Monday, November 8, 2010
Forests department proposal mired in red tape
(Published in The Pioneer dated November 8, 2010)
This is what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told his Minister for Environment and Forests in response to a suggestion that a new Department of Forests & Wildlife be created to better manage these natural resources. He said it during the 5th meeting of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) held this March, reacting to a suggestion made by noted wildlife film maker and author Valmik Thapar. An enthusiastic Jairam Ramesh nodded his head. He later said he was committed to having the “architecture” of the new department in place within six months — in September. But that has not happened.
And, if Ministry mandarins are to be believed, the new department is unlikely to be born soon. Clearly, the Prime Minister’s sense of urgency and the commitment of the Minister have been insufficient to prod the bureaucracy into action.
According to a senior official in the Ministry, a note detailing the proposal has been circulated to the Ministries of Finance, Law and Personnel for their inputs. The official, who did not wish to be named, told The Pioneer, “We are waiting for the response from the various Ministries to whom the proposal has been forwarded for comments. Based on their response, further steps will be taken. In any case, the bifurcation is not going to happen soon”.
Thapar is naturally dismayed. Talking to The Pioneer, he said, “We had the NBWL meeting in March 2010. The Prime Minister asked Jairam Ramesh to “do it”— move to create a new forests & wildlife division. Unfortunately, since then, there is little to show for that resolve. I am told a note has been prepared by the Ministry, but it is lost in bureaucratic maze. Perhaps the IAS lobby is blocking it, because the proposal calls for an official from the Indian Forest Service — and not from one among its fraternity — to head the proposed division in the rank of a Secretary”.
He said the separation of the two departments was absolutely essential to meaningfully address issues of wildlife and forests. “The bifurcation should happen because the Ministry is so preoccupied with environment-related issues that it finds little time to devote to wildlife and forests. Ninety per cent of the Ministry’s time is devoted to environment. Don’t forget that one-fifth of the country’s landmass comprises forests. The proposed department would at least give our forests the attention they deserve”.
The outspoken wildlife expert added that the Government needed to take organisations like the NBWL more seriously. Referring to the 4th Board meeting that was held before the March 2010 meet, he said that was way back in 2007. It was some two and half years later that the Board next met. “By not meeting regularly, we are making important institutions like the Board defunct. I trust it will meet more often at least from now on”, he said.
Even in the 2007 meeting, the Prime Minister had assured that the next meeting would be conducted six months later, but it took 30 months for that to happen, he pointed out.
Thapar is upset by the delay even more because he believes that the creation of a separate department could be the first crucial step in the bifurcation of the Ministry itself into two: Forests & Wildlife Ministry and Environment Ministry. “Eventually a completely new Ministry to handle forest and wildlife management is the ideal thing. The proposed new department could be a beginning in that direction. Unfortunately, we are faltering at the first step”, he lamented.
Ramesh is on record saying the move to create a new forests and wildlife department was “a decision taken” and that the Ministry should “use the opportunity of having a field-oriented department of wildlife”. Ramesh had also expressed the desire to bring about far-reaching changes in the manner the Ministry handled such issues.
He had said in April, “I want to use the opportunity to fundamentally restructure the way we are managing our forests and wildlife. It will take another 2-3 months before the full architecture of this new department emerges”.
The suggestion to divide the departments had come even as far back as 2006 at a Board meeting - with the Prime Minister’s office lending its support — but it was successfully thwarted by the Ministry because it feared loss of control over the forests and wildlife assets. Ramesh’s arrival in the Ministry led to revival of the move, but it remains to be seen if the Minister can ‘do it’.