Sunday, March 27, 2016

38 Forest service as a classical Weberian bureaucracy. Modernizing the Indian Forest Service-II.

Strength of the Weberian bureaucracy

From a sociological point of view, the forest services may be taken as a very good living example of the classical Weberian bureaucratic institution (Weber, date uncertain, see Parsons, 1947, ed. 1964, p.324 onwards). Many of the ingredients of the classical bureaucracy as described by Weber are a core feature of the forest service. Recruitment is through a competitive exam from the mass population, with no pandering to any sense of elitism (especially after independence: older officers, who had served with the British colonials, have been heard to grumble that the offspring of clerks and schoolmasters were landing up in the service through the competitive exams, even though they could not afford to maintain the required genteel lifestyle). The officer-probationers are put through a rigorous training course (some may even call it an indoctrination!) in the practice of forestry (albeit of a particular vintage, the sustained physical yield model), where certain core professional values and attitudes are inculcated.

The service is highly hierarchical, with even a half year's seniority calling forth deference from the juniors, while matters of seniority (inter-se within each batch, between batches and state cadres, and among state and all-India services, etc.), promotion, award of plum postings, orders of precedence in the districts and the states, and so on are constant preoccupations throughout the career. Communication is very linear and formalistic, mostly from top downwards, and there is hardly any open feedback from the juniors in the service (let alone from lower levels in the hierarchy, such as range forest officers and section foresters). Actions are bound by written codes and rule books (in principle, if not always in practice), there is reluctance to delegate financial and administrative powers, and not much discretion can be exercised in individual cases. Officers are not free to travel outside their official jurisdiction, and crossing the lines of authority in official communications is frowned upon (every missive and report has to be ‘through proper channel’, although less inhibited individuals do break protocol by submitting ‘advance copies’ to higher-ups over the heads of their immediate supervisors).

An even bigger faux-pas would be for an officer to air divergent views in the media, and mistakes which would have been condoned or overlooked in the normal course become inexcusable if the officer tries to justify himself in public. (This is not a special character of the Indian situation, as the first forest chief in the US, Gifford Pinchot, had to resign precisely because of airing his views about coal mining in the newspapers in 1910: see his memoirs, Pinchot 1947).

Such arrangements make for a highly disciplined, cohesive, temperamentally uniform, and stable institution, but the system cannot be very nimble in responding to change in the outside environment or unprecedented challenges. Since such a service cannot easily resist orders from above, it may tend to be used for good and for bad ends; much depends on the values and objectives of the leaders in the administration, and of course of the masters (in our case, the political parties in government).

Because individuals down in the hierarchy find it difficult to get their views to the top levels, they often use other avenues, such as third party ‘interlocutors’, lobbyists, NGOs, and more dangerously, politicians. Too much of this type of activity leads over time to disruption of discipline, erosion of authority, and weakening of the institutional values, which makes the service prone to being used for other than the public good.

The forest service in British India and its influence worldwide

The British set up the Imperial Forest Service in India soon after the take-over of the administration by the Crown following the Sepoy Mutiny or the First War of Independence; the first Inspector General of Forests in India, Dr.Dietrich Brandis, served from 1864 to 1883. Training of the superior forest officers was carried out at various places: initially (from the first batch of seven appointees in 1869, which included an Indian, Framjee Rustomjee Desai) at Nancy (France) and Hanover (Germany), with an interlude in 1870 at St.Andrews University in Scotland; from 1886 at Cooper’s Hill College in England under Sir William Schlich, then from 1905 to 1925 at Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Forestry training was set up in India after the World War I, along with increasing induction of Indians: in 1926, official recognition was given to the Indian Forest Service Training College, and training was conducted up to 1932 under the supervision of the Imperial Forest Research Institute at Dehradun, in the Chandbagh estate which is now the famous Doon School (all these details, and more, are from the outstanding publication of the IGNFA, 2012).

Interestingly, the pattern of the Indian forest service was so positively perceived that it has influenced other, even advanced, countries (Barton, 2002). As recounted by Brandis (1897, repr. 1994, p.60), these consultancy reports (as they would be called today) were summarized in the FRI journal Indian Forester, and hence available to the larger body of commonwealth foresters. Some of these were: Major Walker’s report on New Zealand forests in 1876, Thompson’s report on Mauritius (1880), Vincent’s on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1882, Dobbs’ appointment in 1882 “to the charge of the forests in Cyprus”, and Hutchins in the forest department of the Cape of Good Hope (ibid.). 

Erosion of autonomy – forest service in USA and India compared

The US Bureau of Forestry took charge of the public forests only by the end of the century, and the US Forest Service was set up only in 1905, after a supportive President (Theodore Roosevelt)
 took office, Theodore Roosevelt (introductory chapter by Miller and Sample in Pinchot, 1947, ed. 1998). The first forest chief, Gifford Pinchot, had been to some of the same institutions in Europe  for his basic training in forestry as the Indian Forest Service had resorted to (such as L’Ecole National Forestiere at NancyFrance). Pinchot made it a point to visit the retired Brandis (and Schlich) in Europe in the fall of 1889 when he had commenced his forestry training, and in fact looked up to Brandis as his teacher and mentor. The familiar strategy of vesting control of the public (national) forests under a federally-controlled bureaucracy (the forest service) in the interest of their long-term sustainable management, was fostered under Pinchot’s charge.

The US Forest Service (USFS) has been given half a chapter to itself in Fukuyama’s  treatise on the state (Fukuyama, 2014, Chapter 11), where it is lauded as a successful – and, in the US, rare -- example of “the possibilities that exist for high-quality government and genuinely autonomous bureaucracy” (Fukuyama, op. cit.). The USFS case is held up by Fukuyama as a contrast to the largely privately developed American railroads, which veered between too little regulation in the initial decades (and market failures in meeting the requirements) and too much regulation in later decades that led to their bankruptcy in the 1970s. (Wolmar, 2009, is an accessible and passionate account of the vital role that development of railways played in enriching – and destroying – countries and cultures, in civil conflict, in the two world wars, and in underpinning “nothing less than the spread of modernity and the making of the modern world”). The railroads case demonstrates how difficult it is “to create a government agency subservient to democratic will but at the same time sufficiently autonomous and free from capture by powerful interests” (Fukuyama, op. cit.), which makes the Forest Service case all the more impressive. 

The USFS, which today manages over 200 million acres of national forest (80 million hectares, mha, or just a little more than the Indian forest area) “was one of the first federal agencies to protect its personnel from political patronage”, and recruited its people directly from the recent graduates in scientific agriculture of the new land-grant colleges, and thus had “no roots in either the patronage or seed-distribution systems”. Thus,

“In contemporary parlance, this shift in USDA personnel policy constituted ‘capacity building’. The quality of the bureaucracy was dependent not just on the higher educational achievements of the new entrants but also on the fact that these individuals constituted a network of trust and possessed what has been labeled ‘social capital’… these new officials had similar backgrounds … and embodied a common belief in modern science and the need to apply rational methods to the development of rural communities around the United States. This mind-set over time became the basis for the organizational ethos of the Agriculture Department and in particular of one of its key divisions, the U.S. Forest Service.” (Fukuyama, op. cit., p.174)

The US Forest Service was instrumental in reversing the extensive denudation of America’s forests under the accepted culture of expansion and abandonment of settlements. “The recovery of these lands and their return to productive use was one of the great achievements of government intervention. The U.S. Forest Service has long been regarded as one of the most successful American bureaucracies, whose quality and esprit de corps became legendary… all the more remarkable given the fact that individual forest rangers live in highly dispersed locations, whose isolation prevents the kind of bonding usually seen in urban organizational settings” (op. cit., p.175). Fukuyama credits the character of the USFS to the distinct scientific ethos imparted by its initiator Fernow, and especially to the first chief, Gifford Pinchot, who “in many ways embodied Max Webers’s Protestant work ethic”. This completes the circle in our discussion; and, we may add, also applies to the founding father of the Indian Forest Service, Dietrich Brandis who was in a way Pinchot’s mentor or guru. 

The special character of the US Forest Service was also enabled by Pinchot’s political adeptness, his close friendship with president ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, and his public relations success in getting it transferred to the Agriculture Department, away from the previous home in the Department of the Interior. That organization had a completely different ethos, staffed as it was “by lawyers and accountants, with no expertise in forest management”, who “regarded their mission primarily as servicing the interests of private developers who wanted access to or ownership of public lands”. But it was “politically very popular with western politicians and businessmen” (op. cit., p.177), who scoffed at the foresters as idealistic and impractical.  

Fukuyama imputes the success of the US Forest Service mainly to the relative autonomy with which it operated (in comparison with, say, the Interstate Commerce Commission, ICC). “This is the meaning of state autonomy: a government that is not too easily swayed by the short-term vagaries of democratic public opinion but rather looks to long-term public interest” (Fukuyama, op. cit. p.182). “At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration” (Fukuyama,  2014b).  

Pinchot’s national forests were not given to him on a platter of popular and Congressional support, but won in the face of strong opposition and resistance from various political and commercial interests (such as the livestock and mining lobbies), by some fast official action and able persuasion of the chief executive, Roosevelt. Some of these qualities were no doubt reflected in the (foreign) founders of India’s forest service, and also in the Indian forester Hari Singh (FRI Dehradun, 2010), who was Inspector-General of Forests during the premiership of Indira Gandhi and had similarly caught her ear, leading to the restitution of the Indian Forest Service as an All-India Service, among other actions in the cause of forest conservation (Gandhi, 2009). 

However, the very strengths of internal discipline and being true to professional values of this type of bureaucracy may become a liability as social conditions change, as it may persist in doing things the old, officially acceptable way far past the ‘use by’ date.  According to Fukuyama, “interest-group politics” ended up infecting even the US Forest Service. Once “the shining example of a high-quality American bureaucracy”, it had by the 1980s come to be “regarded by many observers as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools” (Fukuyama, 2014, Chapter 31: pp.455-56). The service had been captured by its different constituencies: although “still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission”, it has “lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot” (op. cit.). It operates under “multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts” (and, we may add, the media, local pressure groups, and public sentiments), while “achieving questionable aims” (ibid.). For instance, it devoted so much time and resources to preventing forest fires, that it lost sight of other valid responsibilities and of the bigger ecological picture of fires and forests (p.457), leading to an over-accumulation of inflammable material and consequent rise of larger, uncontrollable fires .

In India, luckily, thanks to the still broad front presented in the training, the forest profession has been aware that a recurring series of small fires (what are called ‘ground fires’) serves to reduce the inflammable material (the ‘fire hazard’), thereby making the incidence of massive conflagrations (‘crown fires’) less likely, and may thus be the lesser of the evils. Indian foresters undertake ‘advance burns’ of the ground with the withdrawal of the cold season, so that the forest is ‘fire-proofed’ over the hot and dry months before the onset of the monsoon in June or later. Fire protection was an obsession even with the British colonial forest departments, with officers required to spend months in the field, marching (or, earlier, riding) from camp to camp for months together without returning to headquarters during the ‘fire season’ (Brandis, op. cit., p.124). There have been, fortunately, few if any incidences of the type of  forest fires one sees in the US or southeast Asia during recent decades, partly because of the fire protection measures, partly because fallen material is usually removed by fuelwood collectors, and partly because of heightened cooperation and consciousness among the villagers due to the programme of Joint Forest Management (JFM) since the 1990s (or earlier in some places).  (This was written some days before the spate of fires in some 2000 hectares of pine forest in Uttarakhand that seemed to have achieved alarming proportions, with newspapers calling for the disaster recovery protocols to meet the unprecedented threat to human life and property. See e.g. The Hindu newspaper, 3 May, 2016).

At the same time, generations of Indian foresters have been vigilant about maintaining the autonomy of the service, in the face of strong pressures from diverse interests ranging from the pro-industrial lobby on the right, through the wildlife tourism lobby that sees the department as the bone in the kebab and would like to hand over the best areas to the private tour operator (Thapar, 2015), to vigorous public campaigns by the leftist interests who would initiate the fall of the bourgeois state with the forest department. So hostile are the latter interest group (and their intellectual advocates), that to them it appears that the forest service is actually ignoring the political agenda of distributing the forests to the needy (Lele, Epilogue, in Lele and Menon, 2014: p.405 and fn 3 on p.411).

Indian foresters, on the other hand, probably fell into a rut of another description: the obsession with ‘production forestry’. The consequences of this single-minded pursuit of maximum physical productivity or ‘progressive sustained yield’ has been a growing disconnect with the general public opinion, rather analogous to the case of the USFS portrayed by Fukuyama. This orientation was aided and abetted by the pride of place given to economic criteria during the decades after independence, and especially by the scathing indictment of the ‘conservative’ sustained yield principle in favour of ‘financial rotations’ and ‘progressive yield’ by such eminent economists as Samuelson and Hirshleifer in the United States (Dilip Kumar, 1992).[1]

In the following section, this question of the people-forest interaction will be explored in greater detail.


Barton, Gregory Allen. 2002. Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Brandis, Dietrich. 1897 (repr. 1994). Forestry in India. Natraj Publishers, Dehradun.

Dilip Kumar, P. J. 1992. Economic analysis and the question of sustained yield in forestry. Presented at the National Seminar on “The Economics of the Sustainable Use of Forest Resources”, 2-4 April 1990, organised by Centre for Science & Environment, New Delhi. Published in the Proceedings of the seminar (Anil Agarwal, Editor, 1992: The Price of Forests).

FRI Dehradun. 2010. Hari Singh. A Life Sketch.  Forest Research Institute, Dehradun. See press release available at

Fukuyama, Francis. 2014. Political Order and Political Decay. From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy. Profile Books. London. Preview at:

Fukuyama, Francis. 2014b. America In Decay: The Sources of Political Dysfunction. Foreign Affairs 93(5): pp.5-26.

Gandhi, Indira. 2009. On Environment & Forests. Selected Speeches, Messages and Letters. Ministry of Environment & Forests, New Delhi.  November 2009. (see book review by Prerna Singh Bindra in Sanctuary Magazine, available at
IGNFA. 2012. Shaping a Forester. 75Years of Excellence. Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, Dehradun. Download at

Lele, Sharachchhandra and Ajit Menon. (Eds.). 2014. Democratizing Forest Governance in India. Oxford University Press India, New Delhi.
Parsons, Talcott (Ed.). 1947, 1964. Max Weber: The Theory of Social and Economic Organization.  First paperback edition, 1964. The Free Press, New York.
Pinchot, Gifford. 1947 (1998). Breaking New Ground. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., New York. Commemorative edition published 1998 by Island Press, Washington, D.C. Introductory essay by Char Miller and V.Alaric Sample.
Thapar, Valmik. 2015. Saving Wild India. A Blueprint for Change. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi.
 Wolmar, Christian. 2009. Blood, Iron & Gold. How the Railways Transformed the World. Atlantic Books, London.

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