Thursday, April 28, 2016

45 Documentation and communication. Modernizing the Indian Forest Service-IX.

A new strategy for communication and advocacy

While the forest service is doing many things to respond to the winds of change, one of its problems is that it is not very effective in communicating this to the outside world. The private media (which are the more effective ones) of course are not interested in providing space to government agencies to publicize their activities (they seek controversies); so the service has to create its own.



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

One way to do this is to recognize that society now sees multiple values in forests, not just the financial returns. These multiple values need to be acknowledged formally, internalized in the ethos of the forest service, and the multiple stakeholders given a place in the processes of the forest department. The panchayati raj institutions are but one example of such stakeholders that need to be given a place, and that can in turn provide a location for forest values; there are other, formal and informal, forums that are available, or can be created at different levels. In many European forest strategy statements, for instance, berry and mushroom collection are  listed as important activities; this is apparently not just an affluent society’s pastime, as this very issue was at the heart of Marx’s attack on the tightening of forest laws in mid-19th century Germany; these activities are at the very heart of the sense of local entitlements even in today’s changed economic conditions. Collection of forest products, is still a deeply prized right among the tribals and other forest-dependent people in the tropics, as exemplified by the Sholiga tribals’ struggle to regain the right of collecting gooseberry and other NTFPs in the BRT tiger reserve (Nitin Rai, in Lele & Menon, 2014).

Recognizing youth as stakeholders would be a strategic choice for the department. There is a lot of interest in the non-commercial natural history values that will make them friends of the forests. Trekkers and photographers who get lost need to be treated with kindness, instead of booking cases of trespass. There have been some good initiatives to make this activity more public-friendly by arranging for local guides, which has the benefit of creating a stake for the community as well.

Making the department more user-friendly through modern methods of information and communication technology (ICT) should come high on the priorities: wherever it is possible to remove the need for personal attendance at the offices, it should be made possible. It is important to generate as well as disseminate information; even here, it could be provided online in addition to the print media. Much of the information which had to be disseminated through pamphlets and brochures can now be provided on the internet through websites, including video clips.

Of course it is still essential to use publications to publicize work. One important point, which has been neglected by government institutions, is that all publications should be available through regular booksellers, both online and on physical shelves. As observed earlier, the problem is often that these publications are unpriced; and booksellers may be asking for very heavy margins on priced ones, so the institutes try to do it themselves, perhaps to avoid audit objections. I would say that a copy should be displayed on the shelves of all leading booksellers, at least to make the work known, even if actual sales are not made. Otherwise many an excellent publication is left unknown to gather dust in the back rooms of the research institutes.

Providing avenues for participation of all sections is a good way of earning goodwill and making the real work of the department known to the outside world. Even in our research institutes, there is a tendency to focus attention only on the immediate superiors and work for self-advancement, which means working solely for peer-reviewed papers or fulfilling the government targets and carrying out government-mandated studies. However, some space should be there for the general public also to take part.

One particular instance occurs to me as especially rich in possibilities. In the course of reviewing the activities of the Wildlife Institute, Dehradun, it occurred to us that apart from the mandated courses for forest officers and other government services, it would be nice to have a week-long course for just any interested persons from the general public. This was quite a successful experiment, and has the potential to make a number of friends for the department from among lay persons (especially retired citizens, who would probably treasure such an experience that they could not organize on their own). There is nothing preventing even forest research institutes from organizing similar courses, which could range from botanizing and community interaction for the older citizens, to trekking and hiking for the youngsters.

The department is doing a huge number of innovative experiments with communities, processes, and institutions on the ground, but very little of this gets projected. The department would do well to observe the strategies used by the very NGOs and other organizations that are targeting the forest service (see the FGLG India Report for the Project: Social Justice in Forestry, 2014, available at http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/G03891.pdf), and emulate them: i.e. develop case studies, enroll individuals from among the general public, make certain examples iconic in the discourse, use the media, and so on. A separate unit is called for to organize this sort of strategy, staffed by creative individuals (who may be from outside the department). This has to be in the national capital, and must be quick off the starting block, not hobbled by the problems of the ICFRE.

A number of ideas have been discussed and proposals made at various occasions in this direction, such as the Knowledge Forum, the Forest Communication and Documentation Center, and the Forest Policy Institute/Center. They did not come to fruition, but are worth pursuing even today. A brief account follows.

A Knowledge Forum for sharing views and experiences

 The first idea, the Knowledge Forum, is envisaged as a place where, as the name suggests, information and views can be exchanged (and perhaps insults traded and mutual complaints registered!). The motivation is to alleviate the sense of alienation that both civil society members and the forest personnel feel from the policy-making and direction function of the central ministry. Individuals and NGOs would like a free and fair interaction in order to put forth their views, bring pressing problems to the attention of the ministry officials, and influence policy making and implementation. On the other hand, forest officials (and provincial NGOs) feel that central ministries lend an ear only to those influential NGOs as can operate in the national capital, and have access to the political class; they also are convinced that people sitting in the centre have either forgotten what it is like in the field, or do not have good knowledge of conditions outside the limited sphere of their own home states. Foresters would also like to interact with, even confront, NGOs and intellectuals with the reality of the field situation, and get a public acknowledgement of the difference between the ideal and the reality, so that the blame game can be moderated.

For bringing ministry officials and influential NGO representatives from the national capital into contact with counterparts in the field, meetings or ‘retreats’ can be arranged in different places, or people from the field can be brought to the capital.  A very good experience of the change in tone that occurs when field practitioners join the fray, was afforded by the presentations made before the prime minister and senior cabinet ministers in Delhi during July 2010 when the forest service was under attack as the principal cause for left-wing extremism making inroads in tribal areas. The response of the ministries was moderated to a great extent by presentations made by young forest officers and administrators from LWE-affected divisions, before the august presence of the Prime Minister himself. For instance, an insinuation that forest staff were attending meetings called by extremists, and not divulging information on the movements of the extremists’ leaders, was stoutly met by an IAS officer’s statement that their lives would be forfeited if the field staff did such a thing.

In a way, the Knowledge Forum supplements the ‘expert’ panels formed out of the body of IFS doctorates by the minister in January 2010 (these panels never actually got activated). The key to this Forum evoking interest would be to have it physically outside the ministry building, where there are barriers to free entry and interaction. This can be easily done by using the premises of any good private or non-governmental organization, such as the India Habitat Center, the ICFRE premises, or the WWF in Delhi. Some of the interactions could be achieved, at least in the initial rounds, through the internet. In any case, it should not get bogged down searching for land and setting up a campus etc. The Forum could be run by a very small executive group, and could sponsor meetings and studies in the field, drawing funds from different donors and expertise from the states.

Ministry officials and forest and other officers from other government organizations and the states would interact with academics, NGOs, concerned citizens, and civil society members, in a free and collegial manner, exchanging information, understanding one another’s concerns and constraints, and so on. These meetings would lead on to further collaborative activity, perhaps some intervention in the field, case studies, process support, and so on. The experiences would be captured in reports and articles that would be put out in various media, including the internet. The idea is that people will come together to work on some topic for some period of time, and then drift apart, the lasting benefit being a better understanding of the variety of field situations and some appreciation of one another’s viewpoints, and some influence on the working practices in the field and relations between officials and civil society.

The Knowledge Forum as such is seen as an autonomous and not very formal organization outside the four walls of the ministry, even though initiated and sponsored by the ministry; it will be run by stakeholders from both sides like an ‘ideas cooperative’. It should not, however, be allowed to become yet another forum for forester-bashing; the understanding is that both sides will be allowed to make frank presentations with a positive objective of improving the situation, while not criticizing the government. Definitely the far left position of trying to undermine the state (which, in their ideology, has to wither away) and other extreme or stereotyped positions will not be permitted to poison the interactions. The confidentiality of the matters discussed will be maintained until everybody concerned is comfortable about further publishing.

The ministry was requested to support this experiment with a corpus fund from the CAMPA account, but at the 4th meeting of the National CAMPA Advisory Council on 25 January 2012 (http://envfor.nic.in/sites/default/files/NCAC-Minutes_25th%20Jan-2012_0.pdf), “The proposal for establishment of the National Forestry Knowledge Forum was dropped”. Presumably the feeling was that transferring a corpus (annual expenses to come from the interest) would make the body too independent and free of the need to take the guidance of the ministry. However, it was always the intention to have the minister and senior ministry officials as patrons and ex-officio members of its governing council, so this should not really be a problem.

The two other institutions we dabbled with were (2) an institute for policy research in sustainable forestry and (3) a centre for documentation and communication at Delhi. Before proceeding to describe these ideas, it would be as well to state that these activities were proposed to be funded by the interest earned on a corpus grant transferred from the national CAMPA account. This was not acceptable to the minister, and in the minutes of the same 4th meeting of the National CAMPA Advisory Council (NCAC) on 25 January 2012 referred to above, it was recorded that in respect of “(4) setting up of (a) National Instt of Sustainable Forestry & Natural Resources ; (b) National Forest Documentation (and Communication) Centre; at Delhi ; (5) CAMPA support for Second Indian Forestry Congress, Bangalore in November, 2012” that “support to such Schemes should ideally be found from out of the budget of the Ministry of Environment and Forests; the funding should be project related rather than out of the interest earned on a corpus; however CAMPA itself being in the nature of a corpus, the question is of earmarking corpus funds for specific items. The Chairperson ruled that the legality – vis-à-vis the Supreme Court orders and approved Guidelines – of setting up such a corpus will require to be examined” (op. cit.). This rejection led to some gleeful speculation in the newspapers that there was a huge rift between the minster and the foresters (Economic Times, 27 January 2012: the report is inaccurate, as it confuses a separate proposal for providing 1000 crore corpus for the ICFRE with the more modest proposal of some 25 crores for the proposed information and documentation institutions).

In respect of these proposed entities under the firm control of the ministry (unlike the Knowledge Forum, which was envisaged as a more free-wheeling cooperative), the minister was not apparently dismissive of the idea, but was against the expedient of transferring a corpus fund permanently, a position reiterated in the 5th meeting of the NCAC held on 24 November 2014 (http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/5th%20Meeting%20NCAC.PDF). However, we go through the salient features of these two organizations to clarify their role and intent, especially to explore how they will do slightly different things and fulfill slightly different objectives, and how they should be set up and run. Hopefully these ideas will be of use even if not in exactly this form, or for the forest service cadres and forest departments in the states, if not at the center.

A national center for information and communication

First, we explore the idea of the proposed India National Center for Forest Information and Communication, to link with the underlying concept of improving INFORMATION  generation, dissemination and management, again at the national capital. It would have two parts, one a Center for Documentation, and the other for Communication (INFORDOC and INFORCOM, as they were fancifully styled). Again, we emphasize the spare, flat and frugal nature of the proposed institutional structure. Essentially, it will be run by a small management team consisting of a CEO and two assistants for accounts and administration, and a couple of research associates for programme coordination. The CEO is expected to be a youngish person from the ‘open market’, with a creative bent of mind and good communications and writing skills. The Center would build up a comprehensive library of source material, especially ‘grey’ literature and personal reports, taking over the old and unwanted documents lying around the ministries and department offices, copies of departmental publications, collections of retired foresters and so on. It would over time become a national repository of all the data of the sector, and even take up the periodic preparation of  the ‘Forest Sector Report’,  in continuation of the grand start made by Dr.Devendra Pandey for 2010 (ICFRE, 2012).

Such a Center is especially needed to support the larger national programmes like the NAEB and its National Afforestation Programme (NAP), and now the Green India Mission (GIM). In fact one proposal is to put it under the aegis of GIM, as its information management agency. Unlike the more collaborative and collegial Knowledge Forum, INFORDOC/INFORCOM would more clearly serve the purposes of the ministry and department, and an important part of its job would be the accessing of data from the states and the field units, putting the developmental and social efforts into a broader perspective, and assisting the ministry in broad strategic planning. Preparation of the periodic Forest Sector Report (perhaps biennially, and definitely at the end of each Plan period[1]) would be an important part of its activities, and may even be thought of as its flagship, just as the State of Forests report (biennial) is of the Forest Survey of India.

Other significant parts of its mandates would be to service GIM in capturing, and assessing, the experience in the states, drafting operational guidelines, making case studies and impact assessments, showcasing   the works of the department, gathering stories of success and frustrations, listening to ‘whispers from the forest’ and ‘voices from the field’, and most importantly, of marshalling all this material into publishable documents and conveying the published material to trade outlets (booksellers, online marketing sites, and so on). Under the umbrella of the Forest Sector Report, the center would also organize the collation of information on the forests themselves, how they are being managed, and so on (something like an in-house National Geographic Society). It would, however, require a smart and nimble CEO who could establish the required linkages with the states and the publishing industry, and its working would have to be clearly different from the stodgy approach of government departments. So instead of being directly under the ministry, it would be good to have it one layer removed by making a quasi-autonomous body.

A national institute for sustainable forestry

Under a broader approach, there is a case for setting up a National Institute for Sustainable Forestry and Natural Resources, of which the Documentation and Communication Center described above could be an operational unit. This would, conceptually, be a more organized and comprehensive institution to take up technical studies, especially as regards sustainable management, which includes livelihood and social issues as well as ecological conservation and habitat preservation. The conflicts between development and natural resource conservation, green accounting, responses to climate change and so on, would all come under this more scientific and professional body.

Once again, it would be have to be structured a little differently from the existing institutes of the ICFRE, and because of the internal politics and various legacy complications of the ICFRE, apart from ICFRE’s apron strings to Dehradun, it would be best to make the National Institute an autonomous body under the ministry, perhaps again supported and managed by the National Afforestation and Ecodevelopment Board (NAEB) or the Green India Mission (GIM). Once again, it should ideally be physically outside the ministry, in order to develop its own modernistic, forward-looking style and ethos, with the collaboration of good national NGOs to add value and excellence. Once again, it is not at all intended to act as a critic of government policy or performance, but more as a public information arm of the forest department. It would provide support to forest officers themselves to put together studies and reports, providing them a platform to talk about their work, publish and communicate with civil society. By sponsoring a number of studies, this Institute would also act as a venue to engage the energies of forestry graduates and social scientists with an interest in forests, thereby building up a group of positive spokespeople for the department, informed by a knowledge of field realities and especially collaboration with foresters in the field.
 
Some progress had been achieved in setting up this institution, even to the extent of issuing a public notice (with the approval of the minister, who had previously rejected the idea of a Knowledge Forum and of placing a corpus fund from the CAMPA account for the Center) calling for interest in hosting such an institution, and identifying some excellent, pre-wired premises at a national institute in Manesar (not far from the Delhi airport). But it is not clear whether there is enough interest in the ministry, and more so in the GIM management, to take it further. It would be advisable, however, for GIM to support this venture, seeing that there is such a huge stake in making GIM an effective programme, and as GIM itself requires an enormous amount of ground information and studies, and is seen as an inter-sectoral, inter-stakeholder collaboration. Its effectiveness, and credibility, will be enhanced by keeping the intellectual activity centers at arms’ length, outside the ministry, and involving both field levels and civil society from the start.

The purport of all these suggestions is, broadly, to emulate the success in knowledge generation and dissemination achieved by national NGOs, but without the underlying hostility to government and the compulsion to achieve ‘scoops’ in unearthing ‘scandals’ (the ‘crying wolf’ syndrome). Such an organization has to have a presence in the national capital region (not tucked away in Dehradun, like the ICFRE). It has to resolve from the start not to get bogged down in establishing a large infrastructure like its own campus (a fatal flaw of proposals from the ICFRE, for instance), or a large captive staff, and so on. It has to attract young scholars and field activists from civil society, who are not looking for a permanent salaried job (again a fatal flaw off the ICFRE type of proposal).  It has to be led by a youngish person from the open market (or forest service in competition on a level playing field), engaged on contract for a reasonable term, with freedom to enter into collaborative relations with other organizations. Its structures, both institutional and physical, must be easy to assemble and equally easy to disassemble without too many legacy problems for the ministry. It should focus on getting product out (conferences, studies, publications), which should be done even before acquiring physical premises and infrastructure, rather than getting bogged down in building an empire. Its greatest strength will be to provide a platform for field workers, both forest officials and community members.  The list goes on; whether the ministry will use a certain amount of imagination and allow such an institution to be set up and function is a question.



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




[1] We are not clear whether the 5-year national plan cycle is going to  be maintained; the forest department has its own Working Plan system running on a 10-year cycle, though these are not synchronized across divisions or across states.

References

FGLG India. 2014. Report for the Project: Social Justice in Forestry. Forest Governance Learning Group. Published by International Institute for Environment and Development, London. (Available at http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/G03891.pdf).

Rai, Nitin D. 2014. Views from the Podu. Approaches for a Democratic Ecology of India’s Forests. Ch.4 in Lele & Menon (Ed.), 2014.  

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