They are not quite out of the woods as yet. Indeed, they haven't even got into them so far. And it's still a huge achievement. The 11 young people here will be the first women Foresters to come out of the Central Forest Rangers College in Chandrapur this March. (No longer 'Central' since this rangers training college has been back with Maharashtra for years now.) They are the first women to graduate from here.

They are mostly girls from rural Maharashtra. From places such as Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, and Yavatmal and not from the big cities.

It's a huge advance and they know it. "This is the only field where women were not there. Now they are," says Amrapalli Khobragade from Chandrapur. And they are quick to tell you "there were 47,000 applicants for this course to become foresters. We made it." Of that giant pool of aspirants, only 524 were shortlisted. A mere 33 made the final cut including the women we are now talking to.

Not an easy task

It wasn't easy. Among the many tests they went through was a 16-km walk. They did it, even Yogita, who comes under the 40 per cent disability group. It won't be easy when they get into the woods either. Theirs is a hundred per cent field job. Wildlife is just part of it. So is protection, conservation, and management of the forests. They will have to conduct raids, do night patrolling in jungles, take on poachers, the timber mafia, and other well-armed adversaries. They could even clash with gun-toting naxals in this region.

"Many in our clan told my father - who is in the police - that it was ridiculous to let me go to the jungles. 'She should have been married off by now.' they said. My father replied that looking at some of the young men around, I would be safer amongst the tigers."
"Yes, it is dangerous," says Amrapalli. "But there is no place where there is no risk. We will meet that challenge." And, they point out, "we've already been in such tasks while on field training."

They will rank below Range Forest Officers (RFOs) who are gazetted officers. And above the Forest Guard. It takes 20 years for a Forester to become an RFO. (And an equal number of years for the Guard to hit Forester rank.) When confirmed by the Maharashtra Forest Department, they will earn around Rs.8,000 a month. Their educational background varies, with some of them still doing their B.A. And with a few, like Kushal Rangari, who is a B.E. (Electronics & Telecom) from Yavatmal. There is Sheetal Gedam who has a Masters in Social Work from Chandrapur. And Surekha Dahikar, a civil engineer from Yavatmal.

Some are quite frank that if fields they are more interested in open up to them, they would go there. But while in this service, says Kushal, "I would like to use my telecom and electronics background to the maximum." Others are here and intend to stay. They love the field. Three of the eleven are married.

There is a strong common factor. All these young women speak proudly of liberal families. Particularly of supportive fathers. "Girls in my community get married very early," says Lalita Suryavanshi. "Many in our clan told my father - who is in the police - that it was ridiculous to let me go to the jungles. 'She should have been married off by now.' they said. My father replied that looking at some of the young men around, I would be safer amongst the tigers."

Others tell such stories, too. "My father is an RFO in Sironcha," says Madhumati Tawde. "As a very young girl, I saw him come back from dangerous raids. He had seized timber from gangs, fought armed poachers. Worked in naxal territory. It was exciting and I thought: I can do this, too. Otherwise, I would have been a teacher, I think." Amrapalli's father had "no forest background. But he always told me I could do anything men did and do it better."

Seema Gore is married to a peon in the Forest Department. "He went out and got the application form for me to fill out and encouraged me to do it," she says. "I knew nothing about the forest. Today, I know that only one in a thousand applicants made it. It means a lot." They say College Principal S.P. Wadaskar is supportive and has helped them grow. He sees them as: "Willing and good learners. They have shown character and strength."

Not all are so excited about the development, though. Some senior officers say "This is the outcome of the government's policy of trying to get 30 per cent of women in all categories. Good in itself, but this is a field job in the jungle. And it may not be good for women." That some of the top police officers in the country who have seen very dangerous work are also women cuts no ice. However, there is a general acceptance even at this level that it's a step forward. The new foresters, anyway, don't waste time thinking about that. "We don't want pity or sympathy," says Amrapalli. "Nor office duty or 'safe' chores. Watch us."

All of them are conscious they will be seen as role models. "During our field tour," says one, "there was this constable telling his little daughter: 'See those women? If you study well, you can also be one of them.'"

Meanwhile, in the jungle about two hours away, much lower down the ladder, is Kranti Naitam, a forest guard. She has been a 'beat guard' inside the jungle. And is right now a 'gate guard' at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Kranti is a Punjabi married to a Gond Adivasi who is also a forest guard. Her father came to this remote region as a Partition-era refugee nearly six decades ago. And has presided over inter-caste marriages for all his five children. On Kranti's turf no mobile phone works. There is no theatre nor television. No friends or relatives nearby to visit. The job of gate guard, she says, has been uneventful. As a beat guard earlier, she was part of a team that fought and arrested a gang that had killed a tiger. In short, she's done some of those jobs that 'may not be good for women.' But it's a service that's changing. And the women are more than good for the job.