Armed with just batons, forest guards say ill-equipped to take on bootleggers
A day after four forest officials on patrol at the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary were attacked by over two dozen men, suspected to be liquor smugglers, senior forest officials said this was the second such attack in the past three months and that they were ill-equipped to stop these attacks in the absence of proper protective gear and weapons.
On Thursday night, the four foresters were beaten up, threatened, and their vehicles damaged by the gang of suspected bootleggers. On the same day, Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, for the first time, issued a uniform code for the city’s forest department. However, the notification only makes provision for “a cane stick/polycarbonate baton” for forest guards to perform their duties.
In June this year, the department’s ecological task force, which is tasked with protecting land reclaimed from encroachers and carrying out plantation, was attacked by around 20 men in Dera Mandi in south Delhi. Foresters say such attacks have become frequent of late.
Senior forest officials said the south division recently procured some protective gear, including batons and armour suits, to stave off encroachers, but the department needs more manpower and weapons to take on smugglers and trespassers.
“The kind of tasks that our teams undertake often result in them receiving violent threats and coming under attack. Encroachers and smugglers who want to use forest lands for illegal activities do not shy away from violence. What can a lone forester with a baton do if people surround him with knives and guns? In other states, the forest department is as powerful as the state police department -- they have uniforms, weapons and even have the power to arrest culprits. In Delhi, we are toothless,” said a senior forest official, requesting anonymity.
Deputy conservator forests (south division) Amit Anand said after Thursday’s attack the department is discussing with Delhi Police the possibility of joint patrolling in the Asola sanctuary. “We have written to the police to see if we can conduct joint patrolling in the sanctuary from now. We have got reports that these smugglers are now moving around with desi kattas (countrymade firearms) and while we are not compromising our patrolling during the day, at night, the risks are far higher,” Anand said.
A petition filed before the National Green Tribunal in December 2020 highlighted that in 2019, five incidents of threats and assaults on forest officials were reported. In one such incident, a group of nearly 200 people surrounded a forest office and threatened to kill a ranger.
Anand said Thursday’s attack was in “retaliation” to the forest department’s crackdown on liquor smuggling from Haryana to Delhi via the Asola sanctuary. Since the outbreak of Covid, which resulted in Delhi liquor shops remaining shut for a long time owing to lockdowns and curfews, cases of bootlegging increased from across state borders, especially in areas near the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary.
The smugglers started using the forest routes to bring in large quantities of liquor from Haryana, forest officials said.
Foresters said smugglers have carved out dirt paths through the forest to connect illegal liquor vends in Haryana to Sangam Vihar in Delhi, from where the contraband is distributed to other localities. Since liquor is cheaper in Haryana as compared to Delhi, this is a viable business for many bootleggers in Sangam Vihar, forest officials said.
However, over the last year, the forest department started cracking down on these smugglers by scouting their routes and increasing patrolling. In the past two months, the department seized a large number of alcohol crates and liquor-laden vehicles during patrolling.
Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder and CEO of wildlife protection NGO, Wildlife SOS, said, “...when movement of vehicles and people is allowed in a sanctuary, it not only poses a physical risk to animals, but also disturbs their movement and foraging patterns. Most wild animals are nocturnal and generally use the same route, and are impacted by human activities.”