The second wave of the pandemic has claimed many of the valuable employees of the IFS ranging in rank from senior officers to daily wagers. But unfortunately, although the forest departments of several protected areas have requested the administration to include foresters in the list of frontline workers, no action has been taken in this regard. As a progressive nation, it is our duty to address the issues and protect the protectors of our ecological wealth.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare personnel and frontline workers like armed forces, police personnel, municipal workers (excluding HCWs), revenue officials, disaster management volunteers, civil defence volunteers, home guards, and prison staff were given priority vaccination. However, the Indian Forest Service (IFS) and other forest employees (including over 3,000 officers and 25,000 field staff) were excluded from the list of frontline workers. These people are responsible for guarding the protected areas, the last intact ecosystems in India, and it is inevitable to protect the protectors of the ecological wealth of India. The protected areas cover only around 5% of the country’s total land area. Yet, they offer safe refuge to thousands of species of flora and fauna at risk of extinction.
Despite the important role they play in safeguarding India’s ecosystems, the forest departments in the Indian states are plagued by multiple issues. They are often understaffed and under-equipped. Their work involves dealing with both wild animals and forest or forest-fringe dwelling human communities, including particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). Their work brings them in close contact with large mobs while rescuing wildlife straying into human settlements. They act as the buffer between humans and wildlife trying to mitigate wildlife-human conflict situations. They also need to deal with armed poachers, patrol vast wild terrains on foot, and deal with wildlife emergencies like forest fires. Physical and mental fitness is, thus, of utmost importance for IFS employees. Hence, their susceptibility to the COVID-19 disease is a matter of great concern.
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Worldwide, there have been scattered reports of zoo animals, like tigers and lions, catching the coronavirus infection. Hence, the disease spreading into our wild animals also cannot be completely ruled out. If it happens, it could eliminate the affected species, completely nullifying the decades of efforts made to protect the same. Thus, forest staff who often deal with wildlife rescues and rehabilitation bringing them in contact with wild animals must be given priority vaccination.
The good health of India’s forest department staff is vital to India’s economic progress. The foresters are responsible for preventing the exploitation of our forests that give us essential ecosystem services. The forests purify the air, influence rainfall, lower temperatures, give birth to many rivers, sustain local communities who depend on forest produce for their livelihoods, support the wildlife tourism industry, and more. If the forest staff fall ill, the guard on the forests is lost. Thence, No one will be left to monitor the happenings in the protected areas leaving our flora and fauna vulnerable to illegal logging and poaching activities. Ultimately, the loss of ecosystem services offered by these forests will impact our country’s economy in the long term.
So, it becomes quite clear that the health of India’s forest staff must be a concern of top priority and they must be treated as frontline workers for COVID-19 vaccination and healthcare support. But unfortunately, although the forest departments of several protected areas have requested the administration to include foresters in the list of frontline workers, no action has been taken in this regard. And the second wave of the pandemic has claimed many of these valuable employees of the IFS ranging in rank from senior officers to daily wagers.
Worse still, in a recent shocking incident, the District Health Officer of Mysuru issued notice to his subordinates for vaccinating Forest Department personnel on the grounds; that they were not frontline workers. A senior official in the forest department claimed that only a handful of staff who were in constant touch will the public were vaccinated as they had a high risk of contracting the virus.
This lack of concern towards the health and well-being of forest staff of India reflects the general apathy of government and policymakers towards India’s forests and wildlife. The fact that our country lacks a long-term vision of economic growth and development becomes clear as such progress is impossible when a country’s ecological wealth is at stake.
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