the endangered wild animals, as well as to any tribal or particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), with whom they work closely.”
IFS officers told ThePrint that while there is no estimate or record of the number of forest officers and staff who have lost their lives owing to the pandemic, the figures are staggering with staff dying on a daily basis in remote corners of the country, without much medical attention.
The work pressure on the staff has also gone up during the pandemic, though their contribution is often overlooked, they said.
Of death and duress
“The work of the forest staff often goes unnoticed, but it has not lessened during the pandemic,” an IFS officer said, on condition of anonymity. “While the work of the police during the pandemic is visible to all, people don’t see how the work of forest staff has also increased, and their lives are imperiled.”
Last year, a study authored by senior IFS officer and IFS Association general secretary, Saket Badola, found that there has been a major spike in wildlife crimes in India owing to the national Covid lockdown which was imposed in 2020. The study was published by TRAFFIC, a leading international NGO working on trade in wildlife.
Restrictions on movement of law enforcement agencies, abrupt halt on ecotourism and loss of associated revenues, which are often the main source of funding for conservation activities in certain areas, increasing unemployment owing to the shutting down of businesses, large-scale migration of jobless workers, more cases of trespassing in restricted wildlife reserves, and the resultant increase in cases of wildlife poaching for food and trade were identified as the key reasons for spike in wildlife crimes, thereby adding to the work pressure of the forest service staff.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)