Why are we killing our forestry Institutions !

VK Bahuguna

February 28, 2023, 07:27:11   

Why are we killing our forestry Institutions !

(Former Director General of ICFRE, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change)

Present Central government led by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is exceedingly doing well in several fields like in foreign affairs, finances and defense matters as never before and the entire world is aware of it but in many other critical spheres the government functionaries both at the political level as well as bureaucratic levels are excelling more in rhetoric than concentrating in implementing sincerely the policy objectives. One such case in point is in the field of forest and environmental conservation. Only if the Prime Minister takes interests and the PMO is pursuing the matter the officials work to achieve the goals. One such case of good work done recently by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change relates to bringing back the majestic beautiful Cheeta from Africa. Another good success relates to achievements of Nationally Determined Contributions on Paris Climate Change deal. In both these cases the Prime Minister had himself taken the initiatives. But a Prime Minister is not expected to run the entire government himself and it is up to the Minister in charge of the concerned department to oversee and take interest in cajoling his bureaucracy to perform. 

A news item published in a newspaper on 21st February 2023 surprised me completely when the administration of one of the flag ship institution of Ministry the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE)intimated the Pensioners that the pension payment will be stopped as funds have dried up and as and when funds are arranged it will be resumed. The ICFRE was created as an autonomous institution while reforming the world-famous Forest Research Institute in theyear 1991 ostensibly to allow it flexibility in taking day to day decisions and to get funds from international agencies like the World Bank. As the things stand today what actually the mandarins in the Ministry did at that time in 1991 was to kill a well-entrenched research organization in the name of granting it autonomy because at that time it was becoming a fashion to create autonomous organizations. The whole business of converting government organizations into autonomous societies had proved a retrograde step specially after the Finance Ministry realized that these bodies need not be funded from the Treasury but made self-reliant. It may be true in many cases but in critical sectors like agriculture, forests and environment it cannot work as these sectors need continuous government investments. The ICAR and CSIR as autonomous organizations survive because they also function as independent departments and the Directors of the individual institutes granted functional autonomy. It worked in their case. The creation of the ICFRE was part of the larger agenda of the then Environment and Forest Secretary TN Seshan who envisaged creation of ICFRE on ICAR and CSIR pattern so that a better futuristic infrastructure of administering the sector is created  to meet the new challenges. The 1st January 1990 resolution of the Ministry created the ICFRE with 8 regional institutes and the Indira Gandhi Forest Academy so that research and training of forestry professionals can be improved. Mr.Seshan also created regional offices of the Ministry, and these are the ears and eyes of the Ministry today and the best decision taken for a long time. These reforms are the biggest reforms in the sector in the post independent era. Though MrSeshan is known more for his tenure as Chief Election Commissioner but today I firmly believe that MrSeshan a tough IAS officer was in fact the best ‘Forester/ Environmentalist’ this country has seen at the helm of affairs for past several years because of his determination to achieve success and forest conservation benefited a lot. His vision is today showing results in administering the Forest and Environmental laws. However, except in case of ICFRE he could not create it the way he wanted it to be because he was transferred from the Ministry. When the Ministry in 1991 granted it autonomy the Cabinet note clearly mentioned that it will be on the lines of ICAR and CSIR. However, afterMrSeshanleft the Ministry the bureaucrats specially Secretaries  only functioned in isolated cocooned small groups rather than working jointly and hence promoted inefficiency and misdirection. I have vividly described in my book “Quest or Civility” as to how the ICFRE is being slowly killed by the Ministry with poor Ministers heading it and at the heavy cost to nation. The present situation is a sad commentary on the part of government when one notices that the right hand of the government does not know what left hand is doing or is not willing to move in seamless manner and promoting the left hand to go in opposite direction. 

The stoppage of pension in ICFRE is not a short-term problem but manifestations of a larger malaiseof how we run our institutions of national importance. In this case what is glaring is the violation of the commitment the Ministry has made in 1991 to the then central government scientists and staff that their pension and other benefits shall be protected under the CSS (Pension Rule) 1972 and believing this the employees opted for the autonomous ICFRE in 1992. In this process however, more than 800 scientist and staff did not opt and were sent to the surplus cell of the Personnel Ministry. It was in itself a big setback to the research set up. During my incumbency as Director-General I had ensured medical facilities and have been constantly pursued the issue of Pension and creation of Technical cadres with some success. The Ministry again in 2009 agreed for shouldering the pension liability of pre-ICFRE recruited employees. Now the question is why the Ministry and the ICFRE governing board headed by the Secretary and the apex body the Society headed by the Minister failed in steering the ICFRE smoothly and implementing the commitment. It shows that the people sitting on important positions in allocation of funds have neither sympathy nor competence to lead such institutions. I have tweeted to the Prime Minister for an inquiry how such lapse can happen because he himself has stated that Environmental Conservation is a deep commitment for his government. 

In order to improve the governance in key critical areaslike forest conservation it should end the saga of fake autonomy and bring back such institutions like ICFRE back to government foldbecause these institutions in the midst of climate change have tremendous prospects of improving the food and water securityas also the farmers earnings and livelihoods of our tribal people.There should be a complete ban on creation of autonomous bodies rather relook how we allow the heads of Departments to function. The central government must promote creation of separate Agro-forestry and Ecotourism departments in the states and focus on managing the natural bio-diversity through strengthening of working plans.This sector need a through relook and revisit its policy framework which only today Prime Minister can do.(1180 words)