Frontline workers await wages as Arunachal yet to release central fund and state share for tiger reserves

[Tongam Rina]

ITANAGAR, 19 Apr: The state government is yet to release the second installment of funds received from the Project Tiger division of the union environment, forests & climate change ministry and the state’s matching share of 10 percent for Kamlang, Pakke and Namdapha tiger reserves.

The Centre had released 24 percent of the 50 percent second installment of the fund for the 2020-21 financial year to the state exchequer in January this year. The total amount of the second installment is Rs 262.30 lakhs for the three reserves.

The grant-in-aid is not given to the reserves directly by the state government as it is routed through the finance department, which is not always prompt in granting concurrence.

The state government had delayed in releasing the first installment of the central fund and its matching share too as it released the fund between October 2020 and March 2021 for the three tiger reserves.

The Centre released the first installment of the grant-in-aid to the three reserves in June 2020.

Namdapha Tiger Project officials say that they got the first installment only in March 2021 from the state, even though the Centre released the amount in June last year.

The employees of Namdapha were paid their wages for one year, including the arrear, at a time in April this year. The employees had not been paid for one whole year.

Pakke TR got the fund in October 2020, following which the employees were paid in November. The employees have not been paid since.

Kamlang officials say that half of its employees have been paid but the second installment is awaited, which it expects soon.

The forest department says that it had written to the finance department, seeking release of the funds in January for the second installment, but was told to seek the funds after the first quarter of the financial year.

“These details were not noted down but the file was returned since the state has no funds,” said an official of the department.

In April, the finance department asked the forest department to send an e-file for requisition of fund. The forest department says it will send the file again. This time it will send an e-file, keeping up with the style of functioning of the finance department.

Even as the state is sitting on the funds already released by the Centre and is unable to release the state’s matching share, forest department officials say that the department has written to the Centre for revalidation of the funds, so that it does not lapse.

While the finance department only accepts e-files and the state is yet to release the matching share, the delay has affected some 388 frontline staffers of the three tiger reserves who have been without salaries for months now.

Speaking to this reporter, one of the special tiger protection force (STPF) personnel said that he is struggling to send his three children to school.

“I have three school going children and I am unable to pay the fees,” he said. He has been employed for 12 years with the forest department and is now an STPF employee with a stipulated wage of Rs 14,000 per month. But even Rs 14,000 is rarely paid on time, so he, like many others, is forced to take loans from loan sharks who charge high interest rates, or borrow from family and friends.

The officers of the reserves say that unless the frontline employees are paid on time, it is futile to expect that the reserves will function effectively.

One of the officers said that in the absence of regular payment, the department cannot force the frontline staffers to come to work or not give leave of absence when sought.

Some of the frontline workers work as daily wagers during off days and sometimes even on workdays.

The casual employees were supposed to go on a protest in April, seeking monthly release of wages, but following an assurance from the forest minister, it has been postponed.

Speaking to this daily, Environment & Forests Minister Mama Natung said that he is aware of the hardships of the employees, and that the wages will be released by May.