Minaram Gogoi knows a thing or two about flying, although he had never been on a plane until last month. When the 35-year-old boarded a flight from Guwahati to Delhi to receive the Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award in March, it turned out to be an experience he wouldn’t forget soon.
Employed as a forest guard at Assam’s Nameri National Park, Gogoi is an uncrowned expert on the birds of eastern India. However, his brief acceptance speech was in stark contrast to the carefully curated video presentations that came before him. He simply thanked the organisers for the recognition, and then requested that his job be made regular.
“I have worked in Nameri for almost 17 years, but my job has not been made regular till today,” he said after receiving the award. “It is very difficult for us.”
Gogoi is employed in the capacity of a daily wage labourer at the national park, earning Rs 7,000 a month. If appointed as a regular employee, his salary will rise to Rs 15,000 – going a long way in providing for his wife and seven-year-old son.
According to an Assam government advertisement from December 2016, forest guards get anywhere between Rs 5,200 and Rs 20,200 as monthly pay. However, to be formally inducted as a forest guard, the minimum qualification required of a candidate is a degree in higher secondary education. According to Gogoi’s supervisors, this is the very factor preventing him from landing a regular job with the forest department.
Data acquired from the environment and forest ministry shows that India relies heavily on daily wage labourers like Gogoi to safeguard its forests and wildlife sanctuaries. In some tiger reserves, they constitute over 50% of the labour force.
Born in a village near Kaziranga National Park, protecting wildlife has been a part of Gogoi’s life from the start. Being a Class 3 dropout, he does not know how to read and write properly. However, that hasn’t prevented him from “mastering” the language of the birds.
Over the years, Gogoi has taught himself to identify avians by travelling with avid bird watchers who frequent the park. “There are 374 bird species in Nameri, and I can identify 300 of them,” he said with evident pride.
During the off-season, Gogoi assists in patrolling and anti-poaching activities. His day, which starts at 6 in the morning, usually involves moving through the park on foot, elephant or boat.
In recent months, conservation efforts in the region have come under scrutiny due to a BBC documentary alleging that forest guards at the Kaziranga National Park are given “shoot-at-sight” powers. Calling for a broader understanding of the human-wildlife conflict, critics have argued that forest guards – foot soldiers in the war against poaching – are mostly underpaid and overworked.
People from various sections of the wildlife conservation space came together at the Zeiss Awards. Among the other awardees recognised this year were Delhi-based bird watcher Nikhil Devasar, photojournalist Kalyan Varma, bird veterinarian Rina Dev, Keoladeo National Park deputy conservator Bijo Joy and lifetime conservationist Bholu Abrar Khan.
The award, instituted by leading optics manufacturer Zeiss, is now in its 17th year. Conservationists from all walks of life had flocked in Delhi for the evening.
Gogoi left the capital the day after, on an early morning flight. He had an award in his kitty, but sadly, not the promise of a regular job.