Why should India worry about its forest? Because it constitutes 20% of India’s land mass and is the last land bank left, not to mention that it is a treasure house of minerals, timber, water and so much more. Everyone today wants to bite into it. How do you best balance development and protect the natural world? On what criteria do your clear projects that are stuck in the logjam of green laws?
The first priority is to revamp and overhaul the service that manages this land. The Indian Forest Service has become old, tired and ragged and a completely new direction needs to be given to the 6,000 Central and state service officers and the bunch of 150,000 men supposed to guard this land. The service was created by the British in the 19th century to exploit India’s treasures and this mindset has never changed even 67 years after Independence. Neglected by our political leadership and compromised endlessly, it requires new criteria for recruitment, a new training schedule and a state focus like it was from the late 1930s to the late 1960s. The last thing we need is a national service. It is today like a reverse pyramid waiting to collapse as more and more officials have been thoughtlessly promoted and critical command positions of DFO (divisional forest officer) are fewer and fewer. The forest field is largely neglected as the directors of parks are now being posted in their final years of service and are touching the age of 60. Many of them are unfit and dislike the way their service has become top-heavy and obsessed with promotion and competitiveness with other civil services. The job at hand has suffered enormously. It needs emergency correction and change.
Public-private partnership is one of the planks that Prime Minister Narendra Modi believes in. He must induct into this tired service thousands of fresh minds and bodies for short- and long-term engagements. Scores of ambassadors have been appointed without their being Indian Foreign Service officers, dozens of people from outside the Indian Administrative Service were appointed secretary to the government and even the inductions of people like Sam Pitroda and Nandan Nilekani with Cabinet minister rank occurred without their being MPs. So why on earth have we not got this kind of fresh blood into the forests of India? We need induction at different scales of seniority if the government of the day means business.
The second vital area that Modi believes in is tourism since its benefits can percolate right down to the millions who live around our wildlife landscapes. Wildlife tourism is the mainstay of many economies in Africa and has been a factor not only in supporting local people but also in conserving species. Here in India it is run entirely by the forest departments, which create the rules and bend and enforce them. It needs to be outsourced out of the forest departments. The forest machinery must focus on protection and management. They are not trained to run tourism and have created a mess without innovative interventions and local goodwill. Sensible tourism will only promote wildlife conservation and help local economies. The outsourcing of this sector is a must.
The third priority is that the best legal minds create one single green law to prevent the endless contradictions that exist in our statute books on what you can and can’t do.
Our forest and development needs can go hand in hand but not without basic changes in the thinking and mindset of those who govern. There is no point in reconstituting the National Board of Wildlife with only three non-official members instead of 15. This is counterproductive and meaningless. Our new prime minister should start on a fresh note by leaving a lot of old baggage behind. This three-point programme is based on his own beliefs.
Valmik Thapar is author of Tiger fire—500 Years of the tiger in India
The views expressed by the author are personal