In a major reorganisation plan, 10 regional offices of the MoEFCC and 19 centres of the Forest Survey of India (FSI), National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) and Central Zoo Authority (CZA) have been merged into just 19 regional offices of the Ministry. Question being raised is: Will they be able to work in tandem or will it turn out to be a classic case of ‘easier said than done’?
After merging the erstwhile ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation and the ministry of drinking water and sanitation to form the Ministry of ‘Jal Shakti’, the government has now gone ahead with another major merger. The ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) has reorganized its regional and sub-regional offices in the country from 29 to 19. These offices have come under one roof as integrated regional offices (IROs) and are being headed by deputy director general of forest (Dy DGF) known as regional officer. The IROs include offices of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Central Zoo Authority (CZA), Forest Survey of India (FSI) and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB). In Nagpur, NTCA regional office is also being merged with MoEFCC office. Though the decision has been taken in a bid to provide synergy and strength, and make regional offices more effective, there is still ambiguity about the notification as to whom the CZA, FSI, WCCB and NTCA officials report. “Except for the notification, nothing has been communicated to earlier regional offices. No clarity yet,” claims a well-placed source in the ministry.
As per the reorganization, the 19 IROs have been established through redeployment of human and other resources available with 10 regional offices of MoEFCC, 4 FSI offices, 3 NTCA regional centres, 4 regional offices of CZA, & 5 regional and 3 sub-regional offices of WCCB in an integrated manner. Each office will have representation from time to time. In the new set up, 10 existing regional offices at Shillong, Ranchi, Bhubaneshwar, Bengaluru, Chennai, Lucknow, Bhopal, Nagpur, Chandigarh and Dehradun are to be headed by deputy DGF level officer (equivalent to APCCF rank). Seven out of nine new offices at Jaipur, Gandhinagar, Vijayawada, Raipur, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Guwahati are to be headed by inspector general of forest (IGF) level officers (equivalent to CCF) drawn from NTCA and FSI. The remaining two offices at Jammu and Shimla are to be headed by deputy IGF-level officer (equivalent to CF) drawn from above four organizations. The staff strength of 703 sanctioned posts at 29 regional offices and centres will continue and will be redeployed among the 19 offices. The IROs, which are becoming operational from October 1, will be headquartered in Shillong; Ranchi; Bhubaneshwar; Bengaluru; Chennai; Lucknow; Bhopal; Nagpur; Chandigarh; Dehradun; Jaipur; Gandhinagar; Vijaywada; Raipur; Hyderabad; Shimla; Kolkata; Guwahati, and Jammu. Besides their assigned work, the IROs will also get additional responsibilities from the MoEFCC.
“With a view to achieving outcomes related to mandates of the MoEFCC in an improved, timely and effective manner, and in a bid to further enhance its outreach to stakeholders, the ministry will undertake coordinated action and optimise the utilisation of its available resources…” the notification says. “We have read the reorganization notification which is ambiguous. The mandate of NTCA is completely different and the conservation interests may not match with the regional empowered committees (RECs). We fear there should not be two power centres,” says a section of NTCA officials. Pleading anonymity, they say NTCA has been constituted under provisions of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. “Can regional officers under the new structure be authorized under WPA?” they ask. FSI officials say, “Forest Survey of India being a specialized institution created for forest cover mapping and forest inventory, it should not have been split and brought under the ambit of regional offices.”
“The exercise is being done for resource optimisation and increase efficiency. For example, Bengaluru had three offices, including the MoEFCC, FSI, and NTCA. There is a lot of inspection work and the area to be monitored is huge. Hence, the manpower is being redistributed,” says Sanjay Kumar, director-general (D-G), forests, MoEFCC. “In case, there is a big inspection, the integrated office will help. Similar will be the case for a large scale wildlife operation, or for that matter an intensive plantation exercise. This helps synchronise time, prevents cost overrun, and also comes in handy for monitoring some of the key projects,” he adds. Agreeing to this, retired IFS official from UP, Anuj Kumar Saxena, says: “Due to the merger, reduction of offices will take place which will help in removing disparity. The work style of every department is different irrespective of the rules. This merger would lessen the deformity and widen the outlook.” Well, that is something to watch for in the future! “Thus, the merger is a good move but it would have been better if the departments were given autonomy. It should have been a balance between the two,” he adds.
Dr HS Pabla, former chief wildlife warden of MP and an expert on wildlife conservation with a numbers of books on the subject, says he does not see any problem in the merger unless it causes a reduction in the workforce. “I don’t think that the government has any ulterior motive. This move must have been an effort to rationalize the operations and economize the resources because there are many separate offices due to which unnecessary expenses are caused. The government must have gone through all the aspects and how it can be best performed. I think we should look forward to it. There are certain odd points in the reorganization though. NCTA is an authority which is not a part of the government, technically saying. Similar is the case with WCCB. No doubt, FSI is a part if the ministry but WCCB, NTCA, CZA are statutory authorities. In totality, I think it’s a good idea.”
The reorganization should benefit CZA. The CZA has to hire experts for evaluation of zoos, which is not only time-consuming but costly too. This is delaying many processes for effective management and modernization of zoos. Each zoo has to be evaluated annually, but in 2019-20, 117 cases of evaluation are pending. Now, this process will be expedited.
IFD was also not too sure?
However, the Integrated Finance Division (IFD) of the Environment Ministry had raised several questions over this massive reorganisation plan. It was revealed in the IFD’s notes Assam-based environmental activist Rohit Choudhury’s had accessed through a Right To Information (RTI) application seeking information about the Ministry’s restructuring move. According to its notes, the IFD had sought to know if the proposal was for administrative functioning or involved financial management apart from the impact on NTCA’s existing recruitment rules for several key posts. The IFD also sought clarity on the status of organisations such as NTCA after merger in a scheme, and whether they would be reporting to their headquarters via the regional office headquarters unlike the existing direct access. The possibility of interference in the functioning of these key wings of the Ministry has not been ruled out too.
The stated objective of merging regional offices with the NTCA, WCCB, CZA and FSI centres is improving efficiency and ensuring better coordination. But environment and wildlife activists see in the push for this restructuring plan during the COVID-19 lockdown a design to make these key conservation wings of the Ministry toothless. They also point out that each of these bodies have fairly distinct mandates- zoo management, tiger conservation, wildlife crime etc, and merging all of them would, one, lead to loss of autonomy and two, weaken the concentrated efforts. Chaudhary says: “That is reorganisation exercise is being carried out secretly during lockdown is a cause of concern. If they go ahead, NTCA regional offices that are like last frontiers in protecting wildlife will have to report to two bosses: Deputy Director General of MoEFCC regional offices and also to Member Secretary of NTCA in New Delhi. There is no doubt that reorganisation will result in loss of independence an integrity of NTCA, WCCB, and FSI. Pressure can be exerted on the officials to accord clearances for environmentally-disastrous projects.” Deepak Kumar, IFS, CCF, JFM, holds a different view and adds: “The departments are dependent on each other. Wildlife is dependent on forest protection and for forest protection we need stricter land divergent rules. Similarly, biodiversity is linked with forest and wildlife. These bodies may be having different agendas but most of them are overlapping. These days regional issues are more prominent and the merger might ensure better management.”
Role of the EIA compromised?
Dr Bajrang Singh, with 40 years of experience in Environmental Science, Rtd. as senior principal scientist from National Research Botanical Institute, and currently looking after EIA matters, says: “This merger is not an effective solution for distribution of work. There should be different sectors for carrying out different mandates and only the sector in-charge should be having its responsibility. In my opinion, I don’t see the merger proving advantageous in any way. Then, autonomy of the departments such as the FSI, WCCB, CZA will be disturbed. The government should be clear on the reason to merger the various bodies. Before carrying out further processes, setting up of an expert committee is imperative. Their guidelines regarding the pros and cons should be held seriously just as in the case of Biodiversity Park. If environmental problems are ignored today, we will invite graver problems tomorrow. Launching such projects in the name of development single-handedly curbs the role of the EIA. What is the use then? Prior to clearing infrastructural projects, biodiversity should be critically thought of.” He points out: “In order to get environmental clearances, companies adopt the policies of underhand dealing. The companies which get the tender adopt objectionable methods like feeding money which is not at all supported by genuine environmentalists and scientists. If the merger proves to be a catastrophe or leads to undesirable consequences, then the greatest thing would be to revert it.”
Challenge of a different kind?
But, for wildlife activist from UP and ex-member of Wildlife Board of Uttarakhand, Kaushalendra Singh the picture is far from rosy. “Well, if I tell you straight away, I remain very disappointed with these things. In Uttar Pradesh time to time tiger reserves have been declared, but nothing is going to happen by utopian declarations only. You may declare as many reserves as you may please, but from where are you going to get the individuals officers and officials who are ready to work in the field with full commitment? It makes absolutely no difference if you either merge the offices or expand them. The officers today are not willing to work. There are people who keep saying Dudhwa is heaven on earth. I don’t understand why! Dudhwa is finished now in my opinion. There are just a few tigers left, but no one is bothered. Recently I met the principal secretary of the forest. He was very critical regarding this.” He adds: “Development should be done at places where there is abundance of wildlife not at places which are a home to endangered rare species. Let me give you an example: The tribal villages of Surma and Golbojhi celebrated their liberation on the occasion of International Labour Day on May 1. The freedom came after 107 years of struggle when the tribals got ownership of the forestland they have been dependent on for centuries. Home to about 450 Tharu tribe families, the two forest villages are situated in the core zone of the Dudhwa National Park in Lakhimpur district of UP. At a time when tribal areas in the country are in the grip of Naxalism, Surma and Golbojhi got liberation after decades of non-violent democratic struggle without firing a single bullet. The two villages are also the first tribal settlements in the country, situated in a national park, to get benefit of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. Around 700 acres of the forestland has been distributed among the tribals with each family getting up to four acres. The UP government has also granted them the status of Ambedkar villages, which means that they will now have road connectivity, a primary school and a health centre. Tribals are now also entitled to benefits of various welfare schemes of the state and central governments. The villages are also expected to get the community ownership of the forest land and its produce soon, allowing tribals access to dry grass and wood, tendu leaves, herbs and other forest produce to support their families and livestock. No wonder this achievement is historic. That’s the reason why over 5,000 forest dwellers from different parts of UP came to take part in the festivities. Now people have land which they can cultivate for livelihood, send children to school and benefit from constitutional rights as citizens of India. The success has come after years of sacrifices, hardship and untold misery. Ironically, the entire event was ignored by the mainstream national media, which, however, efficiently covers Naxal violence in tribal areas and gives unnecessary space to those who glamorize and try to justify Naxalism or Maoism. Many peaceful revolutions like those of Surma and Golbojhi are taking or have taken place in India but are not getting the required media attention. Maybe “peace” is not sensational enough to attract eyeballs required for TRP and the stories about poor tribals preferring non-violent Satyagrah over Naxalism are not moving enough to boost readership.”
Functions of the statutory bodies
One is unable to comprehend, hence bound to ask: Knowing that these different important organizations have totally distinct functions to perform, how is this merger going to be of any help in carrying out all the objectives smoothly? To understand this better, let us have a look at the functions of each of these bodies.
• National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA): NTCA is a statutory body under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change constituted under enabling provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as amended in 2006, for strengthening tiger conservation, as per powers and functions assigned to it. NTCA’s main objectives include laying down guidelines, standards for tiger conservation in the reserves, apart from sanctuaries and national parks; providing information on protection measures which includes tiger estimation, future conservation plans, mortality survey, disease surveillance, patrolling, keeping an eye on poaching activities etc.; to support any facilitate any kind of suggestion and management in the states through eco-development and generating awareness for people’s participation. “Project Tiger” has witnessed gigantic success in India and the number of tigers has drastically amplified from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 as of 2018. The merger may lead to a large number of hierarchies which would only add to chaos and confusion at the administrative level. India has become a global leader in the world in terms of tiger conservation owing to the dedicated efforts of the NTCA. The merger might result in losing that position. The superlative possible scenario would be to not bother NTCA’s line of command. Activists and environmentalists are of the view that this reorganisation aims to make the NTCA a dysfunctional entity.
• Forest Survey of India (FSI): Established on June 1, 1981, FSI is a national organization under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, responsible for assessment and monitoring of the forest resources of the country on a regular basis. Some of its major objectives include functioning as nodal agency for collection, compilation, storage and dissemination of spatial database on forest resources; to strengthen research and development infrastructure in FSI and to conduct research on applied forest survey techniques; to undertake forestry related special studies/consultancies and custom-made training courses for SFD’s and other organisations on project basis. Experts say even the Forest Survey of India (FSI) should not be brought under the ambit of regional offices since it is a specialised institute for forest cover mapping and forest inventory.
•Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB): It aims to conserve the wildlife wealth by proper and effective intervention into matters related to capacity building of enforcement agencies in the field of wildlife crime enforcement and by providing financial assistance to create deterrence to the organized wildlife crime nexus.
Disregard of WPA 1972?
The Wildlife Protection Act 1972, under which the National Board of Wildlife functions, does not conscript anything that permits the body to take decisions via video conferencing as was done in this case. According to the rules, it has been stated that the committee should meet but there is no exemption that they might not meet or if they can take such decision over digital meetings. In fact, there are such provisions where hard copies of project maps and reports have been made obligatory through The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020. Environment Impact Assessment is a process that evaluates and assesses the effect of newly proposed industrial or infrastructural projects on the environment and aims at averting the approval and initiation of any project without further supervision. Also, it does not seem practical to be able to scrutinise a map and pin point the exact location of the project in a video meeting. Though this guideline has been issued to safeguard the environment and make such processes more transparent and expedient, activists oppose it stating that it offers a “façade of legal paperwork”. It is important to note that the EIA notification 2020 is a replacement of The EIA notification of 2006. The Indian Government issued the first Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in the year 1994 under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA). The vilest part is that these committee meetings which take days to arrive at a decision, get limited to an impractical duration of 2 hours. Also, site inspection is a crucial part of any project evaluation. Dejectedly, it has been missed too. The Ministry appears to be counting only on digital documents uploaded by project developers during video conference calls which are a paradox of the Supreme Court guidelines in the Lafarge judgment. The signatories pointed out that such appraisals and assessments are reduced to an “empty formality”. Though this does not seem to be practical, many officials hold a contradicting view, thereby stating, “The time during which the EIA notification was issued, the pandemic wasn’t a reality. The circumstances were different then”. The question is that how does this make the merger defensible in any form.
MoEFCC in incongruity to the Lafarge judgment of 2011
The Supreme Court of India had previously ordered the MoEFCC to strictly comply with the guidelines of the Lafarge Judgment of 2011 so that the clearance process of projects may be stiffened. Not to any amazement, the MoEFCC clearly walked over these guidelines in place of acting as a protector of the environment. The Lafarge judgment is hailed for providing clarity on two important issues—firstly, for its elucidation about the extent of judicial review in situations where environmental clearances have been granted but are later challenged with respect to the validity of the said process, and secondly, for laying down comprehensive guidelines for future projects that involve both forest and environmental clearances. The Court had also opined that the protection of the environment is an ongoing process and therefore “across-the-board” principles cannot be applied to all cases. Courts would have to examine the facts of each case on whether the project should be allowed or not. The “margin of appreciation” doctrine would apply in matters where questions are raised regarding governmental errors in giving way to environmental clearance. The standing of this section of the judgment is that the Court lays down a clear principle that if a project developer conforms with the specified procedure for obtaining environmental clearances and there is evidence on record that the entity granting the clearance had done so after due consideration, such clearances would not be reversed to the prejudice of the project developer. This provides some much-needed stability to the environmental clearance process and both project developers and environmental activists would definitely benefit from this unswerving approach. The Court had taken bold steps to remove the various tailbacks that plague development projects, while ensuring that the environmental agencies follow established directives and principles of protection of environment in granting environmental clearances. MoEFCC hails the guidelines of the Court, namely, the prominence of the National Forest Policy, 1988, in determining whether to grant environmental clearances and the establishment of an independent regulator, amongst other things.
Clearance to projects at the stake of environment
In the midst of the fight against Covid-19, the government has been on a race to give forest and wildlife clearances to corporates keeping environment at stake. Anuj Saxena adds: “Lockdown is now a part of life. We cannot wait too long for things to move. Things will have to be continued just as they were moving forward before lockdown”. In order to get a green clearance from the central government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), it is mandatory to get the approval of the expert panels which includes The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and 10 Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC). Once the project is passed by the panels, then comes the role of the environment ministry to take the final decision. While the meetings of the expert panels were earlier cancelled in view of the nationwide lockdown, it is caustic that many of them were later held via video conferencing in the month of April and May. While the Ministry justified it on the grounds of “clearing proposals for seamless economic growth during Covid-19”, the environmentalists severely criticised it since the field visits could be done. Moreover, green clearance laws have no provisions allowing video conferencing. Here are a few instances:
•Coal Mining Project in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, Assam: According to media reports, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recommended coal mining in a part of an elephant reserve in Assam on April 24. This move permits drilling inside a wildlife sanctuary that is a habitat to endangered lion-tailed macaques and great Indian hornbills. Dehing Patkai rainforest is the largest tropical evergreen rainforest in Northeast India.
•Uranium survey in Telangana’s Amrabad Tiger Reserve: An application for exploration of Uranium over 83 sq km of forests in Telangana’s Amrabad Tiger Reserve. It was followed by protests by environmentalists and local people.
•Drilling boreholes in Sharavathi Sanctuary: In May, Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) received permission from the Karnataka Forest Department to carry out geo-technical investigation by drilling inside the Sharavathi Valley Lion-tailed Macaque Wildlife Sanctuary which also has Myristica swamps, freshwater swamp forests- a home to a wide range of reptile, birds and amphibian species.
•Etalin Hydro-power project in Arunachal Pradesh: In the Dibang valley, in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian government has been planning to set up the Etalin Hydropower Project over two rivers, the Dri and the Tangon, situated inside the Dibang catchment zone. The argument around the project has many aspects. One is environmental: close to three lakh trees are expected to be felled to make way for the dam, and the project site is home to several species of wildlife. There is a high lushness of riverine birds and 450 other species of birds in the Dibang valley. The project would negatively impact the birds and would also destroy their habitat. Once the project gets forest clearance from the MoEFCC, it would result in the felling of over 270,000 trees.
These are just a few cases out of more than 30 proposals that have been cleared. India’s protected areas which are a benign haven for wildlife and biodiversity is being lost to such hasty activities of the environment ministry. Anuj Saxena rightly remarks: “There should be a definite balance between saving the environment and development. I feel that for this, there is a need to examine the ground reality and also to know who is actually concerned for the environment and to what extent. It entirely depends on what our priorities are.”