It’s all in a day’s work for Satovisha Samajder, now DFO Balod: searching for illegal timber kingpins, reclaiming encroached land in reserved forest areas, handling human-bear conflict situations, finding workable alternatives to problems, and developing, educating and employing tribals. The Divisional Forest Officer in Chattisgarh stays undeterred by challenges, considering them to be part of her job. She has even earned recognition from the UN for making Durg in Chattisgarh an open defecation free district.
It was a typical day at work for Satovisha Samajder, a Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Janjgir–Champa, Chhattisgarh, but things changed unexpectedly in seconds. It was in July 2017. She was on one of her rounds in the forests of Chhattisgarh, in search of an illegal timber kingpin, when Satovisha chanced upon a house with its gates open.
“I saw a person inside, who hurriedly began closing the doors the moment he saw my vehicle. My driver and I ran towards the gate and forced ourselves in. As soon as we entered, the gate suddenly closed behind us and we found ourselves surrounded by people armed with weapons. “I was so scared! I didn't know what to do,” recalls Satovisha. Thinking on her feet, Satovisha immediately dialled the IPS in the region and put him on speaker. Over the phone, the IPS told everyone off.
Highly motivated, Satovisha says such incidents do not deter her from protecting the forest at all. The fearless forest officer of 10 years has taken up the fight against anyone standing in the way of protection of forests and wildlife. “Challenges are a big part of being in this role,” she claims. During her previous postings as DFO, Janjgir–Champa, a district in Chhattisgarh, she reclaimed around 400 hectares of encroached land in reserved forest areas.
Sathovisha Samajder at the illegal timber raid in Bilaspur
“Getting political support for Forest is difficult and develops with time. It is a self-driven battle, I motivate myself and do what I must,” says Satovisha, who has also been working in the region to bring down cases of bear conflicts. “Conflict situations can easily culminate in the death of an animal: a mob has the tendency to kill animals in a conflict situation. However, I have never let a bear die in my division,” says Satovisha, whose presence in bear rescue operations gives a shot in the arm to the people, in a heavily Naxal-affected area.
With a fair understanding of the landscape and the difficulties of working in such areas, she explains the Naxal issue: “Naxals negatively impact tribals by instigating them to hunt more, by instilling in them the thought that if not for the forest department, they could use the forest as much as they liked.”
Satovisha hails from Kolkata where she has grown up. She holds an honours in botany from Calcutta University. Then, she joined the Forest service batch of 2010. When she was younger, Satovisha aspired to be an anthropologist. Over time, she realised how the tribals of India have been portrayed in a negative light and thus felt the need to do something about it. This made her join the forest service. “For me, forests stand for the 3Ts: Tree, Tiger and Tribe. In today's world, forests cannot be shared anymore. So, I work relentlessly towards developing, educating and employing tribals,” says Satovisha.
Another highlight of her career was her work with the tribals during the time of Bastar Dussehra in Chhattisgarh. The longest festival in the world, as per tradition, requires huge amounts of timber to erect a machan (hut). Satovisha was the forest officer in the region during the festival in 2014. “I received a letter from the tehsildar of Jagdalpur, a city in the tribal district of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, demanding over 1000 Sal trees to construct a temporary hut for the festival. These trees take 30 years to grow, so I was not willing to give them any. I decided to offer them an alternative with eucalyptus trees, which takes lesser time to grow, are good for agroforestry and provide income to farmers. After some initial retaliation and political opposition, the matter got sorted out and the hut was constructed with eucalyptus trees,” she recalls. However, still uncertain about the outcome, she decided to patrol the forests of Machkot, a heavily Naxal affected area, for 11 nights to ensure no illegal tree felling. Satovisha also ensured that the money from the sold trees went to regenerating areas destroyed by deforestation. This decision was formed after inputs from many local communities in the area, understanding their plight and coming up with a reasonable alternative. With this, a 100 year tradition of cutting Sal trees was broken.
Health camp arranged for the locals of Chhattisgarh
This incident helped Satovisha understand the needs of the locals. With support from her superiors, she wanted to make sure they got what they deserved. She was also responsible for arranging a five-day health camp, where 4000 tribals were not only treated but seven cancer patients were cured, too. She later became the CEO Zilla Panchayat to look into the development of the district, making her the first IFS officer to do so after SDO training in Chhattisgarh. Thanks to her hard work and commitment, today, Durg today is an open defecation free (ODF) district. The effort was acknowledged by UN in a special letter, recognising her impressive work.
Her biggest inspiration, ever since she was young, was none other than Steve Irwin, “I used to stay glued to the television, watching him call dangerous animals “beautiful”, “pretty”, and “gorgeous.” It began to make me feel affectionate towards animals, too.”
Satovisha believes in the cause taken up by Greta Thunberg and recognises how children are coming forward to fight for the cause of the planet and demanding a better future. She understands the urgency to conserve water and the importance of sustainable livelihood methods.
Written by Anisha Iyer