India’s forest governance needs systemic overhaul
India is committed to the implementation of the Paris climate change agreement and Sustainable Development Goals, which have ambitious targets for greening India. This means more pressure on the understaffed forest department.Updated: Mar 14, 2018 19:02 IST
Last week, a wild elephant attacked and killed a senior Indian Forest Service officer (IFS), S Manikandan, in a thickly forested area in Karnataka’s Nagarahole Tiger Reserve. The officer, who was the field director at the reserve, had gone to the area to assess the damage caused by a “mild” fire in the region. The death of such a senior officer again brings to the fore occupational hazards that foresters face regularly due to the unpredictable nature of forests and wildlife.
The forest department is responsible for managing and protecting one-fourth of India’s land resources. Despite several development challenges, it has protected and improved forest resources. For example, there has been an increase of over 8,021 sq km of forest area, which is roughly 1% increase from 2015. They have also scientifically managed India’s wildlife population: there has been an increase in the number of tigers. Between 2010 and 2014, India’s tiger population grew from 1,706 to 2,226. Similar positive results have been seen in elephant, rhino and crocodile conservation programmes.
While the State and society have paid handsome tribute to Manikandan, the real acknowledgment of his contribution will only happen if there are systemic changes in forest governance.
First, the State must address staffing issues. There is a 30-70% vacancy in departments, with many states failing to recruit staff on a regular basis. This reduces operational efficiency of the department but also puts a lot of pressure on the existing frontline staff.
Second, there has to be better provisioning of budget at both the national and state levels for regular upgrading of infrastructure, which will improve working condition of the staff and also tackle challenges such as poaching and fires. According to the International Rangers Federation, India lost 34 forest guards in 2012, 14 in 2013 and 24 in 2014. These are reported casualties. Forest fires, animal attacks and diseases take away many more lives each year.
Third, utilise the full potential of the department --- the State’s trustee of forests. The jungles are also home to poor tribal and rural communities. These communities, who are dependent on the minor forest produces, need access to clean energy, roads, and markets where they can sell their forest produce. The forest staff must be roped in to best implement these projects. In fact, many state forest departments have been doing well in terms of running medicinal plants boards, forest Infrastructure creation, local community engagement via ecotourism etc. Such a diverse domain knowledge pertaining to ground levels adds to the versatility of the service. But these don’t get utilised and is a loss to the effective implementation and better productivity of the government schemes.
Last but not the least, India is committed to the implementation of the Paris climate change agreement and Sustainable Development Goals, which have ambitious targets for greening India. This means more pressure on the understaffed forest department.
Parveen Kaswan and Akash Deep Badhawan are Indian Forest Service officers
The views expressed are personal