The conscription of our bureaucrats

Now civil servants too must sing paeans to the great leader, though their retired counterparts have demurred

PM Modi addresses IAS probationers
PM Modi addresses IAS probationers

Rashme Sehgal

The Modi government has now decided to make cheerleaders of our bureaucracy: hundreds of civil servants—from joint secretaries down to gram panchayat officials—have been asked to become ‘rath prabharis’ between 20 November 2023 and 24 January 2024. During this period, their job will be to showcase the ‘achievements’ of the Modi government during its nine-plus years in power.

Serving defence personnel have also been roped in to beat the government’s drum. The modalities of how they will do this have, however, not been disclosed. “Such an order is both illegal and illegitimate,” says Lt General Vijay Oberoi (retd), former vice-chief of the Indian army. “I don’t know if the armed forces hierarchy has agreed to such an order; if they have agreed, it is shameful, and should not have been allowed to happen.”

He points out that this new diktat is along the lines of two earlier orders passed by the government. The first sets a kind of holiday homework, with defence personnel asked to use their annual leave to “highlight five to six achievements of the Modi government in their interactions with people”.

On returning to their respective units, they are also expected to submit a report on their individual outreach efforts, says Oberoi.

A second order, he says, instructs defence personnel to go to special government kiosks or ‘selfie points’, each with a huge photograph of Prime Minister Modi, to click and post these selfies.

These ‘instructions’ are not just exploitative, they are demeaning—the armed forces may take orders from the government of the day, but they serve the nation; they shouldn’t have anything to do with this kind of propaganda.

Several retired civil servants have written to the Election Commission of India (ECI) asking them to revoke the latest order. Former government secretary E.A.S. Sarma wrote to the ECI on 21 October, pointing out that this order was issued after the Model Code of Conduct had come into force and, therefore, amounted to brazen misuse of the government machinery for electoral purposes.

Former cabinet secretary B.K. Chaturvedi also reiterated that both the central and state government had huge publicity departments at their service with enough personnel who could be deployed for such campaigns, and that using civil servants and defence personnel to do this was highly improper.


Citizens’ groups campaign to urge the government to scrap the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023.
Citizens’ groups campaign to urge the government to scrap the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023.

The hostile takeover of our forests

With those in office being press-ganged and muzzled, it is former civil servants who can be openly vocal in their opposition to the unconstitutional methods of this government.

In July 2023, over a hundred members of the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), consisting of retired bureaucrats with no party affiliations, sent an open letter to members of Parliament, voicing their concerns on amendments to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), passed in the monsoon session of Parliament.

They had challenged the Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023 by filing a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking that it be declared ‘null and void’ since it violates several fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution as well as established principles of environmental jurisprudence.

The Supreme Court heard this petition last week, and has served notice to the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and the ministry of law and justice seeking their response on this plea.

Prakriti Srivastava, who recently retired from the Indian Forest Service, expresses anguish over the passing of the Act. “It will destroy our forests… A collusion of forces across ministries came together to prepare this Bill. My question is: how did the Joint Parliamentary Committee allow such an amendment? It’s unfathomable.”

As the CCG’s open letter highlights, ‘procedurally, the Bill should have been referred to the Parliamentary Committee on science, technology, environment and forests instead of being referred to a Select Committee, all the members of which, except one, belong to the ruling party, making the examination partisan and unsatisfactory’.

The Forest Conservation Act (FCA) was passed by the Indira Gandhi government in 1980 primarily to safeguard forests. In the 30 years prior to 1980, India lost 4.2 million hectares of forest land. In the 43 years since the enactment of the FCA, only around 1.5 million hectares of land were diverted.

The past three years, however, have seen almost 90,000 hectares of forest land being diverted for non-forest use. This at a time when the adverse impact of climate change has seen widespread disasters sweep across north India and the north-eastern states.

Hardly any proposals for diversion of forest land are being rejected by the Forest Advisory Committee at the central and state levels. The letter notes: ‘In 2020, alone, of the 367 proposals received for the diversion of 14,855 hectares of forest land, only three proposals amounting to about 11 hectares were rejected.’

The new amendments to the FCA will only exacerbate the situation. For instance, the provision to exempt land near border areas (‘within 100 km of India’s borders’) for ‘national security projects’ will inevitably impact the forest cover and wildlife in north-eastern states.

The 100 km clause, which effectively covers all north-eastern states, Sikkim and Uttarakhand, wilfully overlooks the fact these states have the highest forest cover in the country.

A blanket exemption for projects like zoos, eco-tourism facilities and reconnaissance surveys also spells disaster for forests and the wildlife they support. The prospecting surveys will be conducted in dense forest areas, and swathes of forest where rich deposits of minerals are discovered will likely be opened up for mining.

The amendments also seek to overturn one of the most praiseworthy Supreme Court judgements in the Godavarman case (1996), which had expanded the definition of forest land to include all areas recorded as forest in any government record, irrespective of ownership, recognition and classification.

The new regime places too much emphasis on compensatory afforestation, to dissimulate that this will help regrow forest tracts that have been cut down and create ‘a carbon sink of an additional 2.5–3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, by 2030.’

Chopped wood on sale in Manikpur, Uttar Pradesh (Photo: Getty Images)
Chopped wood on sale in Manikpur, Uttar Pradesh (Photo: Getty Images)

Several studies substantiate the fact that natural forests are 40 times more efficient as carbon sinks than newly planted forests. ‘Between 2008 and 2019, an area equal to only 72 per cent of the diverted forest area was brought under compensatory afforestation… 24 per cent of which was on existing but degraded forest land.’

Not to be forgotten is what the CCG points out: ‘India is one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world with more than 5,000 endemic species of plants and animals. This myopic law threatens all of this biodiversity.’

While the amendment emphasises that it will help improve the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities, no mention is made of how it will protect the rights of these communities under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006.

‘For example, what happens if the lands, on which one or more forest communities depend, are leased out for eco-tourism or safari parks or is used for defence installations?’ A question that led Harsh Chauhan, chairman of the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes, to request that the amendment be deferred, because ‘far from protecting forest-dependent communities, the Bill may threaten their livelihoods and their lives’. The government’s refusal to heed his request reportedly prompted Chauhan’s resignation on 26 June 2023.

When former member of the Planning Commission, N.C. Saxena, one of the bureaucrats who lent his signature to both the letters filed by the CCG, was asked about the government’s response, he said: “They pay no attention at all. We do what we have to do. The government does not heed us at all. But we cannot condone the way in which attempts are being made to politicise our bureaucracy.”

And what could possibly explain serving government employees becoming signatories to a Bill that will only help to axe the very forests they are supposed to take care of?

Prakriti Srivastava’s answer was as unequivocal as it was sobering. “Any officer who takes a stand is immediately victimised. When I was DIG Wildlife and I protested against the dilution of this law, I was shunted out the same day. You are seen as a troublemaker. No one in the organisation stands by you.”

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