At the remote Panoth forest outpost on the Kozhikode-Wayanad border, a young tribal woman officer stood guard, unarmed and alone, as a suspected Maoist group came visiting the Vayad tribal colony next door.
The Panoth camp shed is on a small hillock at the entry to the Wayanad forests. A narrow concrete post, originally meant to fix streetlights, acts as a bridge linking the borders. A jungle stream fed by a waterfall up in the peaks of the Western Ghats flows between, onwards in its journey to the Kuttiadi river.
Gauri V.R., a slim woman in her mid-twenties and armed with a shy smile, did not leave her outpost on November 1 evening when the “Maoists” arrived at the colony, just a few metres uphill from the camp shed. She had even refused to change her beat forest officer (BFO) khakis into civilian clothes to escape detection by the group of five.
They declared themselves as Maoists, collected provisions from the tribal people and spent about two hours there before retreating into the forest.
“I was scared for her. We sent word through someone that an armed group is in our colony and she should be careful. But she did not flinch. Luckily, they did not go the way of the camp shed,” Bini Mol A.N., Ms. Gauri’s sister-in-law and tribal promoter for the colony, voices her relief.
Ms. Gauri’s in-laws live in the colony. Her husband, P.A. Kunjumon, is also with the Forest Department.
The couple had left the colony and built a small house overlooking the camp shed. The house is on the Kozhikode side in the Naripetta panchayat limits. Every morning, Ms. Gauri crosses the beam-bridge to work in Wayanad.
In the afternoons, she speaks to her five-year-old daughter over the border, admonishing her softly to eat on time and take her afternoon nap.
“I am alone. Four months ago, two of my colleagues got a transfer and left. I may need three or four more staffers,” Ms. Gauri says.
Her outpost is the last on the border and comes under the Kunjhom forest station, which watches over 3,600 hectares of forest. The station is 50 km from the Panoth camp shed by vehicle. Through the forests, it is just 6 km away.
“The border is important for us. It covers a vast area, touching Kannur, Kozhikode and Wayanad districts. It also links three inter-State borders. That is one can take the Muthanga forest route to Wayanad to Karnataka and, on the other hand, take the Nilambur forest route to Tamil Nadu,” M. Yussiff, Forest Range Officer, says.
But the Forest Department here is grossly understaffed to meet the challenges the forest throws at it. In Kunjhom station, there are only eight beat forest officers. In Kuttiadi, where Mr. Kunjumon works, there are only 14.
“There are only 3,600 of those officers in the department. We are men and women who walk through the forests. We have no guns, no protection. When we go for forest patrolling, we carry a small knife to protect ourselves. There is no point talking about it,” he says.
Mr. Yussiff, however, says there are rifles in the forest stations.
Even the tribal watchers, who scout the forests and act as guides during patrols, are seldom paid wages.
“Earlier experienced watchers from the colony like Kuttiyarappan and Valiyarappan would accompany us. Now they are reluctant, understandably so,” Ms. Gauri says.
Asked if she finds it dangerous to work alone after the November 1 visit, Ms. Gauri shrugs as if the question is improper. She replies that she walked into this job with her eyes open.
“I cannot complain,” she says as she picks up her daughter.