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Monday , November 26 , 2012
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Wheels for tiger lair, no funds for fuel
Cash crunch grounds existing fleet at Palamau

Ranchi, Nov. 25: A fleet of 20 motorcycles and two SUVs was delivered to the state’s lone tiger hub yesterday, inviting questions from staffers about who would foot the fuel bills in cash-starved Palamau Tiger Reserve.

A gift from Mumbai-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Trust, the latest donation is one of the biggest in aid of tiger conservation in the state. “Yes, we received the donation and it would be of great help for patrolling activities,” confirmed divisional forest officer (core) Premjit Anand.

The terrain is tricky and uneven in the 1,129.93sqkm reserve, making it difficult for the aged foot soldiers, mostly contract workers who have not been paid for months, to monitor and patrol on a daily basis.

The motorcycles would be given to guards and foresters, among other frontline staff, so that they can access remote areas with greater ease. The two SUVs would probably remain at the two divisional offices (core and buffer), said officials.

There are at present six SUVs at the tiger reserve besides three open mini-trucks for patrolling activities. The new fleet is expected to increase mobility in the reserve, which in recent times has been in the news for illegal timber smuggling and poaching attempts.

While senior officials at the forest department are enthusiastic about the new additions, claiming it was months of pursuing the NGO that bore fruit, a section of employees at the reserve is wary — seeing the fleet as an added burden.

“There is no doubt we need more vehicles for patrolling, but where will the fuel to drive the 20 motorbikes and two SUVs come from? Today, we are giving them bikes, tomorrow they will naturally want fuel,” said a senior official of the reserve.

His concern is not unfounded given the sorry state of affairs at the tiger reserve. Most of the time, the existing vehicles remain grounded due to paucity of funds to buy fuel.

Around Rs 2.50 crore has been earmarked for the reserve this fiscal — Rs 1 crore from the Centre from which salaries for casual staff, tiger protection force, maintenance activities of reserve areas etc are to be undertaken. The remaining is to be borne by the state and Centre on a 50:50 basis. But the reserve has not received any funds this year.

According to reports, till September, the tiger reserve’s Betla range alone had procured items like firecrackers, kerosene etc worth over Rs 60,000 on credit to protect villagers from rampaging elephants. Given the fact that the reserve covers eight ranges, the debt estimate was to the tune of Rs 5 lakh on this front.

Similarly, sources said pending petrol bills amounted to over Rs 50,000.

Now, each motorcycle would need at least a litre of petrol daily for patrolling. At Rs 68 per litre, the reserve authorities would need to spend Rs 1,360 per day on the bikes. It would take another Rs 2,000 per day to use four SUVs.

The reserve has around 100 staff — including casual workers and half a dozen ex-armymen who make up the special tiger protection force. Each casual worker is given Rs 125 per day, while the former armymen get Rs 10,000 per month.

“They have not received their salaries for months. We need Rs 5-6 lakh urgently to pay them and clear other liabilities. This apart, timely activities like grassland development, creation of trenches, road etc suffer due to delay in funding. It’s an every year affair here which we have to deal with,” said an official.

While forest minister Sudesh Mahto’s phone was switched off, forest secretary Alka Tiwari did not answer calls from The Telegraph today.

Joint secretary in the forest department Ravindra Prasad, however, said two months ago Rs 83 lakh had been sanctioned for the tiger reserve.

“We only sanction funds. The allotment is to be done by the principal chief conservator of forests,” said Prasad. Ideally, the copy of allotment has to be sent to the secretariat to keep track of funds flow.

Prasad added that the government of India was yet to sanction a work plan sent by the wildlife wing.

“Once that is approved, and we get a copy, the state and Centre will release their respective share of funds,” he said.

Notably, the state forest department even initiated steps to procure cycles for forest workers in February this year, but the initiative fizzled out at the tender floating stage itself.