April 6, 2015 12:12:52 am
After many years, there will be a high-level meeting, inaugurated by the prime minister and with invitees from all state governments, to discuss “Green India”. The meeting, which starts today, is a great opportunity to usher in change and reform. After 40 years of serving in this sector, I suggest some critical points for action.
First, refocus the relevant laws. We have a plethora of laws, some dating back to the middle of the 19th century and a clutch of them passed after 1947. At the moment, dozens of laws contradict each other and the interpretations by our judiciary are complex, to say the least. We need the best minds in this field in India to sit and write one law for forests, wildlife and forest people, and another for the environment. Both must be easy to understand and short.
Second, remodel the federal structure. The ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) needs to be revamped and bifurcated, if not into two ministries, at least two departments. This was agreed on by the prime minister a few years ago but he was overruled by a committee of secretaries. Forested India accounts for about 21 per cent of its area and deserves its own structure for good governance. So does the environment, which is increasingly a pressing urban issue. This change will ensure better practices.
Third, there is the matter of financial independence. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management And Planning Authority, started in 2002, has nearly Rs 35,000 crore accumulated from user agencies of forest land. We need to lay down a new plan to use these funds to protect forests. The best minds, both within and outside government, should be involved. The impact of such a plan could be game changing.
Fourth, restructure the Indian Forest Service (IFS). With nearly 2,00,000 men under its command, the IFS needs to be a crack service focused in the states. Today, it is in decline and field forest staff are demoralised. Its working mechanisms must be equal to those of the police and the army. State-of-the-art training is essential for the personnel and officers. The present process must be turned on its head, with new specialisations for the recruits, be it in wildlife, tourism or protection. This is a specialised service and no deputations can be permitted. Forest officers cannot be working in the passport office. We also need an environmental service to tackle the crisis of air and water pollution.
Fifth, some attention needs to be paid to wildlife and heritage towns. Millions of people live in large towns adjacent to national parks and sanctuaries — Sawai Madhopur, Bharatpur, Chandrapur, Chickmagalur and Jabalpur, to name just a few. Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, these places should be converted into model green towns with the best waste recycling processes and renewable energy. Their heritage value warrants preservation. Their impact on the environment must be low so that forests are protected better. Rajasthan has just taken up the idea to remodel such towns.
Sixth, any initiative to save our forests will only succeed with the engagement of the people living in the area. I have worked with the Rajasthan government to create the Van Dhan Yojana and it is now an approved scheme. It converges the dozens of Central and state government schemes towards a green mission in the area outside national parks and sanctuaries. It is flexible and site specific, and reduces the dependence of people on wildlife-rich areas. It is a win-win situation for both people and wildlife. It creates livelihoods that will encourage better forest protection, enables alternative energy and the best practices in dairy development. It is people-centred conservation at its best. The scheme is replicable all over India and, within days of being cleared in Rajasthan, it was modified and adapted in Maharashtra as the Van Jan Yojana. These are new ideas that can have an enormous impact.
Seventh, developing wildlife tourism. When tourism plays a critical role in conservation, the impact can be far-reaching, as seen in most countries in Africa. It boosts the economy, improves the GDP and makes a difference to the poorest. Our present prime minister is a great supporter of this concept. I know from experience that Ranthambore, which had no revenue generation from tourism in 1985, now has a turnover of several hundred crore each year. We desperately need to open our doors to innovative tourism, engaging both the local and the private player. We need partnerships that make a difference. We need to learn from Africa. Madhya Pradesh has already held a meeting on what could be our first private wildlife refuge. We need to support all such ventures and learn from their successes and failures.
Eighth, explore the option of public-private partnerships. If the ministry of finance has an office for PPPs, what stops the MOEFCC from having the same? Forest landscapes need to be open to this intervention. Till the best minds in and out of government come together on such missions, little will change. Zoos across nearly 200 cities should become nature education hubs and be handed to private players, as is the practice across the world. This is not the forest department’s job. If our passport office can have a private player and boast of such efficiency, surely the forests of India can do the same?
Ninth, consider the idea of lateral inductions. This step is vital for creative governance but everyone shies away from it. We need to bring in the talent to reform systems of governance that are decaying. For the moment, it could be on the basis of short- and long-term contracts. There are nearly 1,500 forest officers on some form of deputation or the other. Fill their positions with the best from the non-governmental world. Then assess the change. Administrative reform is key to change.
Finally, the problem of climate change needs to be addressed. The challenges in dealing with it are huge. If any state government ushers in change of the sort I suggest, it will have an enormous positive impact on this far-reaching global problem. I have suggested a new blueprint that protects forested India and thereby reduces the horrors of climate change. I hope that new ideas can trigger a debate and usher in change, because there has never been a moment like this. It needs our very best inputs and partnerships to safeguard our incredible natural world.
Thapar is author, most recently, of ‘Saving Wild India: Blueprint for Change’, out in June, and has spent 40 years working with wild tigers.
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