A corrupt clique of Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers has cankered one of India’s proud institutions, the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), which has an illustrious history to match its heritage building in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. The worst of this is that many officers have refused to let their education interfere with their schooling and helped themselves to PHDs from the once hallowed Forest Research Institute (FRI) University, which functions under the ICFRE and is located in the same campus, under dubious circumstances, as a series of RTI queries over more than six months revealed.
A note from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s audit team dated 2 April 2014 to the director general of ICFRE encapsulated the situation in its subject line itself — “Sub: Arbitrary functioning of ICFRE — Abundance of mismanagement and maladministration.”
The CAG’s audit memo No. 21 notes that the then prime minister Manmohan Singh exhorted the ICFRE to reorient itself along the lines of other autonomous bodies such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (csir). Singh’s May 2013 speech had also suggested that the ICFRE would get augmented funds under the 12th Plan. The audit memo says the attempt to move towards greater autonomy was not made “lest it should stop free and frequent deputation opportunities for IFS officers who presently seemed to have gone astray from their mandated and primary objectives of protection, conservation of forest and maintaining ecological environment and unrestrictedly rushing towards research fields”.
The CAG memo observed that there were 104 IFS officers serving on deputation in ICFRE and allied institutions. These officers occupied high positions such as Group Coordinator, Research (GCR) and Deputy Director General (Research). Officers holding these offices were doing it “without any knowledge and experience of the initial alphabets in the field of research”. The memo advised that it would be better and definitely in “public interest” if the research field is left open for researchers.
“There was widespread mismanagement in ICFRE, consuming public funds for no public gains but only for personal gains and favouritism to individual officers and class of officers,” the memo notes. It was sent to the director general (DG) of ICFRE, secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and the financial adviser and additional secretary of moef to immediately take “corrective/remedial” actions.
It is not without reason that the CAG note seems to be liberal in its scorn for the institute and its top officials. In 2011, GS Rawat, an IFS officer from Tamil Nadu, saw his PHD cancelled by VK Bahuguna, the then chancellor of the FRI University and director general of ICFRE.
“The investigation against Rawat’s phd degree was on since long. But after I became the chancellor of the FRI University, the committee investigating Rawat’s degree recommended its withdrawal, as they found it to be fake, and I did just that,” Bahuguna, who is now principal secretary of the forests, animal resources and agriculture department of the Tripura government, told Tehelka.
The FRI is the direct descendent of the Imperial Forest Research Institute that was set up by Dietrich Brandis, a German forester who worked for the British imperial forest service and is renowned as the father of tropical forestry. The FRI was conferred with the status of a deemed university in December 1991 by the Central government on the recommendation of the University Grants Commission (UGC). Subsequently, it was notified as FRI University vide a notification dated 12 February 2007, with reference to UGC notification No. F6-12006 [cpp-1], dated 13 September 2006. Being the first and the only university of the country administrating research dedicated exclusively to forestry, the university aims at spreading the fruits of research and higher education in the forestry sector to young students through post-graduation and diploma in the forestry and allied sciences. Both the ICFRE and the FRI University come under the MOEF.
The FRI has awarded more than 600 PHDs so far, according to its website. One of them was to Rawat.
As it turns out, Rawat’s fake degree might not be an exception to the rule. A series of queries under the Right to Information Act filed by Hilaluddin, who uses only his first name and is a member of the World Conservation Union, and a few others have turned up more than 30 names of IFS officers who might have been awarded dubious or suspect PHDs . And many are in top positions with the Central or state governments. A PHD is a booster for their resumé and often brightens an officer’s chances at juicy postings during service as well as after retirement.
The rush among IFS officers for a PHD appellation to their names is not without tangible benefits. After obtaining phd in forestry, many IFS officers occupy top research and technical positions in the Central and state governments. They also become advisers in forestry-oriented mega development programmes of the country, often supported by global institutions like the World Bank and Japanese International Cooperation Agency, after retirement. These are very profitable
postings after retirement from service that only a PHD would qualify them to seek. Similarly, they also find corporate clients when they work on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of various development projects.
The current dean of the FRI is Neelu Gera, an IFS officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre from the 1987 batch. She was awarded her doctorate in December 2013 for her dissertation on carbon mitigation potential of forests in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand by the same institute where she is now the dean.
As per rules governing IFS officers, an employee pursuing studies and/or intent to participate in a training programme has to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from her/his head of the department. In the case of ICFRE, only the DG is competent to issue such an NOC. Gera did not obtain her NOC from the ICFRE DG, but at the same time, she had two NOCs— one from the director of FRI and another from the secretary of ICFRE — as documents secured through RTI showed.
Gera had also not taken any study leave. (Study leave is granted by the controlling authority with the concurrence of the Department of Personnel Training under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions.) Moreover, Gera received her PHD after 10 years of her registration, even though the PHD programme ordinance of the FRI University says a scholar admitted to a PHD course has to complete her/his doctorate programme within a maximum period of five years from the date of her/his registration, with one-year extension allowed in exceptional circumstances.
When Gera was contacted for her comments on the doubts raised by the information regarding her degree that came to light through RTI, Tehelka discovered first hand the passing-the-buck game afoot at the FRI.
“Speak to the registrar of FRI University regarding this matter. He is the right person to speak on PHD,” the dean of the FRI said, adding that she “has not violated any norms”.
When the registrar of the FRI, AK Tripathi, was reached, he stonewalled any questions with a bureaucratic response, saying, “First send a letter to the vice-chancellor of FRI University, and only then will I speak to you.”
Ramesh K Aima, the acting vice-chancellor of the FRI, said, “Only the registrar of the university can speak on this issue,” before suggesting that “there might be some clerical mistakes in the RTI reply”.
The majority of 30 IFS officers who have received their PHDs from the FRI seem to have been passive scholars, at the very least, according to the RTI data Hilaluddin has collected. Many have not got the mandatory NOC from their department heads and study leaves that would allow them to do field research. The information revealed through RTI queries also suggest discrepancies in the dates they joined their course and the date they paid their fees. Several registered first and paid fees later, or vice versa. The FRI guideline says the registration of the phd will be applicable from the date of the payment of the fee.