Millennium Post

The Jungle raj

AN AUDIT of the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE) by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has shown that an ‘assembly of Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers’ has been arbitrarily running the council for personal benefits, sidelining the interests of scientists and researchers.

The audit memo, prepared in the first week of April by CAG’s principal director of audit for scientific departments, says over 100 IFS officers are occupying top posts, including those pertaining to research for which they have no experience, and drawing salaries more than what is prescribed. It says many IFS officers continue to hold posts on deputation even after the end of their deputation period and the number of sanctioned post of scientists has been arbitrarily reduced. Promotions and salary upgrades of scientists and technical staff are also being withheld.’ Scientific and research 
activities were made to remain standstill’ at the council, says the memo.

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 research bodies of the country, similar to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The Cabinet, in 1991, decided to reorganise the council on the lines of ICAR to make it flexible and to allow quick decisions.
However the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has not framed rules to work out the functioning of ICFRE on the lines of ICAR. Various bodies, such as the Planning Commission, National Forest Commission and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Forests, have also made recommendations to this effect in the past 23 years.

The CAG memo indicates that the ICFRE administration in MoEF, under the control of IFS officials, has deliberately not taken steps to run it on the lines of ICAR because the present set-up allows them to use the council as per their will. ‘It was...presumed in audit 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 memo.

Unlike ICAR or CSIR, where top positions are occupied by scientists recruited by an independent board after a standard process, the top posts in ICFRE are held by IFS officers, either through recruitment or deputation. Scientist complain it has been made impossible for them to reach top posts. To this end, ICFRE administration has been making and implementing rules arbitrarily.
Consider this. In 1997, ICFRE had a sanctioned strength of 509 scientific staff, 1,029 technical staff and 599 administrative staff. Any change in this composition would have required approval from the Union Ministry of Finance (MoF). But 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 taking approval from MoF, shows the audit memo. In December last year, the council created 59 posts of deputy conservator/conservator of forests, opened the entry of foresters to all categories of staff not available to them initially and raised their pay scales by one level. It also reduced the sanctioned strength of scientists from 509 to 280 and restricted the entry of scientific cadre to higher posts. All this was done without the approval of MoF, says the memo.

Flouting the orders of the Supreme Court, high courts and its own board of governors, the ICFRE administration, withheld promotion benefits to scientists, says the audit memo. ICFRE also denied research officers, who were graduates in engineering or masters in science, the pay grade prescribed for them. It spent close to Rs 80 lakh between 2010 and 2013 on service-related legal cases against scientists and research staff. The fee paid to legal counsels was much more than that prescribed by the government, says the memo.

‘The posts of IFS officers are upgraded arbitrarily and promotions of scientists are withheld so that the forest officials don’t have to work under scientists. In the past 10 years, the criteria for selection of Director General (DG) has been revised at least eight times to ensure scientists do not even reach close to this post. No other scientific organisation has different sets of criteria for the post of DG,’ says a scientist working with a research institute affiliated to MoEF. Of top 27 posts in ICFRE and its affiliated research institutes, 24 are currently held by IFS officers.

IFS officers appear to be getting several other benefits as well. The memo says there is no sanctioned post of secretary in ICFRE, but an IFS officer has been posted as the council’s secretary. As per orders of the Centre’s Department of Personnel and Training, no official can retain a position on deputation beyond five years without the department’s approval. But the audit has found cases where foresters, including the secretary of ICFRE, have been continuing on posts for up to seven years.

Denying the charges, Sudhanshu Gupta, secretary of ICFRE, says: ‘Selections to higher posts are done by a search committee of MoEF. It is a prerogative of MoEF to appoint the candidates they find suitable.’ He also maintained that the number of posts of scientists has not been reduced since 2000 and that the MoEF guidelines allow IFS officials to stay on deputation for up to seven years.
On the allegations that ICFRE, through its secretary, has been flouting court orders on the date of promotion of scientists, Gupta said the administration has been only following MoEF orders and as the matter was subjudice he could not comment further. In another case, the audit memo has highlighted that an IFS officer of the rank of chief conservator of forests, who had joined ICFRE in January last year on deputation for three years, has been sent on training abroad for two years. This has been done under centrally sponsored schemes (CSS), although CSS funding is not allocated for use by ICFRE, says the memo. ‘The officer is still drawing special pay without actual performance of duties. Allowing foreign training for such a long period to a deputationist shows high level favouritism at public cost,’ the memo says.

‘No action has ever been taken against the wrongdoings in ICFRE. The board of governors, which approves most of the decisions of ICFRE, has forest officers at its helm. The committees formed to review affairs at ICFRE have also been full of forest officials. Scientists have had little representation,’ says a former scientist with ICFRE.

By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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