The Himachal Cabinet in its wisdom has decided to recruit 465 forest guards (The Tribune, 12 May 2016). In the past too, the HP Government has recruited forest guards en masse (after years of NO RECRUITMENT). Little thought, however, is given to their training, both in terms of method and content. Despite major infrastructural improvements at the 2 Forest Training Institutes at Chail and Sundernagar, thanks to the generosity of Japanese Aid (and earlier of DFID, UK), there remain glaring gaps in the quality of training being imparted at these institutes.
The World over, training in various disciplines or rather multi and inter-disciplines is becoming more professionalized and specialized. The Forest Guard remains and has been at the ‘cutting edge’ of forestry practice and more importantly is the department’s interface with the people. A year or so back, the government after dragging its feet for years finally agreed that the minimum qualification for a forest guard would now be Plus 2. Recruitment which is now based on a competitive examination has ‘naturally’ resulted in induction of more and more women in the department. However, given the service conditions and the fact that most new recruits are from truly rural backgrounds, their training becomes all the more challenging. To begin with, basic skills (and understanding) of elementary arithmetic and geometry is essential (but hugely wanting), something our ‘education system’ is not particularly good at.
Consider: today a typical forest guard recruit ( rural Plus 2 and 23 years old), is required to study, understand and implement Forest and related laws which include the Cattle Trespass Act, 1871; the Indian Forest Act, 1927; the Public Premises Act, 1971; the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972; the Environment Protection Act, 1976; the Land Preservation Act, 1978; the Forest Conservation Act, 1980; the HP Non Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Act, 1995; the Biological Diversity Act, 2002; the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and of course knowledge of relevant sections and rules under the IPC and the Criminal Procedure Code. In addition, the forest guard is required to have good, working knowledge of Fire Rules, Mining Rules, Timber Transit Rules, Timber Distribution Rules and the Rules & Regulations under the various Acts listed above. Who says the Legislature doesn’t work?!
This is the present course content for forest guards under the subject: Forest Law! Mind you, and it is one of the subjects among the 19 others she is expected to ‘learn’ during training. The time allowed, including tours, holidays (and there are many) and leave is 6 months. The actual training time comes to about 4 months.
This hurried training with no consideration for average and individual learning capacity, remains basically class room and lecture mode driven. A forest guard’s job on the other hand is near completely field oriented.
The training capacity, including hostel accommodation, at both Sundernagar and Chail is around 50 per batch of trainees. Given the 6 month course duration a maximum of 200 forest guards can be ‘trained’ in a year. So, 465 trainees will take about two and a half years before they can be deployed in the field as trained forest guards. By that time, another 400 odd forests guards and about 300 odd Deputy Rangers will have retired. As there is no direct recruitment of Deputy Rangers, they all get promoted from forest guards. In effect then over two years there will be over 700 vacancies in the forest guard cadre. This is about one third of the total strength of forest guards in HP.
Both Sundernagar and Chail forest training institutes are run by shoe string in-house faculty; reluctant and ever on the lookout for greener pastures. Sundernagar, BTW also hosts a Rangers College, the first in HP, but run by the same overstretched faculty!
Field staff in the forest department is seen and valued as Handymen, though now increasingly Handywomen, following the forced feminization of forestry via open competition. Training outcomes are geared to produce ‘jack-of-all-trades’ which more contemporaneously should read ‘Jack & Jane (or Jill?) of-all-trades’. Maybe this institutional legacy flows from the top where forest officers are still trained as ‘Tinkers’ or Mr / Ms FIXIT IFS, if you please.
Problems and issues of forest management have, however, like everything else grown big. Tinkering here and tinkering there works no more. Please notice that despite over a century and a half of forest management, the department still does not have an effective forest fire response system based on Standard Operating Procedures or a uniform post fire, damage assessment system that is ecologically (and gender!) sensitive.
Meanwhile, the forest guard, young and starry eyed, untrained or hurriedly trained is deployed in the field where in due course they learn to make a killing (of sorts); maybe the best ‘Handymen’ can do.
OK, so what to do?
It’s too tiresome to keep coming back to Square One all or most of the time and have to think or dream of building the world anew. Yet, we keep hearing that to build responsive institutions we need sensible (or rather common-sensible) persons who like their jobs, and then the institutions in turn would produce more such sensible persons? And possibly (Climate Change permitting) we would know sustainability in practice?
How nice that would be!