On April 8, 2021, around 140 wildlife guards employed on contractual basis at Dampa Tiger Reserve (DTR) in Mizoram went on a strike protesting against the non-payment of salaries.
“We had not received salary for six months,” said a wildlife guard with over 15 years of experience at DTR. “We went back to work the next day [ April 9] because the Field Director [at Dampa Tiger Reserve] assured us that salaries will be cleared soon but then they fired us,” he added.
Officially, there were 178 wildlife guards in total. All were dismissed from duty on the same day.
Interviews for ‘fresh engagement’ were conducted between April 10 and 14, and all but 5 of the 178 guards were ‘freshly’ rehired.
In response to a query regarding the randomness of such staff engagement and dismissal decisions, C Remtluanga, president of the National Trade Union of Mizoram noted that this is how all contractual staff - be it within the forest department and elsewhere - are treated in Mizoram. “This is very usual in Mizoram… it happens in other departments also, like minor irrigation and agriculture,” he said.
What such uncertainties also mean is that the protection of the DTR, an area of around 500 sq kms of highly undulating terrain, is open to risks like poaching and logging arising from random variations in guard staff strength.
No payment for past work, no guarantee of future work
Salaries for temporary wildlife guards are covered under Project Tiger, a centrally sponsored scheme of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory board under MoEFCC administers Project Tiger.
On April 5, an office memorandum issued by the Mizoram government noted a need to keep the engagement of staff employed under such centrally sponsored schemes “at a bare minimum” and that such engagements should be made for a period of one year with a conditional possibility of extension.
Also read: NGT Seeks Ban on Mining Minor Minerals After Killing of Forest Guard in Sariska
Liankima Lailung, chief wildlife warden at DTR confirmed that these are requirements that did not exist earlier.
Remtluanga explained that decisions to engage or dismiss staff hired under centrally sponsored schemes primarily depends on whether DTR gets adequate money from the central government or not. And so, it is very likely that the change in policy this time around is driven by lack of funding from NTCA.
On the same day, C. Lalbiaka, the Field Director (FD) at the reserve, issued a letter stating that NTCA has sanctioned an amount less than what was submitted as requirement by DTR for Tiger Protection Force (TPF). Salary for temporary staff at DTR is classified under TPF and funds to meet this expense is provided by the NTCA.
Lalbiaka told NewsClick that the requirement submitted to NTCA was for Rs. 249.41 crore but only Rs. 141.52 crore were sanctioned.
Also read: Uttarakhand Wildlife Reserves: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
The letter from the office of the field director also stated the following: “It is very unfortunate that despite requests for finances from our side, we have not received any amount due to budgetary cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this year's APO [Annual Plan of Operation], we have asked for funds for this year as well as the shortfall from the previous year, and we do not have the latest updates on this as yet. Meanwhile, we are aware and are distressed to know that TPFs are in dire straits and are contemplating a strike.”
It added, “We have also met the PCCF (Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) to figure out some way to pay at least three month's salary. We hope to be able to disburse three month's worth of salaries this week. This is the best we can do at the moment so we again request TPFs who are planning a strike to call it off. It is not feasible to leave DTR without guards for even one night… ROs [Range Officers] and BOs [Beat Officers] are directed to take note of those TPFs who heed our request and those who do not.”
“During financial year 2020-21, the budget of Centrally Sponsored Scheme - Project Tiger (CSS-PT) was reduced from Rs 300 crore to Rs 195 crore due to COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the funding support provided under CSS-PT to all tiger reserves including Dampa was reduced proportionately,” Rajendra G. Garawad, Deputy Inspector General of Forests at NTCA, said in response to queries about lack of adequate funding to DTR.
It is strange though that while existing commitments like payment of salaries of guard staff are open to compromise, much-criticised projects by the NTCA like cheetah reintroduction into India seem to have adequate funding regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Priya Singh, a wildlife researcher with extensive field experience in DTR, pointed out that trained staff are highly valuable in ensuring the protection of DTR and that efforts should be made to retain all such staff.
Difficulties during 6 months of no pay
In response to questions concerning how they managed to live for six months without salaries, the wildlife guard said, “What to do? We had to manage somehow… we got food on credit from shopkeepers and many took loans.”
The wife of a guard added that when they buy groceries on credit, shopkeepers usually sell them low-quality items.
Also read: India Lost 41 Per Cent of its Tiger Habitat Over the Last Two Decades
“We couldn’t work anywhere else because we had patrolling duty,” another wildlife guard said. “Some people took loans of Rs. 50,000-1,00,000 and some asked school authorities to let them pay fees after salaries are credited,” he added.
"Poverty in these regions is at a different level,” Singh pointed out. “There’s severe unemployment. Dampa [Tiger Reserve] is a source livelihood and also pride,” she added.
As for the five guards who have not been rehired, the field director cited the reason as misconduct.
“After the strike, we received four months’ salary. If we don’t receive the remaining salary by the end of the month, we’ll go on strike on May 1,” the wildlife guard with over 15 years experience said. Incidentally, May 1 happens to be International Workers’ Day.
Note: Identities of wildlife guards and one of their wives who have been interviewed for this piece has not been revealed for fear of retaliation.
(The writer is an independent journalist.)