Tuesday, March 8, 2016

37 Modernizing the Indian Forest Service-I. The crisis of confidence

The forest service as a vestige of the colonial regime

Scanning any writing on Indian forestry from the 1980s onward, will throw up repeated criticisms of the forest departments and especially of the Indian Forest Service. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the general tone and tenor of these declarations of non-confidence. The works of Gadgil and Guha (e.g. 1992; 2000), of course, are the quintessential statements of the position that the forest departments are a creation, and thus a vestige, of the overbearing and exploitative imperialistic regime in the erstwhile colonies like India. The labels so proudly applied to themselves by the members of the forest service, such as ‘scientific’, ‘modern’, ‘organized’, and so on, are in the eyes of these social historians and environmentalists, so many pejoratives. Other prominent writers in the same vein include Sharachchhandra Lele, who started off as a straight physical-organic researcher but metamorphosed into yet another social environmentalist (see the recent volume Democratizing Forest Governance in India, Lele and Menon, eds., 2014). There are numerous other authors whose names will be familiar to the reader, and need not be listed out here. Suffice it to say that thanks to this sustained campaign, the top-down ‘colonial’ strategy of forest conservation has been judged a failure, and the alternate bottom-up approach has been given constitutional status through the Recognition of Forest Rights Act (ROFR) 2006 which passes the power to legalize individual occupation and collective rights in notified forest to the general body of the village, the gram sabha.

A pdf of the entire article is available at https://www.academia.edu/24965216/Modernizing_the_Indian_Forest_Service_from_command_to_collaboration

This line of thinking is not restricted to a group of Indian environmentalists alone, as the general approach in world bodies like the UN and FAO has also veered round to the ‘empowerment’ paradigm in place of the old ‘command and control’ regime. Just to give one example: the Rio conference of 1992 (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992) brought out the “non-legally binding authoritative statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forest” or Annexure III (available at http://www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-3annex3.htm). These “Forest Principles” emphasize the need to examine forestry issues in a “holistic and balanced manner … taking into consideration the multiple functions and uses of forests, including traditional uses, and the likely economic and social stress when these uses are constrained or restricted…” (Preamble (c)). Forests should be “sustainably managed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations…” (Clause 1b). “Governments should promote and provide opportunities for the participation of interested parties, including local communities and indigenous people, industries, labour, non-governmental organizations and individuals, forest dwellers and women, in the development, implementation and planning of forest policies” (Clause 1d).

“National forest policies should recognize and duly support the identity, culture and the rights of indigenous people, their communities and other communities and forest dwellers.  Appropriate conditions should be promoted for these groups to enable them to have an economic stake in forest use, perform economic activities, and achieve and maintain cultural identity and social organization, as well as adequate levels of livelihood and well-being, through, inter alia, those land tenure arrangements which serve as incentives for the sustainable management of forests” (Clause 5a).
“The full participation of women in all aspects of the management, conservation and sustainable development of forests should be actively promoted” (Clause 5b).

And so on. These forest principles are carried forward by inter-governmental forums, such as the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), that “works closely with representatives of major group networks and organizations who function as focal points to facilitate their participation in the multi-stakeholder dialogues of the UNFF….that have specialized interest and expertise in forest related issues—such as associations of forest-products related businesses, organizations of young people who are students of forest management, or trade unions from the forest products related sectors” (UNFF webpage, http://www.unngls.org/index.php/engage-with-the-un/un-civil-society-contact-points/137-united-nations-forum-on-forests-unff).

Participants at the 11th session of the UNFF (5 to 15 May 2015) were being urged to “strengthen the global political commitment to sustainably manage one of the planet's most cherished resources…” According to the report on the World Agroforestry website (http://worldagroforestry.org/newsroom/media_coverage/un-forum-forests-calls-bold-action-and-international-cooperation), Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, said as he opened the session that "(T)he sustainable management of forests - in partnership with those who live in the forest regions - will be critical for meeting our ambition to eradicate poverty," and “stressed the need for the forest sector to be integrated in the sustainable development agenda at local, national, regional and international levels, with the broad participation of indigenous and local communities, and civil society groups, which possessed forest-related knowledge. In particular, he highlighted how women’s role in forests must be recognized and their participation in decision-making ensured” (ibid.).

It is, therefore, abundantly clear that the concept of sustainable forestry has moved far beyond the narrow sustained yield (of timber) of the mid-nineteenth century. A paper by Phil Janik (undated, but post-2012), Chief Operating Officer, USDA-Forest Service, has a useful chronology of these international declarations, and the US Forest Service response, although what is intriguing and interesting in this document is a “Preface” that states that Agenda 21 principles aim at the “redistribution of wealth” (to India and China), which is “contrary to the interests of the American people” and that its “consequences will be devastating to our national sovereignty, security, prosperity, and self-reliance”.

In many ways, the international opinion is reflected in the changes that have occurred in India’s own declared national forest policy (see Sarin, 2014, for the social environmentalist account of these). Most often, the forest service is made an independent villain of the scene, as it is assumed that it has actively worked to stifle dissent and consolidate its hold on its ‘territory’ (this a sizeable 20% of the land area).

Given this situation, the forest services may need to respond in some positive, constructionist, and synergistic fashion rather than adopting either an affronted silence, or reacting aggressively in a knee-jerk manner. Being a government service, there are definite limits on the types of response that the serving members themselves can adopt; since they are explicitly barred from using the press and media to “vindicate” their actions, they usually adopt a stoic silence to the barbs (Lele misinterprets this as the service having “closed ranks” against democratization and the FRA, and having “abandoned any constructive engagement with these questions”, see Lele & Menon, 2014, p.403).

Increasing scientific content and specialization in the forest service

A second demand made on the forest service is that it increase the scientific content of its activities. After all, the initial design of the superior forest services (set up in the British colonial era) was that the candidates should be graduates in science subjects. One form this expectation could take is that more scientific research goes into the silviculture and management decisions on the ground. Related to improving the scientific basis of forest operations is the recommendation that there be more specialization in the forest service.  This has been urged, for example, in the last National Forest Commission report (Government of India, 2006, p.255), where it was recommended that separate cadres be formed for each of the following subject streams: forest management, social forestry, wildlife, and research.

Forest officers have always been strongly against such a move to split up the service, which they have seen as leading to its fragmentation and weakening its effectiveness in the field. A DG Forests who was one of the co-authors of the Forest Commission report has indeed recorded a dissent note in no uncertain terms (Forest Commission Report, p.420). Long back, a forester from Bihar who was a well known wildlifer, S.P.Shahi, had written against splitting of the service (Shahi, 1977, reproduced in Thapar, 2001, 2006). In recent years, wildlife activists like Valmik Thapar have put pressure for the formation of a separate wildlife service. This has been again resisted by the forest service, which may even have a lingering suspicion that such moves are intended to break up the service and weaken it, thereby giving the wildlife and tourism lobbies an easier entry into positions of authority in the wildlife wing (especially when it is bolstered by the general rhetoric of the New Public Administration style, involving lateral entry of freelancers from the ‘civil society’ to the top positions in the ministries). The wildlifer lobby, in turn, has fallen back on demanding that if not a full-fledged Wildlife Service, at least only wildlife-trained persons be posted in national parks, and that wildlife researchers should be given a free run of the protected areas. Forest officers have been a bit leery of this last demand, seeing it as an unnecessary interference, and suspect that researchers sometimes pursue their subjects too intrusively (Sankhala, 2008, p.151).  

A third, related but fairly distinct, expectation is that members of the forest service be more  productive in terms of peer-reviewed publications. A prominent social environmentalist (I think Lele, but have been unable to trace the reference) commiserates with the forester who is able, at best, to produce some “semi-academic” writing. A much stronger attack is made by Ramachandra Guha (2012: p.5), where he upbraids the service for having failed to produce a single forester who “has made any kind of name or impact in the international community of scientists” in the hundred and more years of forestry research under state auspices. Other successful academics also frequently hold this up as a vindication of their loss of faith in the service: one prominent climate change specialist does not neglect to point out how he, as a lone researcher, has produced 300 papers on forests and climate change, whereas 300 so-called scientists  in the forest research institutes of the country have failed to produce even one such paper.

Source of forest service personnel

Another issue (the fourth so far) is the question of how foresters are recruited, and trained. Many years ago, this author had attended an FAO workshop at Santiago de Chile on forest education; the burden of that was that all over the world, forest services drew their personnel from amongst forestry degree holders, whereas India seemed to be the odd man out by sticking to the old colonial practice of  allowing graduates of all sorts of disciplines (but only from the science stream) to compete in the recruitment examinations. This is true even today, and is applicable as well to the subordinate levels like the Range Forest Officers (RFOs) and even Foresters. Whichever way it is looked at, the service is not ready to restrict candidates to the forestry degree holders, and in fact there was a certain unease at the disproportionate number of forestry graduates who were getting into the IFS in the past few years (there were insinuations that the optional forestry papers were being marked too liberally). A couple of years back, there was a consultation by the central minister for environment and forests about the proposal of opening out the IFS recruitment to non-science people as well; as this author remembers it, the service members were almost unanimous that it should not be done. The one small concession made was to recommend the post-graduate diploma of the Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal as a valid qualification for entering the competitive process. Another (and, for the forest service, a revolutionary) change was to put the IFS candidates through the same ‘preliminary’ test as the rest of the All-India Services and the Central Services, rather than have a completely independent series of examinations. This may have removed some of the unintended advantage to forestry graduates: if they were not as good as the rest, they would be screened out at the initial prelims. However, there is a residual concern that the general run of candidates passing through the prelims might not have forestry as a high priority, and may drop out later, leaving empty slots in each year’s cohorts. One would have to look at the actual numbers to judge this.

On the other hand, if the recruitment process is resulting in too many physical science and technology graduates entering, this may be a reason why critics like Valmik Thapar (Thapar, 2015) and others find a lack of commitment to conservation and a general lack of liveliness in the forest services (in comparison to, presumably, biology candidates). However, there is no guarantee that a biology graduate would necessarily be passionate about natural history and nature conservation, as they may have been conditioned by their training to favour the commercial or technological aspects of biological organisms (much as foresters tend to be partial to the business of forestry).

One possible explanation for the lack of bonhomie between civil society and government officials (‘babu-dom’)  is that apart from the stodginess and built-in inhibitions to open communication that characterize bureaucracies everywhere, there may also be a cultural factor operating here. The recruits to the services come from diverse regions and strata of society, with very middle class values and funny accents. On the other hand, the natural history writers and broadcasters may be over-representative of English-educated, urban, upper-crust people with independent sources of finance.

The barriers to open communication alluded to are diverse: being basically graduates from the science stream, the IFS officers (and the subordinate levels too, for that matter) tend to talk in terms of physical realities, and are not very conscious of socio-economic undercurrents, least of all the leftist and post-modernist jargon favoured by social environmentalists. The official etiquette, the primacy of the politician (and the IAS cadre), and the constant public exposure require the officer to maintain a poker face under all circumstances and exercise extreme circumspection in expressing personal views; any falling out of line or exhibition of uncalled-for initiative or originality calls forth a reprimand, countermand or side-lining to ‘punishment’ postings, especially if the officer tries to be academic or show erudition.

On the other hand, this also makes the forest department eminently down-to-earth and practical, and rather effective in implementation in the field; the general tenor being that there is nothing that the Range Officer cannot pull off even with very with little advance notice and meager government resources.

However, it is in the choice of what to do (rather than how to do it) that the service falls foul of intelligent and learned academics and NGOs. Valmik Thapar, in fact, is so disenchanted that he recommends that a new service should be set up for wildlife conservation, winding up the Indian Forest Service and reverting to the State Forest Services pattern. He prefers local persons instead of sending officers across states as per the All-India Service rules, for instance south Indians to Rajasthan (Thapar, 2015, p.41), and so on.

In the following sections, these issues (and others that may crop up on the way) will be explored in more depth.

A pdf of the entire article is available at https://www.academia.edu/24965216/Modernizing_the_Indian_Forest_Service_from_command_to_collaboration

This article, as all others on this site, is the intellectual property of the author, P.J.Dilip Kumar (IFS, Retired). You are welcome to reproduce it with due acknowledgement. Suggested citation is as follows:

Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2016. “TITLE”. Forest Matters, Nos. xx-xx (Month & Year). Available at: www.forestmatters.in or www.forestmatters.blogspot.in


Gadgil, Madhav and Ramachandra Guha.1992. This Fissured Land. An Ecological History of India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Government of India. 2006. Report of the National Forest Commission. Ministry of Environment & Forests, New Delhi.
Guha, Ramachandra. 2012. The Past and Future of Indian Forestry. Chapter I in Deeper Roots of Historical Injustice: Trends and Challenges in the Forests of India. Published by Rights and Resources Initiative, Washington, D.C. Available at www.rightsandresources.org/documents/files/doc_5589.pdf

Janik, Phil. USDA-Forest Service’s Commitment and Approach to Forest Sustainability. Submitted to the Society of American Foresters. Available at http://www.defendruralamerica.com/files/ForestSustainability.pdf

Lele, Sharachchhandra and Ajit Menon. (Eds.). 2014. Democratizing Forest Governance in India. Oxford University Press India, New Delhi.
Sankhala, Kailash. 2008. Sankhala’s India. Lest We Forget. Edited by Bittu Sahgal, published posthumously by Sanctuary Asia, Mumbai.

Sarin, Madhu. 2014. Undoing Historical Injustice: Reclaiming Citizenship Rights And Democratic Forest Governance through the Forest Rights Act. Chapter 3, in Lele and Menon (Eds.), 2014.
Shahi, S.P. 1977 (2001). Battling for Wildlife in Bihar. Excerpts from Backs to the Wall: Saga of Wildlife in Bihar, India (Affiliated East-West Press, Delhi, 1977). In Valmik Thapar (Ed.), 2001, 2006. Saving Wild Tigers, 1900-2000. The Essential Writings. Pp.205-224. Permanent Black, New Delhi.
Thapar, Valmik. 2015. Saving Wild India. A Blueprint for Change. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi.
 UNCED. 1992. Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement Of Principles            For A Global Consensus On The Management, Conservation And Sustainable Development Of All Types Of Forests. Annex III. United Nations Conference On Environment And Development. Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992. Available at http://www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-3annex3.htm

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