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UPSC Essentials’ Get Inspired initiative explores essential lessons from the life journeys of great personalities. Aspirants must study the journey of great leaders, administrators, and reformers not only for the UPSC examination, but also in order to remain motivated in their own journey of preparation for the civil services and beyond. Here is one such personality whose life teaches us many values.
Brij Kishore Singh is a retired Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Head of Forest Force) of Karnataka and hailed as a hero of the Karnataka forest department. Looking back ten years after his retirement, Singh says when he got his first posting in 1978 in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, he had no idea that years down the line, he would encounter the dreaded smuggler Veerappan, who would end up playing a big part in Singh’s career. In 1990, B K Singh was a part of the team of officials that entered the forests to locate sandalwood stock near Silvekal when Veerappan and his gang opened fire at them, injuring two policemen, forcing them to abandon the operation. Singh’s book ‘Destroy Forests Destroy Life’ highlights many details about the operation.
In conversation with Manas Srivastava, B K Singh talks about the Veerappan episode and Indian Forest Services in general.
Just FYI: About Indian Forest Services – It is one of the three All India Services of the Union Government. Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS) are the other two. UPSC holds a test for selection to Indian Forest Service (Main) Examination, through Civil Services (Preliminary) Examination, 2023. To appear in the Indian Forest Services exams, a candidate requires a science or engineering bachelor’s degree. With the changed pattern of the exams, many students from science and engineering backgrounds find themselves in an advantageous position to aim for both Indian Forest Services and Indian Administrative services.
Manas: You are seen as a hero of Karnataka forests who once faced Veerappan’s bullets. Please share your experiences from your Veerappan diaries.
B K Singh: Let me narrate an incident of January 6, 1990. This was when I was Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) Kollegal. I along with Superintendent of Police (SP) Mysuru (Bipin Gopal Krishna), jurisdictional officers of both Departments, and reserve Police personnel totalling about 50 went to search huge quantity of sandalwood along with an informant stored in a place called Silvekal of Cowdhalli range. The informant told us that the stock was hidden in Karnataka on the left bank of river Palar. Me and my staff searched for the stock with the help of the informant but in vain. After the failure to seize the stock, the forest and police personnel assembled in the river bed and were chalking out further strategies to search and recover sandalwood. At that very moment, we were fired at by Veerappan’s gang members from the hillock abetting the river from the Tamil Nadu (TN) side. Palar River is the boundary between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This event is significant because it was for the first time the Karnataka Police were ever fired at, and two Policemen were injured in the firing. We ran towards our jeeps and sat covering our faces behind the tyres of the seven jeeps we had taken. Some of the Police personnel returned fire without sighting the enemy. We got into jeeps and moved away as we had two injured policemen.
It was only on February 22, 1990, Forest and Police personnel of two states regrouped. This time, Tamil Nadu Police had better informants and 65 MT of sandalwood was seized from Silvekal. 32 MT came to Karnataka and 33 MT to Tamil Nadu. Transportation of sandalwood from the spot continued on the second day as well.
Veerappan retaliated by burning two Tamil Nadu buses after he ordered the passengers to de-board. The bigger revenge however came on April 9, 1990, when Karnataka Forest and Police personnel in a jeep went to Hogenakkal for some relaxation. On their way back, they were ambushed by Veerappan and gang and were fired at. Three policemen were killed that day. Policemen were complacent and were not fully prepared to face any eventuality in case of Veerappan attacks.
Manas: What have been your most important takeaways and learnings from the whole Veerappan episode which you want the future officers and citizens in general to know?
B K Singh: Veerappan operated in vast and extensive forests of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on either side of River Kaveri. The forests are in a hilly range and had several strategically located hideouts in it. Road networks were poor and villages in those days were very few. (All villages have expanded and forests have shrunk subsequently.) After the big haul of sandalwood and seizure in February 1990 and the consequent several retaliations by Veerappan and the gang, the Police presence was increased by both states. In a nearly 15 years long battle, Veerappan inflicted a lot of casualties on officials from both states. Several ambushes were laid by him and members of patrolling parties lost their lives in gun battles.
The main takeaways from the operation were to focus on identifying ambush points, upgrading our physical fitness, securing weapons and maintenance, weapon training, etc. Forest personnel should always be patrolling the forests in all the nooks and corners. If inaccessible patches are neglected then they will be a paradise for miscreants and we will have cases of deforestation, encroachments, hunting, etc in such patches.
Manas: In your book and other interviews you have mentioned about the role of Police Services during the Verrappan operation. How important do you think it is for all connected services to collaborate and walk hand in hand?
B K Singh: Though quite late, the Police did join Veerappan’s operation. Still, it took 15 years before Tamil Nadu Police eliminated Veerappan in July 2004. Police personnel were not very good at patrolling forests, especially in inhospitable terrain, but their participation brought a surge in the level of intelligence collection. Veerappan’s main strength was walking in these hilly terrains, but one had to patiently wait till he moved into a habitation. Without the help of the Police Departments of the two states, it would have been difficult to get rid of the menace. The role of the Police is thus very important in jungle warfare. But in such situations, forest officers generally move away saying that the Police would take care of the criminals. It is a misplaced perception. Forest personnel must intensify patrolling, with the help of police, if necessary, then only the criminal will be truly cornered.
Manas: A former IFS officer P Srinivas is always mentioned whenever the story of Veerappan is unfolded. We saw it in the recent Netflix documentary on Veerappan too…
B K Singh: Late P Srinivas was a 1979 batch IFS officer who was very sincere, committed, and devoted to the conservation of forests and wildlife. Till he was alive, he was an important member of the taskforce to nab Veerappan. He was a Gandhian type of person and did not want any bloodshed in the operation. In 1990-91, he was responsible for the surrender of nearly three-fourths of hardcore members (about a dozen and a half) of Veerappan’s gang. He put pressure on these criminals through emotional appeals to their kith and kin. After these surrenders, Veerappan’s hard-core gang was reduced to six and he was cornered. Srinivas also contributed in many ways in the form of several development works for Gopinathan villagers. Gopinathan was the native village of Veerappan and Srinivas had won the heart of the entire village. He made a very sincere attempt to make Veerappan surrender; he established contact with his brother Arjuna but it misfired as Arjuna double-crossed between Srinivas and Veerappan. On November 10 1991, Srinivas walked without any Police help into the trap laid by Veerappan and Arjuna, where he was brutally gunned down and beheaded. I lost a wonderful colleague. Later, he was awarded Keerthi Chakra by the President of India.
Manas: Looking back ten years after your retirement, can you tell us what are the major challenges in this job? Is Indian Forest Services a stressful job?
B K Singh: Indian Forest Service is a little off the way. It is not in direct public glare like IAS/ IPS or any other civil service. It is quite an uphill task to secure forests and wildlife. Often, we experience that natural forests are receding and going farther away from habitation. Also, we witness that wildlife is losing habitats, and corridors and staying in human areas where they come into conflict with humans. Miscreants are often at work in forests and smuggling valuable tree species and poaching/ hunting wild animals for body parts/ trophies/ meat etc.; this at times becomes quite uncontrollable. Growing trees in areas outside recorded forests, in public lands, private land can have its own challenges. Thus, officers face challenges both inside and outside forests.
Manas: A popular and important question, how should one prepare for services like Indian Forest Services (IFS)?
B K Singh: This question may sound general as aspirants’ mentors may be telling them but the answer is very essential. Initially, when you look for a job, you respond to all advertisements. Your affinity for the job develops later. You prepare for the exam and interview, and it is a competition where you have to succeed. Clearing the UPSC exam depends on your sincerity and hard work. Once the preliminary exam is cleared, you have to follow old question papers and prepare for written exams. The degree of fondness for papers and subjects differs, thus you should be able to work on your weaknesses and score decently good marks in all the papers. The subjects liked by you should never be neglected. The best way to compete in the written exam is to score as close to the maximum as possible in one of the papers. This helps you in clearing the written exam. You can’t achieve your goal without good preparation, so you must prepare for the interview beforehand. As I said, it is a general question but very essential.
Manas: Almost all those who attempt for Indian Forest Services (IFS) also aim at IAS or IPS. How is IFS different from these services?
B K Singh: Many streams in the forest are alive during the rainy season only. If forests are destroyed in the catchment of a stream, it will affect the ecosystem immensely. The villages, dependent on this water, will suffer. The wrong action by IAS/ IPS can impact only a handful of persons and families, whereas the lethargy or wrong action on the part of IFS officers can impact the lives of so many villagers. IFS officers are not too much in the public glare, but nevertheless, they have to continue to work in the background for the good of society.
Manas: Let’s talk about Forests. Academically, we are all taught about forests and forest economics. You were in the fields or may I say in the forests. Why do you think forests are important, especially for India and how has it personally impacted you?
B K Singh: Ten years after my retirement I still teach “Forest Economics” at Karnataka Forest Academy as well as at Kundal Forest Academy Maharashtra. Apart from the direct value for timber and non-timber Forest products (NTFP), forests provide many ecological services such as water, oxygen, etc. Trees absorb carbon dioxide in photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight. We know how much coal and oil we are burning and releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Transition to clean energy has not picked up the speed and scale and trees are the cheapest method of soaking carbon dioxide. Unprecedented deforestation has made matters worse. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degree Celsius and further warming will make climatic catastrophes more frequent and destructive.
IFS officers are responsible for society and should not only preserve their natural forests but should ensure that more trees are grown on public and private lands. Once you love the job, you tend to remain in the forests for its preservation and conservation.
Manas: A lot of times we hear complaints revolving around recruitment processes. Do you think there is a need for some changes that are required in the recruitment process and service in the Indian Forest Services?
B K Singh: I always believe in the system. Whatever you do, those who are bright in the subject will get selected. In my opinion, no change in recruitment is required, but there can be some minor changes in their training to make them aware to connect with the communities and take people along. All those who prepare for this service and finally become a part of it must remember that forests can mitigate climate change’s impact, but society should not lose faith because it is a very slow process.
Manas: How important is it to recognise the efforts of Indian Forest Services officials? Is the governments able to give this Service its due?
B K Singh: IFS personnel had a great role in checking and minimising the degradation and fragmentation of forests. They have had an equally good role in the conservation of wild animals. Recent reports indicate that the country has registered a good number of tigers and elephants and is at the forefront vis-a-vis other tiger ranges and elephant countries are concerned. I always believe that IFS has got a good deal from the Government.
Manas: What has IFS taught you that you want to share with the next generation?
B K Singh: There is a big hunger for land in this country. Common lands, revenue lands, and wastelands are all used up. Forest lands are also being diverted for Government projects and rehabilitation of displaced families from irrigation and power project sites. The Forest Rights Act 2006 provides for recognition of rights for those tribal in its occupation till December 13, 2005, and other traditional forest dwellers for 75 years as of this day. This law has opened a floodgate of clearing trees, ploughing forest lands, and then claiming rights. In our set up it is difficult to reject any claim. The next generation must strive to prevent the grabbing of forest lands and preserve forests for ecological services, carbon soaking, and saving society from viruses and bacterial diseases. Don’t forget that the world has faced a pandemic recently.
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