Tehelka Investigation: How forest officers net their PhDs

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Stained glory The Forest Reseach Institute, Dehradun, has given out more than 600 PhDs since it was made a deemed university, Photo: Rajeev Kala
Stained glory The Forest Reseach Institute, Dehradun, has given out more than 600 PhDs since it was made a deemed university, Photo: Rajeev Kala

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”.

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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. F6-1[11]2006 [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.

suhas_kumarAs 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.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Tehelka Team, Its really unfortunate and sad that you were not able to differentiate between right and wrong. Dr. Suhas kumar of his own proactively provided all his paper and documents to Tehelka Team and in turn they netted him as a fake PHD. he had all the necessary permission from the State department to undertake this study and took two years study leave to be able to do the required Field work for this study. As his guide i take great pride in the work that Dr. Suhas Kuamr has done. No body in that artilce has responded except for Dr. Suhas kumar. he is known for his high values and moral standards. God will definitely do justice.

  2. Vishwas Sawarkar
    464 Rasta Peth
    Pune 411011 dated 04 February 2015

    To,
    The Editor, Tehelka,
    Sir,

    This has a reference to the article published titled ‘Tehelka Investigation: How Forest Officers Net Their Ph.Ds.’ in your esteemed publication of 2015-02-07, Issue 6, Volume 12 under the byline of Jamshed Khan and Sushant Pathak. I would like to draw your kind attention to the content written about Dr. Suhas Kumar, a 1980 batch Indian Forest Service officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre accusing him of having ‘possibly’ obtained a fake Ph.D. degree from the Forest Research Institute (FRI) University, Dehradun. The article admits that Dr. Suhas Kumar had provided several documents to prove the contrary. These have been placed by Dr. Suhas Kumar on his Facebook account and these prove that the allegations are malicious and baseless. It is a very serious canard, a blatant attempt at tarnishing the image of this upright officer. The article goes on further about an enquiry having been made with the Supervisor for Shri Suhas Kumar’s Ph.D. programme Dr. Yogesh Dubey about how the officer undertook the study without having gone on a study leave which is mandatory—in reply Dr. Dubey is quoted as having said that Dr. Suhas Kumar was on a two year study leave but that he was not sure. I have to state that Dr. Dubey was not Shri Suhas Kumar’s controlling officer. The question ought to have been posed in the right quarters, but more interesting intentions of the reporters follow. I am referring to contents that are relevant to the issue of the Ph.D. degree awarded by the FRI University to Dr. Suhas Kumar.

    The documents furnished by Dr. Suhas Kumar to your reporters provide clear evidence that he was on a duly sanctioned two year study leave, and that all procedures have been followed. Let me give the benefit of doubt to the reporters of having been ignorant of the facts about the study leave at the time they posed such questions to Dr. Dubey. However later they got the documents and were wise to the facts. Even after this development they chose to write about their interaction with Dr. Dubey mischievously and deliberately thereby hoping to add an element of doubt in the minds of the readers. They do not admit anywhere that they did have the facts as provided by Dr. Suhas Kumar—only that ‘he sent many documents to support his claim that his degree is not fake’. Defeated in their attempts at maligning the reputation of Dr. Suhas Kumar they pathetically groped at straws—the article mentions a letter issued by the University—letter No. 2462/TA-275/2008 FRIu dated 14-11-2008 which was among the documents furnished by Dr. Suhas Kumar to your reporters. The article states that the copy of the very same letter they had obtained under the RTI application mentions the date as 12-11-2008. However if it is true, how does it prove and on what grounds the allegation that the degree is fake? There are some questions that surely are in the domain of the University to answer. Placing the onus of replies for these on Dr. Suhas Kumar is grossly unjustified. There is no proof at all that there is anything wrong with the degree awarded to him.

    There is a whole body of evidence with the Government of MP in writing and in the field from a host of personnel of the forest department that supports Dr. Suhas Kumar’s study. I was one of the external examiners for his thesis titled ‘An assessment of ecotourism strategies and practices in tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh’. Wildlife based ecotourism is among the fastest growing industries in the larger tourism sector in the country. There are opportunities as well as some serious problems. The thesis is scientifically rigorous, factually realistic and has robust and practical recommendations. It is the best that is written about the ecotourism practices in the protected areas that I have come across in my stint of 40 years in the wildlife management sector. I recommend that you read it. I have known Dr. Suhas Kumar for the better part of three decades as a professional and as a person. He is a model for uprightness and probity, an officer to be proud of. There are many things written about the concept of Officer like Qualities (OLQ). Dr. Suhas Kumar represents all of those. It is a very sad day that there has been a malicious attempt at tarnishing the image of this officer for all the wrong reasons. It brings nothing but discredit to your esteemed publication. To redeem this canard a duly published unqualified apology is in order. I am confident that you are on the side of justice and justice will be done.

    I retired as the Director of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and was a member of the Indian Forest Service, Maharashtra cadre.

    Regards,
    Yours faithfully
    Vishwas Sawarkar

    • Dear Sir,

      I have read story carefully and I did not find anywhere that the authors have raised any issue on the credibility of the quality of research being done by Dr Suhas Kumar and even have used words like fake or fraudulent about his degree. What is important from the journalism angle i.e. version of both parties (Dr Kumar and documents with Tehelka) has been given. I don’t foresee anywhere in the article that Dr Kumar has done Ph. D. without obtaining Study Leave and/ or NoC but I could make very clearly about the documents furnished by Dr Kumar in his support without alleging the credibility of such papers. As to my poor understanding of journalism, a journalist is suppose to write view of both parties in the article and this ethics have been followed by the authors. As far as violations committed are concerned, we all know that a person on Study Leave has to be in university/institute campus during leave tenure as per DoPT norms and there is no document to prove presence of study leave takers in the FRI Campus and/ or its research centres. There are many others arguments which will put forth before competent court of laws during legal hearing in this case in the time ahead.

      Regards

      Hilaluddin

  3. Dear Citizens of India
    Below is the letter written by Shri V.B Sawarkar, former Director Wildlife Institute of India to the Editor of tehelka. He posted it on their site but it was not published,:Please go through it.

    Vishwas Sawarkar
    464 Rasta Peth
    Pune 411011 dated 04 February 2015

    To,
    The Editor, Tehelka,
    Sir,

    This has a reference to the article published titled ‘Tehelka Investigation: How Forest Officers Net Their Ph.Ds.’ in your esteemed publication of 2015-02-07, Issue 6, Volume 12 under the byline of Jamshed Khan and Sushant Pathak. I would like to draw your kind attention to the content written about Dr. Suhas Kumar, a 1980 batch Indian Forest Service officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre accusing him of having ‘possibly’ obtained a fake Ph.D. degree from the Forest Research Institute (FRI) University, Dehradun. The article admits that Dr. Suhas Kumar had provided several documents to prove the contrary. These have been placed by Dr. Suhas Kumar on his Facebook account and these prove that the allegations are malicious and baseless. It is a very serious canard, a blatant attempt at tarnishing the image of this upright officer. The article goes on further about an enquiry having been made with the Supervisor for Shri Suhas Kumar’s Ph.D. programme Dr. Yogesh Dubey about how the officer undertook the study without having gone on a study leave which is mandatory—in reply Dr. Dubey is quoted as having said that Dr. Suhas Kumar was on a two year study leave but that he was not sure. I have to state that Dr. Dubey was not Shri Suhas Kumar’s controlling officer. The question ought to have been posed in the right quarters, but more interesting intentions of the reporters follow. I am referring to contents that are relevant to the issue of the Ph.D. degree awarded by the FRI University to Dr. Suhas Kumar.

    The documents furnished by Dr. Suhas Kumar to your reporters provide clear evidence that he was on a duly sanctioned two year study leave, and that all procedures have been followed. Let me give the benefit of doubt to the reporters of having been ignorant of the facts about the study leave at the time they posed such questions to Dr. Dubey. However later they got the documents and were wise to the facts. Even after this development they chose to write about their interaction with Dr. Dubey mischievously and deliberately thereby hoping to add an element of doubt in the minds of the readers. They do not admit anywhere that they did have the facts as provided by Dr. Suhas Kumar—only that ‘he sent many documents to support his claim that his degree is not fake’. Defeated in their attempts at maligning the reputation of Dr. Suhas Kumar they pathetically groped at straws—the article mentions a letter issued by the University—letter No. 2462/TA-275/2008 FRIu dated 14-11-2008 which was among the documents furnished by Dr. Suhas Kumar to your reporters. The article states that the copy of the very same letter they had obtained under the RTI application mentions the date as 12-11-2008. However if it is true, how does it prove and on what grounds the allegation that the degree is fake? There are some questions that surely are in the domain of the University to answer. Placing the onus of replies for these on Dr. Suhas Kumar is grossly unjustified. There is no proof at all that there is anything wrong with the degree awarded to him.

    There is a whole body of evidence with the Government of MP in writing and in the field from a host of personnel of the forest department that supports Dr. Suhas Kumar’s study. I was one of the external examiners for his thesis titled ‘An assessment of ecotourism strategies and practices in tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh’. Wildlife based ecotourism is among the fastest growing industries in the larger tourism sector in the country. There are opportunities as well as some serious problems. The thesis is scientifically rigorous, factually realistic and has robust and practical recommendations. It is the best that is written about the ecotourism practices in the protected areas that I have come across in my stint of 40 years in the wildlife management sector. I recommend that you read it. I have known Dr. Suhas Kumar for the better part of three decades as a professional and as a person. He is a model for uprightness and probity, an officer to be proud of. There are many things written about the concept of Officer like Qualities (OLQ). Dr. Suhas Kumar represents all of those. It is a very sad day that there has been a malicious attempt at tarnishing the image of this officer for all the wrong reasons. It brings nothing but discredit to your esteemed publication. To redeem this canard a duly published unqualified apology is in order. I am confident that you are on the side of justice and justice will be done.

    I retired as the Director of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and was a member of the Indian Forest Service, Maharashtra cadre.

    Regards,
    Yours faithfully
    Vishwas Sawarkar

  4. Dear journalist-friends, you failed and failed miserably to become the Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of India! Dr. Suhas Kumar belongs to a rare breed of honest, conscientious, and no-nonsense type officers. I only wish we could have many more such officers in the country. You have actually committed the cardinal sin of journalism by maligning Dr. Suhas Kumar. I do not want to repeat whatever has already been written about the entire legitimate procedure he had adopted to pursue his study. His acquaintances might still forgive you to some extent if you live up to the finest journalistic standards and apologise to him for this so called “scoop” so ill-researched on forestry researches.

  5. I strongly refute the comment by CAG that Officers holding GCR and DG 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. I have worked as GCR at FRI for four years and I ask TEHLKA team to go through the GCR files and see themselves the guidance regarding scientific research provided by the GCR to the scientists. The CAG statement is motivated with vested interests.

    • Sir,

      The information furnished by ICFRE on research article published by this premier institute of this country speaks voluminous over quality of research being done here. The RTI reveals that professional posted at its headquarter have not been able to publish a single article in any peer reviewed international journal during past five years,. This fact is further corroborated by the CAG Audit para No. 21 of April 2014. How IFS have made mess of this esteemed forestry institution of the country is an open secret to the scientific community worldwide. What do you say about Dr Neeta Hooda, IFS (perhaps your spouse, if am not confused) how she guided Dr. Vivek Saxena in FRI University despite she is living in US since past so many years. It is she who has certified that the data collected by her cadre mate IFS Dr Saxena is original piece of his work and collected by himself despite he was performing his duties sincerely in MoEF, New Delhi since past 5-6 years and simeltaneously collecting data across the agro-forests of northern India (UP and Haryana). There was no co-ordination either between her and non Ph. D. co-supervisor of Dr Saxena Mr Saibal Dasgupta another IFS of MP cadre as revealed by Mr. DasGupta himself to Tehlka team telephonically.

      Regards

      Hilaluddin

    • Dear Sir

      You are not in FRI since last seven years and that is why you don’t know about quality of research going in FRI/ICFRE. None of the officer posted in administration is sincere over quality of research here. Am open for debate on this issue with supported documents.

  6. Mr R.K. Aima is also an officer who enjoyed his extension without the cadre clearance either from his parent state or MoEF for one year. As per rules he should have to be repatriated after completion of his period. Further, he was sent to foreign tour without any approval of competent authority for the work of FRI University after relieving from the charge of dean of University.

    • Such deputation cases abounds in ICFRE. It is strange how Dr Sudhanshu Gupta has continued after five years in ICFRE without concurrence of DoPT and its a question of million dollar how a person was paid salary when Hon’ble Minister of Environment herself has refused extension of Dr Gupta on file. ICFRE has become Pvt. Ltd. Company of IFS officer.

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