Managing State Corporations
A forest officer in India is often assigned positions of responsibility in public sector corporations with little preparation or prior training. In this of course the forest service is not unlike many other professions, whether in the public sector or the private. If you look at the stories of many leaders of the corporate world, you will frequently come across this phenomenon of people being pitch-forked into positions of great responsibility in completely unfamiliar fields. As the central character in an American TV serial says, “I knew exactly what to do… but at a more fundamental level, I had no idea what to do”! Obviously, it becomes almost inevitable that one falls back upon some broad general approaches in this type of situation. Some would even hold that being a stranger to the domain is in a way an advantage, as it allows you to bring a fresh and unprejudiced approach to the strategic choices to be made.
On top of the unfamiliarity with the particular field of activity, and general sense of unpreparedness for the corporate world, the forest officer also has to contend with the considerable limitations of working in the government sector. Decisions that could be made in an instant in the private corporation, may take ages in the public sector. However, even the exacting government procedures do not necessarily insulate the officer from the outside world: at every step of the way, one has to contend with pressures from politicians, administrative superiors, and various interest groups, who usually are quite ready to sacrifice the corporation for their short-term interests (e.g., see Bhargava, 2013, on Air India’s sad story). This sort of situation again calls for some special techniques and approaches if one is not to be engulfed by the situation.
My own experience of the public sector forest corporation started with my first regular assignment, immediately after the six-month on-the-job training period in the state of allotment (that follows upon the 2-year course in the national forest academy and the 4-month training at the national administration academy). With this appointment, incidentally, my entire career was yanked out of the course that I had, in my innocence, imagined for it in the wildlife wing. Once cast into the forest corporation, I was also type-cast – into the special duty-deputation mould (away from the regular territorial forest organization), and could never get back into the mainstream sufficiently to ask for specific postings that would conform to my own liking or ambitions.One effect of such seemingly random postings is that one is repeatedly confronted with fresh challenges, in new and unfamiliar fields and working contexts: sometimes in the corporations, sometimes in research or education, sometimes on deputation outside the department, and so on. As one progresses in one’s career, it becomes apparent that the civil services are more or less a pool of reasonably competent administrators, to be redeployed as and when desired in different wings and sectors of the government machinery. This induces a healthy disregard of one’s own high worth or indispensability, and a certain sense of gratitude at having at least a reasonable posting in a reasonable location, with a reasonable superior (boss) and reasonable performance expectations! The down side is, of course, that one seldom develops a sense of having grown professionally in a particular field of expertise. It feels as if one is always starting from scratch in each new position, which may be why retiring forest officers are frequently heard saying that it feels like just yesterday that they joined the service, or that they feel like they have just scratched the surface in learning about the forests!
Need for forest corporations
The concept of forest corporations was mooted in the National Commission on Agriculture (NCA) report, which had a whole volume devoted to the forestry sector, apart from interim reports on individual sub-sectors, here the one on intensive man-made forestry (NCA, 1972). The reasoning was that India has huge tracts of degraded forest and scrubland that could be profitably converted into intensive plantations of industrial raw material like pulpwood. Indian forestry was said to be stuck in a low-investment, low-returns trap, and in need of large infusions of finance from outside to jolt it into a high-investment, high-returns trajectory. Since there were only limited funds available with government, such investment could come only from the financial institutions, such as banks and agricultural finance corporations. To be able to tap these sources, it would be necessary to set up forest corporations that could draw up ‘bankable’ plantation projects, and get large loans from the financial institutions. Government would provide the initial resources of land and some budget to start off these corporations, but they would have to be self-supporting in course of time.
In hindsight, criticism has been made of this whole chain of reasoning. The degraded ‘jungle’ that the policy-makers castigated as unproductive and useless, turned out to be the places from where the local communities were drawing biomass resources – for instance, firewood or brushwood, fodder, mulch, and in some cases even bamboo and other forest products. Of course, many of these resources were not being managed in a sustainable manner, but as the social critique developed over the years, this was ascribed to the insecurity of tenure of the local communities in the forest, rather than to their ignorance or short-sightedness. But forest officers, of course, felt that the forests were being treated as something of a ‘no-man’s property’, and that the only way to retrieve the situation would be to tighten control and keep people (and their livestock) out, as recommended by the NCA as well.
Thus forest departments took to this scheme with enthusiasm, corporations were set up, project proposals drawn up, and banks were persuaded to advance loans. Large areas were planted to fast-growing exotics like eucalyptus, which went mainly to pulp and paper mills or to the construction sector as scaffolding material. In their enthusiasm in increasing the ‘productivity’ of the Indian forest, even good moist or dry ‘mixed miscellaneous’ forests were cleared and converted to pulpwood plantations, let alone the degraded or scrub forest tracts. The already existing forest management units (the territorial divisions) also took up industrial or commercial plantations on cleared jungle, in a bid to increase the productivity of the forest lands under their charge, and contribute to the national economy.
Move to participatory modes
Unfortunately, many of these commercial plantation ventures did not do very well in the longer term. Due to a combination of factors, they did not live up to the promise of greater productivity, and often they could not find a remunerative price for the product. Many of them had deferred the periodic payment (to the lenders) of interest on loans, royalty or ground rent to the forest department, remittance of taxes, and so on. They had not been very successful in attracting any large funding from the agricultural finance institutions, due to the long time horizons of forestry projects and the difficulty of guaranteeing the 15% internal rate of return (IRR) usually required by them. These problems were confirmed by a special committee to look into the state of the forest corporations, set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India (GoI, 1990). The committee recommended (among other things) induction of management graduates, to help put up a convincing case to the finance institutions.
Among the reasons for the low survival rates and low outturn in the forest corporation plantations, surreptitious removals by humans must be considered. Local communities, the rural and semi-urban people at large, were used to taking material from the forest as a part of their life style. These people continued to go in and take fuelwood and poles (small timber) from both the remaining natural forest and the new plantations. As a consequence, the plantations were often of low density (stems per hectare), and thus could not maximize growth and yield over the given land area. There was constant conflict between the people and the forest staff, often resulting in violent confrontation. Social scientists, and some foresters themselves, had a growing feeling that a better, more ‘sustainable’ relationship had to be forged between communities and the state apparatus.
Some experiments in participatory forestry were taken up by individual forest officials with local communities, sometimes supported by academics or donor agency personnel in various parts of the country. Many of these experiments and early experiences are documented in a series of case study reports brought out (among others) by the Ford Foundation in India. Some of these experiences have achieved something like iconic status at least among Indian foresters and environmentalists, such as the Arabari experiment in West Bengal, and the soil and watershed restoration efforts in the Sukhna Lake upper catchment in Haryana (Poffenberger, 1990; Dhar, Gupta and Sarin, no date; Saxena, 1997). Such experiments showed that it was possible to forge a more cooperative, win-win relationship with local communities, and participatory or ‘joint’ forest management was made a national policy by the revised National Forest Policy of 1988, and a recommendation to adopt a participatory approach in forest development issued to the state governments by the central Ministry dealing with forests. These ideas were reflected in the frontispiece of the GoI report (1990) which quoted the following words from the “Planet of the Year” issue of the news magazine Time, 2 January, 1989: “Man must abandon the belief that the natural order is mere stuff to be managed and domesticated, and accept that humans, like other creatures, depend on a web of life that must be disturbed as little as possible”.
The next article will give some actual experiences in stare forest corporations, and relate them to the larger context of executive management of such entities over the long term.
[This article is being posted after a very long gap. I have spent the last few years getting degrees in different disciplines: Sociology, Philosophy, and a diploma in Sanskrit! Now with the Covid pandemic closing down outdoors activity, the time is ripe to work on the blog again!Thanks for viewing!]
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