Remote control

Published: Saturday 15 November 2008

Remote control

Down to Earth  
R L Maravi patrolling the Koppedabri beat, Kanha  Photo-Agnimirh Basu
Officers prefer urban postings. Forest guards are overworked, underpaid

From managing timber to managing conservation and participatory forest management to the implementer of Supreme Court orders, ifs's role has gone through a sea change over the past three decades. There is confusion and lack of focus in the service. In 2003, the Centre constituted the National Forest Commission. Headed by retired chief justice of India, B N Kirpal, it reviewed the working of the forest and wildlife sector and made a string of recommendations.

Among them was identifying, on priority, a well-defined vision and goal for the forest service. The government has created several divisions in state forest departments; apart from territorial units, there are divisions for subjects like social forestry and afforestation. It was to make the system efficient by reducing workload, but has backfired.The commission noted it had led to overlapping jurisdictions. Uncoordinated units are actually more inefficient. Several protected areas lacked working plans. Park managers, lacking knowledge and commitment, were developing the protected areas by making roads and watchtowers when these were uncalled for, or even detrimental to conservation, the commission said.

In fact, the working plans are a farce on conservation. Created every 10 years for each division, they lay down the division's targets, ways to achieve them, and budgetary allocation. The plans are based on the working plan code of the service, which draws from the Centre's forestry policies. "The plan puts down how much timber will be extracted, what will be planted, and when it will be harvested," said Mukherjee. After a Supreme Court order to check the plan deviating from the code, the state has to send the plan to the Centre. The code is now being revised, Mukherjee added.

The creation of divisions requires some officers be stationed in district headquarters, in towns. These postings are preferred by all officers. "On paper posting is in rotation, but in reality it doesn't occur," said Rajneesh Kumar Singh, in charge of the Mukhi range in Kanha National Park of Madhya Pradesh. "People in territorial posts avoid field posts because of the hard life there. No schools, no hospitals, no electricity. Wildlife or field posts are considered punishment postings." This has an impact on forestry skills and competence. "Foresters today are going soft, they want to live in cities and travel only by car. You can't do that. You can't say that you won't walk in the forests or interact with villagers. A forester must be in the forest," said Pankaj Khullar, principal chief conservator of forests (pccf) of Himachal Pradesh.

Then there is the comparison with administrative and police services. "This drift away from field knowledge and practice is a consequence of making ifs a central service, pitting it into a needless status war with ias and ips. This process began in 1967, and the field-oriented, knowledgeable foresters have got replaced by the products of this white collar, centralized culture," said Karanth. This has led to new pressures on cadre management. "There is a lot of infighting within the service," said Sharma. "People want lucrative posts like pccf. So strings are pulled to get these posts and instead of one pccf per state there are three or four."

Trickle down effect
Among the ranks, job satisfaction is low. There are no amenities, no break from physically demanding work, and salaries are low, as are opportunities for promotion. For forest guards, it is little more than a government job to make ends meet. "Before I joined the service I was teaching at a school. But that was a temporary position, so when I got this job I took it up because it is a permanent position," said R L Maravi, forest guard in Kanha National Park.

The work load has increased because of low recruitment. "In the Sunderbans, there is a 50 per cent vacancy at the forest guard level and a 25 per cent vacancy at the forest ranger level due to a fund crunch. The sanctioned staff strength has not been increased in 30 years," said Pradip Shukla, director of the Sunderbans biosphere reserve in West Bengal. The 50 per cent vacancy at the forest guard level exists across the country, and has resulted from government policy.

The average age of forest guards is high--in some states it is 50. The ageing guards have to work harder, because the beat area to patrol on foot remains high. Jharkhand's Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary has one guard, instead of the six required, per circle of about 2,400 hectares. The mismanagement of India's forests begins with mismanagement of recruiting and training in the forest departments.

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