Choking research

Choking  research walking through the corridors of the heritage building of Forest Research Institute ( fri ) and Indian Council of Forest Research and Education ( icfre ) in Dehradun one cannot but be impressed with the colonial architecture. The sprawling campus with its pine forest, rare and exotic trees and numerous birds, such as the black-headed oriole and the green-backed sunbird, is a marvel. But it takes more than an impressive building to create an institution. Sadly, icfre is losing its relevance as an institution of repute and value.

icfre is the governing body for all the forest institutes in India. The head of the organisation is called the director general ( dg ). But till very recently the organisation did not have any one holding the charge independently. For two years, its director general continued to shuttle between Delhi and Dehradun. M K Sharma, who held the post, was simultaneously the additional inspector general of forest in the Union ministry of environment and forests ( moef ). For two years, the government, in its wisdom, decided not to, have an independent head for institution. Quite like having a single captain manning two ships in troubled waters. A constantly shunting head of institution means bad administration. " icfre is a large institute. There are crucial cases that need approval from the director general. The institution cannot afford such a situation,' says a forest official at the extension division of fri.

icfre has suffered from problems of management for a while now. A single term of the dg is supposed to last for five to eight years. But, seven dg s have come and gone since the inception of the council in 1986. An average tenure of two years. Like Sharma, others have also simultaneously held other posts. "From the inception of autonomy till 1995, none of the dg s have completed their terms,' says a scientist at fri. H e adds, "this ad hoc approach at the top management level has ruined the council.' Even Sharma agrees that this can be a hurdle to efficient management. "Research is a long-term issue and with short periods of deputation, there is no continuity,' says a retired official of the moef .
The larger malaise The icfre was formed in 1986 and given an autonomous status in 1991. As an umbrella body, it governs the functioning of 11 other centres of research all over the country. The idea was to give research a fillip. That has not happened. "Earlier, most research work on forestry in India used to come to fri. It catered to the needs of the state forest departments,' states a senior ecologist at fri . But now, he laments, non-governmental organistaions are approached for consultation.'

The institution has been caught in controversies ever since, in 1991, it gained autonomy. For creating an autonomous institution, the employees were asked to agree to, accordingto a senior scientist, a tripartite agreement between the employees, the management and the government. But, till 1998, over 800 employees refused to sign on the dotted line. The moef , it is alleged, tried harsh tactics to make them accept the autonomy package. The moef issued notifications stating that employees not agreeing to the agreement would be regarded as "surplus staff'. This meant they could be thrown out of their jobs anytime. A government notification put it, rather euphemistically, that such employees could be "re-deployed at any time' and in a threatening note added: "their refusal (to join) nullifies the sincere effort for the smooth functioning of the organisation.'

The Van Anusandhan Sansthan Karmchari Sangh, a union of fri workers, approached the moef for a copy of the resolution making icfre autonomous. The ministry said: "the resolution is not available on the records of the ministry'. When approached by Down to Earth, the secretary, moef, refused to speak on the subject.

To add to the woes of the employees, only Rs 17 crore of the Rs 50 crore envisaged for the pension fund is currently available. And the icfre has to also bear the burden of paying pension to all Indian Forest Service ( ifs) officers on deputation to the institution. And, the number of ifs officers on deputation is not going down. To the contrary it has risen from 8 to 85 since the inception of icfre .

At loggerhead
There is not much love lost between the scientists in fri or icfre and the ifs officers on deputation. The dg 's post has been the exclusive domain of the ifs officers for the past fifty years. A scientist has never headed the council. Not that the rules do not allow it. But the dice is loaded in favour of the ifs officers. A scientist, to qualify, needs to have cleared his post graduation in first division, going on to do his PhD just as well. Then he must have spent 25 years as a group A scientist. He reaches the group A level after 10-15 years of service. The ifs officer simply requires a 25-year service period, which is not essentially spent in research. Unlike the scientists, he is not required to prove any research capabilities.

M K Sharma explains that ifs officials are the ones selected by a screening process while scientists are mainly the ones that are left behind when Union Public Service Commission examinations are conducted. He feels the criteria are fair enough and that there is no reason for scientists to complain.

The scientists are treated as second rate citizens for filling up all other administrative posts as well, accuse scientists. The board of governors of icfre is made up of 21 members. In this national research guiding body, currently only three are scientists. M K Sharma says this is so because no scientist is suitable for the post. This, scientists say, is a baseless charge. Sharma's reaction is only a reflection of the rift between the scientists and forest officials. And the rift is not a secret. "The confrontation has been going on for a long time,' says Upendra Arora, owner of Dehradun-based Natraj Publications, retailer and publisher of books exclusively on environment.

Murmurs increase to protestations when posts are created to absorb more ifs officers into the organsiation . Recently, a post of an additional director general (information management) was created, undermining the chief librarian. Sharma, the dg then, has this logic to give for appointing somebody who has no experience of library science as the head of the library: 'The librarian was told to buy books written in the vernacular as well as English. He did not. So we placed the ifs officer above him.'

Promoting inefficiency
The scientists at icfre have also suffered during assessments for promotion. According to the

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