Forest officials have subverted premier research body for personal benefit: CAG

Indian Forest Service officials are occupying top posts meant for scientists in Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education; audit report says there has been no attempt to make the organisation autonomous

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Published: Tuesday 15 April 2014

icfreOver a 100 Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers, whose job is primarily to protect and conserve forests, are presently occupying numerous higher posts of researchers in the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE)—the apex body in the country for research in forestry. They have neither the knowledge nor the experience in research that qualifies them for these posts. Several IFS officers are drawing high salaries, more than what is prescribed, while many of them are occupying the positions even after their deputation period has ended. These are some of the findings of an audit carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India of the functioning of ICFRE.

The audit memo prepared in the first week of April by CAG’s principal director of audit for scientific departments reveals that the scientific and research activities in ICFRE have come to a halt as  the institution is completely taken over by the forest officials. It turns out that the autonomy of the institution has been subverted and rules have been flouted to allow “free and frequent deputations” of IFS officers on high posts in the council with undue benefits.

ICFRE was converted into an autonomous body in 1991 under the Societies Registration Act of 1860 to undertake “holistic development of forest research and education”. It was identified as one of the premier bodies in the national research system, similar to the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR). Government bodies such as the Planning Commission and the National Forest Commission had on several occasions recommended functional autonomy to ICFRE and augment its funding. This was considered as an important step to be taken during the 12th Five Year Plan.

However, in the past two decades or so not even a single step has been taken by the higher authorities to convert ICFRE into an autonomous structure like CSIR or ICAR, says the audit memo. “It can be...presumed that such attempt was not made simply due to the reason lest it should stop free and frequent deputation opportunities for IFS officers who presently seem to have gone astray from their mandated and primary objectives of protection, conservation of forest and maintaining ecological environment and rushing towards research fields,” says the audit report.

Posts diverted without sanction from Centre

In 1997, ICFRE had a sanctioned strength of 509 scientific, 1,029 technical and 599 administrative staff. Any change in this composition would have required approval from the Union Ministry of Finance (MoF). However, in 2007, ICFRE diverted 10 posts of specialists scientists to the post of deputy conservator of forests (meant for IFS officers) and upgraded them to a higher pay level of conservator of forests without the approval of MoF. In December last year, it further created 59 posts of deputy conservator/conservator of forests, opened the entry of foresters in all categories of staff which were not available to them initially and raised their pay scales by one level. On the other hand, it reduced the sanctioned strength of scientists from 509 to 280 and restricted the entry of scientific cadre to the higher posts. All this was done “unauthorisedly” without the approval of the MoF, says the audit report. The research officers, who were graduates in engineering or masters in science were denied the pay that was prescribed for them.

“ICFRE being a primary research organisation, creating an assembly and widespread net of IFS officers on deputations and offering them highest posts instead of scientists, thus squeezing the research activities, would definitely affect the mandated objectives of ICFRE and would be against the interest of the research organisation,” says the audit report. “Reducing the posts of scientists...was an attempt to suppress scientific activities and betraying with financial controls.”

While there has been no sanctioned post for the secretary in ICFRE, but there is one such post and it is occupied by IFS officers on deputation for the past six years. As per the Centre’s Department of Personnel and Training orders, no official can retain a position on deputation beyond the sanctioned five years unless it provides the approval for the extension. The audit found cases where foresters have been continuing on positions in ICFRE for up to seven years.

Favouritism rules

The IFS officers have got other benefits of “favouritism” as well. The audit memo highlights that an IFS officer of chief conservator of forests rank had joined ICFRE in January last year on deputation for three years but has been sent abroad for training for two years. This has been done under centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) despite the fact that CSS funding is not allocated to ICFRE, says the memo. “The officer is still drawing special pay without actual performance of duties. Allowing the foreign training for such a long period to a deputationist shows high level favouritism at public cost,” says the memo.

The memo says that the scientific and research activities were on a “standstill” in ICFRE. “The scientific and other support staff working under ICFRE was found cursing the day on which they consented to join ICFRE... There was complete widespread atmosphere of despair, dejection and depression amongst staff and officers over the autocratic rule of secretary, ICFRE...,” says the audit memo. It also highlights that ICFRE, through the secretary, has been flouting the orders of high courts and the Supreme Court in deciding the date of promotions of the staff.

The audit questions whether ICFRE should be allowed to operate in its present form given the present state of affairs. “There was widespread mismanagement in ICFRE consuming public funds for no public gains but only for personal gains and favouritism to individual officers and class of officers,” the report states. The memo has been sent to the director general (DG) of ICFRE, secretary of Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the financial adviser and additional secretary of MoEF to immediately take “corrective/remedial” actions. When contacted, S S Garbyal, DG of ICFRE, said he had not received the audit memo from CAG yet and, therefore, could not comment on it.

Feature: State failure and corruption: challenges for forest policy

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