An under-staffed, unequipped forest department struggles to save Delhi’s trees

Shortage of staff and equipment has rendered Delhi’s forest department — responsible for maintaining and protecting the city’s green cover — toothless, forest officials said.

Data shows the total staff strength of Delhi government’s forest department is 553. But officials say there is a catch. Out of the 553 positions, at least 499 were labourers — most of them uneducated — who have been promoted to reach positions such as the forest guards and deputy ranger officers (DROs). The minimum qualification for a DRO is graduation, while any person who has passed Class 12 is eligible to write a forest guard’s examination.

A former official of the department confirmed that “at least 90%” of the department’s staff strength comprises of worked who were taken in as “regular labourers” on the orders of the Supreme Court when the department was merged with the Development Department in the early 90s.

“It is true that the department is fighting a major staff crunch. In fact, it will not be incorrect to say that 90% of the existing staff is uneducated. These casual labourers were made regular labourers and were ordered to be given basic pay grade. These people have now been promoted and have reached higher ranks,” the officials said.

The official said there are no qualified mid-level officials between the Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers and the labourers, who would properly understand the functioning of the department. The IFS officers are posted in senior positions such as principal conservators and deputy conservator of forests.

The result: a lot of the duties that the agency’s mid-level field officers are supposed to be performing to “preserve” the city’s trees are ignored.

At present, there are several positions in the department that are vacant. For example, there are no foresters or forest rangers in the department. Apart from this, the forest department also has unfilled vacancies for forest ranger (6), wildlife inspector (3), forest guard (38), deputy forest ranger (3) and wildlife gamewatcher (10).

Senior officials from the department said that on multiple occasions they have requested for increasing the staff strength, but these requests have gone to deaf ears.

This, however, is not a new problem. Two former Prime Ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had also written letters to the then chief ministers of Delhi to correct this shortage of strength and equipment in the forest department. But even this achieved little.

Jayashree A Chauhan, principal chief conservator of forests, and Ishwar Singh, additional principal chief conservator of forests, were not available for comments despite repeated attempts.

The Delhi Preservation of Tree Act, 1994, (DPTA) has vested upon the department several powers that they are unable to exercise because of this staff shortage.

The Tree Authority, a body set up under the Act for preservation and monitoring of trees in Delhi as well as granting permission for pruning and felling of trees, has held only one meeting since July 2013, according to the 2018 report of Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).

The DPTA mandates that the authority should meet once every three months.

The report found massive disparities in data provided by the department, and inefficiency on the part of the government in undertaking plantation activities.

“Against mandated 12 meetings, only one meeting was held during 2014-17, period covered in audit. Absence of regular meetings indicates lack of seriousness in its approach towards preservation of trees and afforestation,” the CAG report said.

Officials said that these disparities mean tree felling permissions are being blindly granted.

“Ideally, we are supposed to inspect the area where trees are supposed to be cut and make sure that only those trees are chopped and nothing more. But we cannot do that because we don’t have the staff to do so,” an official said.

Environment lawyer Aditya Prasad said the law is in place and there are ample orders to strengthen the department. “The problem is implementation. There are provisions under the law that gives the department and the officials enough powers to preserve Delhi’s ecology but these need to be thoroughly implemented,” he said.

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