Currently mismanaged and neglected in Delhi, the service is overloaded with problems.There is great rivalry between the state service officers and the all-India service officers. The all-India service officers are so entitled that when they are given a state-level posting they automatically get seniority over the officers from the state services, however experienced the latter may be. Nevertheless, they are expected to somehow work together, no matter that the all-India service officers are hierarchically senior, it is they who mostly write the annual confidential reports (ACR) of the state officers, which determine promotions.

As a result, the state service officers are held to ransom, most of the time by less experienced officers from the all-India service. The 1938 state service should never have been bifurcated in 1966. Many state service officers are running critical wildlife habitats.

Needless to say, this deep division in the states is seriously detrimental to the welfare of wild India.

Fateh Singh Rathore, India’s pioneering tiger conservationist and wildlife expert, was part of such a state service and it would take another book to get into the battles he waged with the IFS. This rivalry within the service can border on hatred and therefore must end. The allotment of state postings to the IFS has failed to invoke a sense of responsibility or a feeling of belonging to the state and even decades later IFS officers are considered ‘outsiders’ by many within the state.

There was an effort in the 1970s to divide the all-India service into a forest and a wildlife service, but some power hungry forest officers and their government colleagues succeeded in preventing this. Even though a formal division never took place, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi believed in specialisation and knew that it led to good governance.

On 27 December 1973, she wrote to all chief ministers, saying: ‘I feel the time has now come to introduce more specialised management for our parks and sanctuaries. At present personnel are posted there in a haphazard manner without regard to expertise, aptitude or special dedication. Also postings are of such short duration that experience and expertise cannot be adequately built up.Many officers who have received wildlife training abroad or in Dehradun are being used for other jobs’.

She went on to pass a proposal for further thought and action.This proposal included a wildlife department for the states, a wildlife wing for some states and special wages to attract forest officers and staff to this area of specialization. She was of the opinion that personnel could be drawn from other services – both the new all-India forest service and the state service. She went one step further and stated that the central government could provide specialists on deputation as consultants and advisors.

Her approach to the protection of wildlife was so progressive and ahead of its time, she wanted to induct fresh blood into the service of wildlife even if such recruits were not government servants.

She realised forty-two years ago that forest officers were doing jobs that had little to do with their training. She was clear that national parks and sanctuaries could be managed only by this wildlife service or wing and all the staff and activity would be under its control.

At the field level, trained and specialised wildlife officers would be in command. They were not to be transferred to forestry wings and if necessary their posts would be upgraded when promotions were due. Letter after letter went out from her office and the ministry, but the new all-India Forest Service sabotaged every move.

A letter from her office, dated 16 September 1976, stated that ‘the progress report has been seen by the Prime Minister. She has observed the response is sluggish and has expressed the hope that a constant watch will be kept in order to improve matters’. The centre even threatened states that financial assistance would only be given when there was a clear commitment to ensuring that all the national parks and sanctuaries would be placed under the direct charge of dedicated wildlife officers.

But things did not improve. Wildlife wings and services were never properly established even though Indira Gandhi kept reminding the states about this till her last days.Thirty-one years after her death we are still fighting for this specialization in the service and the concept of partnerships and induction of consultants. Our pace of progress and innovation is abysmal.

The death of Indira Gandhi was a serious blow to the well-being of wild India. In her day, her concern for wildlife resulted in many serious conflicts within the IFS between those who genuinely wanted to serve wildlife and the forests and those who wanted to plunder these natural resources for profit. Because of her new laws had come into being during the 1970s and 1980s that prevented excessive extraction of resources and supported wildlife protection…

Today the forest staff is hugely demoralised because they feel abandoned by their superiors and governments.

The frontline forest staff have never been given the status of an army jawan or a police constable and are supposed to work twenty-four hours a day without shifts. There has been little political will for genuine reform.The situation is at a critical state because this is a massive service and unless reform is swift and decisive catastrophe might result.

As we have seen, there are close to a quarter of a million forest staff including daily wagers across India. There are about 75,000 forest guards at their posts and 17,000 vacancies. There are nearly 10,000 rangers and 33,000 foresters with a 20 per cent vacancy in their ranks.

As these numbers grow, a massive number of posts are vacant because the working condition of the forest staff is abysmal. Not that the officers care. Of about 3,000 IFS officers and 4,000 state service officers, more than 20 per cent of them are on some deputation or the other. In some states like Karnataka 50 per cent were on deputation only a few years ago.

This is what we have done to the most important forest protection service. Only 35-50 per cent of the frontline staff are properly trained. Some of the forest staff or daily wagers are helps in the homes of their seniors (how I wish forest officers were given extra allowances to get domestic help). The office staff itself is enormous and since the services were opened to women, a lot of them have been posted to the offices. All these decisions that have caused severe problems in staffing, are not because of forest officers alone. Politicians and the IAS contribute by their often ad hoc decisions to not fill vacancies without worrying about the impact this will have on the service.

Excerpted from Saving Wild India, Valmik Thapar, Aleph Book Company.