India’s forest governance needs systemic overhaul
The State must upgrade infrastructure, address staffing issues and utilise the skills of the department better
Last week, a wild elephant killed a senior Indian Forest Service officer, S Manikandan, in Karnataka’s Nagarahole Tiger Reserve. The death 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 protecting one-fourth of India’s land resources. Despite 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 projects.
While the State has 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. This reduces operational efficiency but also puts a lot of pressure on the existing frontline staff.
Second, there has to be better provisioning of budget 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 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. 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.
■ India lost 34 forest guards in 2012, 14 in 2013 and 24 in 2014. Forest fires, animal attacks and diseases take away many more lives each year