Monday, April 25, 2016

44 Forest research and the ICFRE. Modernizing the Indian Forest Service-VIII.

We now look at the premiere institution for forestry research in India, the Indian Council for Forestry Research & Education (ICFRE), set up in 1985 to oversee the research institutes  like FRI Dehradun and its centres (which would be upgraded as institutes of equal status to the FRI), and also forest research and education in the universities. The intention here is not to undertake a full-scale review of the ICFRE and its institutes, which will need a separate paper to cover in detail. However, certain points are being made in the context of the strengthening of the scientific base, and scientific competence, of the forest service. These are concerned with (i) the role of forest officers in research and in the ICFRE, (ii) structure of the ICFRE and its relation to the ministry; (iii) ways to improve the effectiveness of the ICFRE.

Role of forest officers in the research institutes

As argued previously, the average forest officer can scarcely be expected to undertake actual scientific studies in the course of a career, however excellent the academic background and strong the aspiration, simply because there are a host of other job responsibilities that leave little time for focused work and years of engagement on one topic. At the most, an officer can take off a couple of years study leave to undertake a PhD or MSc, which many officers have availed of. Whether the officer is able to pursue that particular line of work or study in later life is however uncertain, but many do keep writing and studying, although within careful limits due to the unpleasant possibility of getting embroiled in controversy.

One of these controversies is the role of forest officers in the ICFRE, featured in a rash of reports, such as the one by Khan and Pathak (2015) in the web-magazine Tehelka.com. This story quotes a note of the audit team of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India critical of “IFS officers who presently seemed to have gone astray from their mandated and primary objectives of protection, conservation of forest and maintaining ecological environment and unrestrictedly rushing towards research fields” (CAG note, quoted in the Tehelka.com article, op. cit.). The other objection raised by the CAG, according to the article, is that there were too many IFS officers in the ICFRE and its institutes, some 104 as per the report, and that these officers were holding the posts “without any knowledge and experience of the initial alphabets in the field of research” (ibid.).

Of course, such sweeping statements are not worth wasting too much time on, and only betray a lack of understanding of how a professional cadre is built up, and the supporting roles of research and field functioning. In the case of forestry, it is essential that there should be this constant cross-fertilization between cloister and the field, and scientists cannot get access and support in the field without the personal links of forest officers. The seeming concentration of forest officers is only at the ICFRE in Dehradun, at the higher levels of ADG and DDG, and again in the fringe areas of extension and management, rather than in the core research faculties like botany or genetics. There are very few forest officers in the constituent institutes, mostly a Coordinator (Research) and a Coordinator (Facilities), and occasionally in research divisions dealing with forest management and silviculture.

There is a case, however, for increasing the space for scientists to rise up to levels of DDG and ADG in the ICFRE, and a reasonable sharing of these posts can be worked out. However, this does not mean that well-qualified, competent and experienced forest officers should be kept out: because of the unrelenting diatribe of our social scientists, an illusion has been created of the ‘ugly forester’ that is simply not in consonance with the reality. Because of the all-India competition, members of the IFS tend to be of fairly high caliber right from the start, and the wide experience gained in the states does make them capable of getting things done even in field research. Bitter though this may be to the inveterate critics of the service, forest officers are essential to keep the institutes relevant to the field needs, and do add value in most departments because their entire service life has been devoted to field trials and implementation, extension, and training. Moreover, the cadre strengths of the IFS in the states have been fixed very much with a deputation quota to the centre, that obviously includes deputation to the research institutes. 

The bone of contention, perhaps, is the feeling that the forest service has monopolized the top post, that of the DG ICFRE. There is no bar for selection of a non-forester even for the DG ICFRE post, provided there are suitable candidates and the competing forest officers are not clearly better. There is usually a requirement that the candidate has had a certain length of working in the forestry sphere, and this may go against senior scientists from completely disparate fields, however eminent they may be. The post requires constant interfacing with the forest departments, and awareness of the working of the department and the issues relevant to it from a management point of view in order to fulfil its role as a high level advisor to the government, and not just narrow academics. The individual Institute Director posts have been assigned in the past to scientists, especially in the more specialized institutes like the IWST Bangalore (Wood Technology) and the IFGTB Coimbatore (Genetics).

The two-edged sword of autonomy: relations with the ministry

A separate issue is the level of staffing in the institutes and the financial support afforded by the ministry. Ever since the institutes were taken out of the government’s fold and put under the umbrella of the ICFRE, they have tended to be nobody’s baby. The situation is even less congenial after the post of the DG ICFRE was upgraded to equal the DG Forests in the ministry, because now the ICFRE was left without an official champion at the centre (the DGF being now just one among many members in the governing council), and would have to deal directly with the Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and the Minister. Being in far-away Dehradun, the ICFRE has never managed to impose itself on the public’s attention where it matters: at the national capital; even the functions and conferences it organizes tend to be in Dehradun or in its regional institutes, and therefore do not attain visibility to the decision-makers at the centre. Unfortunately, this is because the ICFRE took over the imposing building of the FRI Dehradun as a natural corollary of the abolition of the President, FRI and institution of the post of the DG, ICFRE. The net result, unfortunately, seems to be that the ICFRE is not considered on par with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) or other similar national councils, and the FRI Dehradun itself is overshadowed and its independence taken away.

Ironically, even though it is the ICFRE, being the apex overseeing body, that is staffed with a number of IFS officers, it is the FRI, the research institute, that appears to be groaning under the pressure. Therefore, one single measure to clarify the relations and linkages would be for the ICFRE to shift from its provincial seat in Dehradun to the national capital. Unfortunately, this proposal gets bogged down in a search for a large chunk of land to build a campus to emulate the FRI Dehradun, but actually the Council needs to be lean and somewhat mean about its own facilities, and could easily start operating out of premises rented from any central institution in Delhi.

It is the reality of the situation that the relationship of the ICFRE with the ministry depends very much on the personality and worldly wisdom of the DG ICFRE, rather than merits of the case or their genuine needs. Interactions with the ministry tend to revolve around the demands of the ICFRE for autonomy from control by the ministry.  The ministry therefore ends up feeling that the ICFRE is not its own baby, resulting in the gradual starving of funds, almost 90% going just for salaries and maintenance expenses. Unless the budget is at least doubled, there will be little opportunity for even the existing scientists in the system to develop their expertise and implement meaningful research projects. On the whole, it appears that the experiment with making an ‘autonomous’ council has given the worst of both worlds: no extra support is forthcoming just for becoming a Council, and the relatively closer access to the ministry through the DG Forests and his staff is also lost. Every decision of the Council may be suspected as an exercise in self-aggrandizement by the Council officers, and the ministry looks on with relative indifference, as the Council is supposed to be independent. The woes of the employees and the expense of maintaining the campus and buildings are added burdens.

Just as criticism is leveled at forest officers for allegedly treating the ICFRE a cozy resting place from stressful postings, so also is there a suspicion that local candidates from dome loacalities (say, Dehradun and Uttarakhand due to the location of the FRI and ICFRE there) are disproportionately represented in the scientists’ cadres, and individuals often try to get back to Dehradun even when they are recruited against other institutes. There has to be a special effort to de-localize recruitment process, by providing one major recruitment every year, with examination centers at all the states and UTs. To get around individuals putting pressure for transfer back to their ‘home’ states, recruitment should be done against specific posts in specific institutes, and a lock-in period of say 10 years should be stipulated before transfers. This may encourage people from say the north-east to apply, and serve in the institute at Jorhat, for instance, which may look like a punishment for the recruit from other regions. Such considerations are similar to the home-state syndrome in the All-India Services, but there are also examples of persons who have made a complete transfer of allegiance to the new state of residence, among scientists as among service members.

Between subject specialization and broad regional mandate

One of the perennial crises of identity of the ICFRE institutes has been the swing between regional (local) relevance and subject specialization. Firstly, these institutes were started as a referral point for all the problems of the states in the respective regions. Thus, the centre in Bangalore was actually started by the Mysore government, and in time looked into not only utilization of local forest products (this was influenced by the personal interests of the forest officers who founded the institute on their return from Germany), but also silviculture and management, achieving fame in the study of sandal (Santalum album). After the ICFRE took over, came the concept of each institute specializing in certain subjects, so the Bangalore institute was named the Institute of Wood Science and Technology (IWST), and the Coimbatore institute (equally hoary in age and accomplishments), the Institute of Forest Genetics & Tree Breeding (IFGTB). This resulted in a continuous soul-searching in IWST, whether or not to continue with the forestry subjects, sandal research, tree propagation (tissue culture, etc.) and so on. The state forest departments of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh definitely expected the Bangalore institute to serve as a general research support in their activities, for instance by responding quickly to issues of forest pathology (disease) and entomology (insects), tree improvement, propagation, agro-forestry, silviculture, and so on, and did not want to have to turn to the FRI Dehradun or other institutes at every turn. Similar expectations would be there of the other institutes in the respective states of their location. In the final eventuality, if the central institute was unable to fulfil this sort of back-stopping role (just because the ICFRE had trimmed the mandate discipline-wise to certain specializations) the concerned states would be prepared to take up the gauntlet: the multi-disciplinary Kerala FRI (KFRI) at Peechi is a good example.

The logical option would seem to be make each of the ICFRE institutes multi-disciplinary, so that it could cater to the field forestry needs of the relevant states and region both in the general disciplines, and in the specializations developed at each institute due to historical reasons. This would have some side benefits: it would build up a certain ‘minimum mass’ of personnel at each institute that would enable larger field projects to be taken up, and it would make space for the induction of young scientists in all the branches. However, depending on the past record of achievements and the interests of the scientists, certain fields could be identified for special efforts and achievement of excellence: IWST would obviously forge ahead in forest products research, but could also decide to become the last word in agro-forestry (ignoring the policy decisions that reserved this subject for the ICAR), and IFGTB obviously would continue work in genetics, but also have capability in supporting subjects like botany, farm forestry, and so on.  The names of the institutes may have to be modified to reflect their broader base, but even if that is not done, the mandates would have to be expanded, never mind possible objections by ICAR, the agricultural universities, or CAG staff. These issues are explored in depth in respect of the IWST in a report prepared by the author in 1994, as part of a course in Research Management at the Centre for Developmental Studies, Swansea (Dilip Kumar, 1994; available at the author’s academia.edu site https://www.academia.edu/23266648/Strategic_Planning_for_the_Institute_of_Wood_Science_and_Technology_Bangalore).

In the next section, some data is presented and discussed on the manpower levels in forestry research in India in comparison with China. This will give a suggestion on why forest research seems to be handicapped, and one of the fundamental measures that are needed to revitalize it: providing the minimum mass of manpower.

Critical mass of forestry scientists: India and China

Lastly, it would be as well to compare the sheer size of the ICFRE scientific manpower with that in a comparable country, say China. Some information on the “Number of graduate staff” is available in the FAO-IUFRO Directory of Forest Research Institutions (FAO, 1993), which though old reflects the position at the time the role of universities in forest research was being actively debated in India.

Table 1- CHINA


Sl.No.
INSTITUTE
No.Grad.Staff
01
ACADEMIA SINICA, INSTITUTE OF DESERT RESEARCH, Lanzhou
238
02
ANHUI PROVINCE FOREST, BIOLOGICAL CONTROL CENTRE, Hetel city
033
03
CHINESE  ACADEMY OF FORESTRY , CENTRE OF EVALUATING EFFECTS ON ENV, Beijing
019
04
CHINESE  ACADEMY OF FORESTRY, RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF FORESTRY, Beijing
239
05
CHINESE ACADEMY OF FORESTRY, RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL INFORMATION, Beijing
100
06
CHINESE ACADEMY OF FORESTRY, RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF TROPICAL FORESTRY, Long Dong Guangzhou
071
07
CHINESE AC/IDEMY OF FORESTRY. RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF WOOD INDUSTRY, Wan Shou Shan, Beijing
167
08
CHINESE ACADEMY OF FORESTRY. SUBTROPICAL FORESTRY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, Fuyang, Zhejiang
090
09
CHINESE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES. INSTITUTE OF APPLIED ECOLOGY P.O. Box 417, Shenyang
598
10
FORESTRY RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF GUANGXI ZHUANG AUTONOMOUS REGION, 23 Yong Wu Road, Nanning
112
11
RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF FOREST SCIENCE OF SHAANXI PROVINCE, Yongllng Station, Shaanxi Province
126
12
SHANGHAI WOOD INDUSTRY RESEARCH INSTITUTE (SWIRl), 667 Zhongshan Road (West), Shanghai 200051
056
13
SICHUAN RESEARCH INSTITUTE OF FORESTRY, 344 Jinhua Street, Chengdu, Sichuan 610081
212

TOTAL
2061





























Source: Directory of Forestry Research Organizations, Forestry Paper 109, IUFRO and FAO, 1993


Table 2-INDIA

Sl.No.
INSTITUTE
No.Grad.Staff

01
INDIAN COUNCIL OF FORESTRY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION, ARID FORESTRY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, Jodhpur
100
02
INDIAN COUNCIL OF FORESTRY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION, FOREST RESARCH INSTITUTE,  Dehra Dun
100
03
INDIAN COUNCIL OF FORESTRY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION, INSTITUTE OF FOREST GENETICS AND TREE BREEDING, Colmbatore
064
04
INDIAN COUNCIL OF FORESTRY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION, INSTITUTE OF RAIN AND MOIST DECIDUOUS FORESTS RESEARCH, Jorhat, Assam
050
05
INDIAN COUNCIL OF FORESTRY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION, INSTITUTE OF WOOD SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, Bangalore
060
06
INDIAN COUNCIL OF FORESTRY RESEARCH AND EDUCATION, TROPICAL FOREST RESEARCH INSTITUTE, Jabalpur
50
07
INDIAN PLYWOOD INDUSTRIES RESEARCH INSTITUTE , Bangalore
047
08
KERALA FOREST RESEARCH INSTITUTE Peechi , Kerala
110

TOTAL
581

Source: Directory of Forestry Research Organizations, Forestry Paper 109, IUFRO and FAO, 1993


Leaving out the university establishments like the Beijing Forest University in China (which is not cited in the list) and the Y.S. Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Himachal Pradesh, India (which shows as many as 417 graduate staff), the state sponsored forest research institutes numbered 14 in China, with an aggregate of 2061 “graduate staff”, and 8 numbers in India with a total of 631 “graduate staff” (we have had to supply numbers for some: TFRI Jabalpur 50, IRMDFR Jorhat 50, FRI Dehradun 150). This indicates a considerably larger manpower dedicated to forestry research institutes in China, which by all reports has taken this sector very seriously.

The above figures obviously include all staff with a degree, not necessarily at the level of Scientist (equivalent to the IFS officers). They probably include research assistants and Technical Officers and other such lower levels; it is difficult to know how each institute has interpreted the category. More troubling for the Indian forestry research scenario, however, is the steady attenuation of personnel due to bottlenecks in recruitment, coupled with economy orders in government which require that posts remaining vacant for a length of time (over one year) become lapsed posts which cannot be filled up subsequently without a long and involved procedure in government. This affects not only the ICFRE but also the government agencies like the Forest Survey of India (FSI) Dehradun.


Data given in 2010 by the then Director, FRI (pers. comm.) suggest that the strength of scientists in ICFRE and its institutes together, was only 280 (that of forest officers on deputation was stated to be 90). Some 32 posts of Scientist were abolished in 2002, 21 posts were abolished in 2003. These strengths are a fraction of those in the other gargantuan Councils like the ICAR and CSIR.


Forestry by itself has a low profile in the government (it is mainly seen as an obstacle to development) and even in the ministry of environment & forests (and climate change since 2014), where the more glamorous and attention-catching subjects like climate negotiations, environment, biodiversity, international conferences and conventions, and so on tend to occupy most of the time and attention. Because of the thesis developed by our social environmentalists that it is the strict (and corrupt) forest regime that has given rise to popular discontent and left-wing extremism, much of the time efforts are made to clip the spurs of the forest service, for example through the Forest Rights Act, rather than give it support and authority.


Since forestry has no place in the prevailing scheme of priorities, it is very unlikely that the ICFRE will ever gain the prestige and clout (not to speak of sheer size) of the ICAR; this is one of the unforeseen pitfalls of the drive for autonomy under the Council (supposed to be patterned after the ICAR, with a full-fledged Secretary for Research and so on). It appears in hindsight that it would have been better for the Council to remain a part of the ministry and focus efforts on improving internal processes, rather than going after the chimera of autonomy.


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

References

Dilip Kumar, P. J. 1994. Strategic Planning for the Institute of Wood Science and Technology, Bangalore. Report on a Course of Training in Research Management  at the Centre for Developmental Studies, Swansea, Wales, from 10 January to 5 May, 1994. Available at https://www.academia.edu/23266648/Strategic_Planning_for_the_Institute_of_Wood_Science_and_Technology_Bangalore

FAO/IUFRO. 1993. Directory of forestry research organizations. FAO Forestry paper 109. Rome.

Khan, Jamshed and Sushant Pathak. 2015. Tehelka Investigation: How Forest Officers Net Their PhDs. Tehelka.com webmagazine, Volume 12, Issue 6, 2015-02-07. Available at http://www.tehelka.com/2015/01/tehelka-investigation-how-forest-officers-net-their-phds/

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