Deban (Changlang): New year did not bring cheer to the over 120 employees of the Namdapha Tiger Reserve (NTR) who are waiting for their salary since April 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
Officials blame the lack of funds for the mess, as the money meant for the protected area remains allegedly stuck in a bureaucratic red tape spanning all the way from New Delhi to state capital Itanagar.
“We have not received any funds from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) this financial year,” Tapek Riba, Field Director at the Namdapha Tiger Reserve, told EastMojo.
“The ‘casual staff’ of 128 contractual employees have not been paid their salaries since April last year,” said Riba adding his office has sent several reminders to the concerned officials for the release of said funds.
Flanked by the Patkai Hills in the South and the East and the Himalayas in the North, the 1,985 square kilometres of the tiger reserve in Changlang, the easternmost corner of India, is part of the Indo-Myanmar Global Biodiversity Hotspot. The elevation of the protected area that forms the tiger reserve ranges from a meagre 150 metres above sea-level to an astonishing 4,500 metres above the sea-level.
This elevational gradient entails the protected area has a variety of habitats. It is home to the northernmost tropical rainforests in the lower elevation, sub-tropical and temperate montane forests at the mid-level elevations, and alpine forests in the higher reaches.
It is home to over 1,000 species of plants and 90 species of mammals, which includes nine small and large cat species including tigers, seven species of primates and another 15 species of civets and mongoose.
The national park is also an Important Bird Area and plays host to 491 species of birds, including 11 of the 21 species of the range-restricted globally threatened species of the eastern Himalayas, one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots in the world.
The report of the 4th Cycle of Management Effective Evaluation of the Tiger Reserves in India done in 2018 notes how poaching by communities residing around the protected area and hunting of large predators such as tigers, leopards and musk deer by poachers from Myanmar are the biggest threats. The report noted how the protection strategy is not effective. The last tiger census of 2018 reported 29 tigers in Dibang, Kamlang and Namdapha reserves, and experts say the numbers could grow if the area was better protected.
Yet, the tiger reserve is grossly understaffed with a meagre 175-strong workforce, of which 47 are regular employees and 128 are casual staff. Over 80 per cent of the tiger reserve’s area remains unexplored, and parts of it are inaccesible due to difficult terrain. On the other hand, the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve in neighbouring Assam, about half its size, has a 1,500-strong workforce.
In May 2019, the NTR management let go of 53 contractual workers to cut down on expenses. “Considering the delays in receiving the funds, we did a performance audit and let go the underperforming employees,” Riba said.
This led to a bigger staff crunch and forced the management to re-hire a few of them, he added.
Other than being a gross violation of their human and labour rights, non-payment of wages has understandably demoralised the NTR workforce.
“Protection is not easy in this dense forest. There are very few of us who are working as guards,” said a member of the special tiger protection force (STPF) who also works as a guide to take tourists around. As the park shuttered its gates to tourists during the pandemic, the extra money that he used to make through the visitors also dried up.
“Life has been difficult. We have barely managed to survive by borrowing money and buying essentials on credit,” he said.
The skilled casual employees are paid a monthly salary of Rs 11,000-17,000, while the unskilled ones are paid anywhere between Rs 10,000-16,000. Most of them belong to communities residing in the periphery of the NTR. A few of them told EastMojo how they have no additional sources of income to take care of their families when the salaries are not paid on time.
An official said it is difficult to demand commitment from the contractual workers when they have not been paid for months. “Many of them are busy looking for other part-time jobs to make ends meet,” the official said.
These casual employees were not paid wages for all of the previous financial year, until July 2020, when salaries were finally released as a one-time settlement after intervention by the state government.
“The state government intervened after complaints from workers and released the salary as a one time grant in July,” said Riba.
According to NTCA documents reviewed by EastMojo, funds amounting to Rs 3.57 crore were approved through a letter issued on November 11, 2020. The said letter also mentioned a sanctioned release of Rs 1.61 crore as the first installment of the funds for 2020-21. In comparison, Rs 29.11 crore was approved for Kaziranga on August 6, 2020 and the sanction granted for release of the first installment of Rs 10.98 crore.
Officials of the state and the Centre seemed to pass the buck.
W Longvah, who heads the eastern zone of the NTCA, said delays in Itanagar have complicated the matter of payment of dues.
“There was a delay in release of the 2019-2020 budget from Itanagar. For 2021, it had to be revalidated from New Delhi so that they can use it in this financial year. Then the revalidation took time,” he said explaining the delay. “Fund utilisation certificates are not submitted on time, which leads to delays,” he said.
While the current year’s sanctioned amount has already been released, it is now stuck in Itanagar. “We are pushing for the early release,” Longvah said.
“We release the funds as and when we receive it from the Centre,” said RK Singh, PCCF and Principal Secretary, Department of Environment and Forest, Arunachal Pradesh.
“The first installment was released recently,” he said. “They may have had some issues,” he added.
Riba, meanwhile, rubbished allegations of delay in submission of fund utilisation certificates as baseless. He said the central grant of the sanctioned amount for NTR has only reached the state government’s exchequers on December 25, 2020 and that it will take another two months before the salaries could be paid.
The first installment may not be enough to pay the pending salaries. “We might be only able to pay for nine months because the total amount of salaries due is higher than the sanctioned amount,” Riba said.
“Now that the money has come, they will receive the salaries soon,” Singh said.
Salaries are not the only thing held up in the absence of funds. “Besides wages, we are not able to go forward with conservation measures and other plans to develop the facilities in the national park,” Riba said.
“Everything depends on money. Our hands are tied without it,” he said.