A proposal from “various VIPs” in Himachal Pradesh last year to change the jurisdiction of the Dehradun regional office of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to Chandigarh has triggered a massive restructuring plan.
The reorganisation plan entails merging the 10 regional offices of the MoEF&CC 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) into just 19 regional offices of the Ministry.
The stated objective of merging regional offices with the NTCA, WCCB, CZA and FSI centres is improving efficiency and ensuring better coordination.
However, environment and wildlife activists see the push for restructuring during the COVID-19 lockdown as a design to make these key conservation wings of the Ministry toothless.
A meeting with the heads of all regional offices and specialised wings on the restructuring issue was held on May 2 under the chairmanship of the Director-General of Forests and Special Secretary (DGF&SS) through a video-conference.
The Hindu had on May 5 sent a questionnaire to the official email IDs of Minister Prakash Javadekar, the DGF&SS, the Secretary of MoEF&CC, the Member Secretary of NTCA, Additional Director of WCCB and the CZA on the issue. There have been no replies from any of them till date.
Crucial wings weakened
“These important organisations have very different objectives — forest management, species conservation, enforcement and research. Increasing efficiency and transparency is a must, but I am not sure this is going to be achieved by merging such very different bodies together. In fact, it could well weaken India’s efforts to protect the environment, at a time in history when it is critically needed,” said Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
“That this 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 have to report to two bosses: Deputy Director-General of MoEF&CC regional offices and also to Member Secretary of NTCA in New Delhi,” said Assam-based environment activist Rohit Choudhary, who filed an RTI on April 20 seeking details of the plan.
“There is no doubt that reorganisation will result in loss of independence and integrity of NTCA, WCCB and FSI. Pressure can be exerted on the officials to accord clearances for environmentally-disastrous projects,” he added.
N.K. Vasu, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Assam, differed. “Granted that the specialised wings have some independence but they end up reporting to the same boss. The Ministry has been working on putting everything under one umbrella, which makes sense for sanctioning various schemes,” he said from Jaipur, where he is engaged with a project on conserving the Great Indian Bustard.
According to the plan, all 10 existing regional offices — Shillong, Ranchi, Bhubaneshwar, Bangalore, Chennai, Lucknow, Bhopal, Nagpur, Chandigarh and Dehradun — will be headed by Deputy Director-General level officers; seven of the nine new offices — Jaipur, Gandhi Nagar, Vijayawada, Raipur, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Guwahati — will be headed by the Inspector-General of Forests level officers and the remaining two — Jammu and Shimla — will be headed by Deputy Inspector-General of Forests level officers.
There is, however, no plan to reduce staff strength in the restructuring.