Survey of surveyors

Is there hope yet for BSI, ZSI?

By Sumana Narayanan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

A review  to help modernize two of India’s premier survey organizations has suggested their merger, greater autonomy, and a shift from Kolkata’s warm and humid atmosphere to drier Hyderabad. On January 5, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests published the report of its task forces appraising the Botanical Survey of India (bsi) and the Zoological Survey of India (zsi). These government bodies determine India’s plant and animal diversity.

Set up in 1890 (bsi) and 1916 (zsi), the surveys need overhauling. “Both institutions have played a tremendous role in documenting India’s biodiversity in the past,” said Priya Davidar, dean of the School of Life Sciences at the Pondicherry University. “But radical changes are needed if they are to join the modern scientific world. ”

It is widely known that the bureaucratic functioning of the two institutions inhibits collaborative research. “There is much red tape before projects are cleared,” Aparna Watve, bsi alumnus, said. “The institutions are so conservative that we got computers just five years ago,” she added.

Coming from government task forces, the report only hints at the problems afflicting the surveys and then goes on to suggest remedies. There are four major changes it seeks. One, that the surveys should recognize the work of other institutions and individuals in what is its mandate: survey, collection and documentation of wild plants and animals. They should have greater autonomy and “should be viewed as nodal, but not exclusive, agencies”.

image“Many government organizations that were turned into autonomous societies failed to deliver because of their dependency on government grants”

— Jagdish Kishwan, former director general, Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education
Two, the organizations be restructured. The report talks of merging the two into one Biological Survey of India, which should have greater autonomy and scope for collaborative research. It suggests the surveys be reorganized as autonomous societies, each survey would have a research advisory committee to clear research programmes.

Three, it seeks filling up of vacant posts and a new approach to recruitment and training of scientists. “During last 15 years a large number of senior scientists have retired, and in many branches we do not have a single, trained scientist, even outside the survey network,” it notes. bsi has a personnel shortfall of about 25 per cent, especially in taxonomists working on groups like fungi and algae. Taxonomic training in the universities is sadly falling behind, making it difficult for both the surveys to find suitable people. The report emphasizes training and collaborating with barefoot ecologists and grassroots surveyors.

Four, the report reckons Kolkata, where the two surveys are headquartered, is not “conducive to maintenance of collections” due to its warm and humid climate. “Hyderabad may therefore be made the focus of further major development of infrastructure for the surveys,” it suggests, citing the city’s drier climate and “vibrant scientific culture”. The creation of a joint dna laboratory with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology is another reason for the shift the report recommends.

The task forces comprised ex-survey researchers, independent researchers and ministry of environment officials. Ecologist Madhav Gadgil headed both the task forces.

Is it possible?

“These are good ideas but the question is whether the surveys are capable of change,” said Davidar. She said the money would be better used if put into the university system, which trains young scientists to do exciting projects.

Ecologist Madhav Gadgil headed both the task forces appraising BSI and ZSI. Their report talks of merging the two bodies into one Biological Survey of India, with greater autonomy and scope for collaborative research
A retired bsi official, who held a top job in a regional centre, agreed. “It is impossible to change the system; that would require changing the mindset of people in it. And they are happy with status quo—a permanent government job,” he said, asking not to be named.

Jagdish Kishwan does not favour autonomy. He should know, being a former director general of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education and now J&K’s forestry chief. “Many government organizations that were turned into autonomous societies have failed to deliver because of their dependence on government grants. bsi and zsi are too are not revenue generating organizations,” he said. The report does not break any new ground, Kishwan said. “It has not focused enough on the surveying of biodiversity. It gives no clear framework providing guidelines for such surveys,” said Kishwan.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.