In nine months since September, a file containing a proposal seeking environmental approval to upgrade a highway in Sikkim has travelled about 1,500 km from Shillong to Kolkata to Guwahati, before returning to rest in an office in Kolkata. Until last week, the file had not been examined, an official in the environment ministry said.
The story of this file sums up the upheaval sparked by a decision of India’s environment ministry to restructure its regional offices.
On August 19, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a notification for the establishment of 19 Integrated Regional Offices across the country. Until then, the ministry had 10 regional offices.
While proposals seeking environmental and forest clearances for large infrastructure projects are reviewed by the ministry headquarters in New Delhi, the regional offices assess smaller projects that have a limited footprint. For instance, they grant approvals for tree felling on less than 40 hectare of forest land, or ensure that pollution control norms are met by industries like thermal power projects. For this, their staff often travel to a project site to evaluate its impact.
Parallel to this, other organisations that function under the environment ministry, like the Forest Survey of India and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, had their own regional offices.
The August 19 notification not only expanded the number of the environment ministry’s regional offices, it also brought these affiliate organisations under one roof. Ten regional offices of the environment ministry, four of the Forest Survey of India, three of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, four of the Central Zoo Authority, and offices for eight personnel of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau were merged to form 19 Integrated Regional Offices. These were scheduled to become functional from October 1.
In a statement, the environment ministry said the move was aimed at “achieving outcomes…in an improved, timely and effective manner”. Speaking to the Hindustan Times, Sanjay Kumar, the director general of forests who also serves as special secretary in the ministry, said an Integrated Regional Office “helps synchronise time, prevents cost overrun, and also comes in handy for monitoring some of the key projects”.
In simple words, the ministry hoped that the expansion would enable its staff to be spread out more evenly across the country. With officials from affiliate organisations under one roof, coordination would be smoother, monitoring work would be easier, and officials would not be stretched across multiple states.
However, nine months later, the new system hasn’t quite taken off. Only five of 102 staff positions in the nine newly created Integrated Regional Offices have been filled so far, Scroll.in has found through a Right to Information request. Five new offices – Jaipur, Gandhinagar, Shimla, Jammu and Kolkata – are yet to see a single appointment.
Apart from these vacancies, another 358 new staff positions have been created in the affiliate organisations housed in these new offices, as per a sanction order issued on October 20, which was accessed by Scroll.in. An official in the environment ministry, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the press, conceded that most of these positions, too, are lying vacant.
As a result, a decision aimed at improving efficiency has instead created a high rate of pendency. An internal document of the ministry, accessed by Scroll.in, shows 519 proposals requiring approval for projects on forest land were submitted to the 19 Integrated Regional Offices between October 2020 and May 2021. Of these, only 280 proposals have been disposed of – 239 proposals are still pending.
The old regional offices have 215 sanctioned staff positions, of which 199 positions are filled. But, since recruitment is largely pending at the new Integrated Regional Offices, the staff of the old offices are now saddled with the work of the new offices as well. This means a single officer is heading multiple Integrated Regional Offices.
For instance, in Kolkata, where one of the new offices is located, “no appointment has been made and work is being done by contractual staff who have no accountability,” said the officer who has been working at the environment ministry for over a decade.
“In some cases, files have been sent to new IROs but there are no officers there. In others, the head of an IRO sits in some other IRO which does not have the files,” he said. “It’s a mess.”
The case of the Sikkim file
The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, a company of the central government, had to pay the price for this mess.
The corporation wants to widen a 56-km stretch of NH717B between Roleph to Menla in Sikkim into a two-lane highway. It submitted a proposal for allowing road construction activity in a 119-hectare patch of forest to the Shillong regional office of the environment ministry on September 12. Sikkim was under the Shillong regional office then.
But when the August 19 notification creating 19 Integrated Regional Offices came into effect in October, the jurisdiction of Sikkim was shifted from the old office in Shillong to the new office in Kolkata. The files containing the company’s proposal were accordingly moved from Shillong to Kolkata.
With new staff still to be recruited, the office in Kolkata was initially placed under the charge of deputy director general of forests, Subrat Mohapatra, who was also heading the offices in Bhubaneswar and Ranchi. It is not clear whether Mohapatra, burdened with the work of three offices, examined the Sikkim highway upgradation proposal before the environment ministry transferred the charge of the Kolkata office to Bivash Ranjan, who was heading the Lucknow office, on April 5.
Ranjan in turn was diagnosed with Covid-19 and could not report to work. In his stead, the responsibility for the Lucknow, Ranchi and Bhubaneswar offices was temporarily handed over to a deputy director general in Lucknow, while the charge of the Kolkata office went to W Lougvah, who was heading the Guwahati office.
With Lougvah stationed at Guwahati, the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited had to get their project proposal file transferred from the Kolkata office of the environment ministry to Guwahati. But there was a problem. There was no officer in Kolkata to send the files.
“In mid-April, NHIDCL somehow got the file from the contractual staff at Kolkata and took the files personally to the Guwahati IRO,” said the official in the environment ministry. “This is unheard of.”
The proposal file is an internal confidential document of the ministry. It contains all the information submitted by a project proponent to the ministry, along with the comments of various officials who have gone through it. Given the sensitivity of the information, when a file needs to be forwarded within the government, it is sent by the official in charge of the file to the destination office in a secure manner.
“The files have to be properly transferred using Speedpost,” explained the official in the environment ministry. “But here was a case where the case file, with all the information, was handed over to the project proponent.”
Scroll.in contacted Nashid Iqbal Alvi, the deputy general manager in the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation’s Sikkim office. He declined to comment. Calls made to W Lougvah, the officer stationed in Guwahati who has additional charge of the Kolkata office, went unanswered.
Since the file had not been transferred as per official protocol, the Guwahati office returned the file to the Kolkata office, where it currently sits, awaiting approval, the official in the ministry said.
Strikingly, the Sikkim highway proposal is not the only one pending with the Kolkata office. According to data furnished by the ministry in response to the Right to Information request, all 23 proposals submitted to the Kolkata office since October last year were awaiting an outcome as of May – a stunning 100% proposal pendency rate.
Similarly, the Vijaywada office has three of eight proposals pending, Hyderabad three of six, Bhubaneshwar 11 of 15, Lucknow 56 of 76, Bengaluru three of six, and Jaipur has seven of 10 proposals pending.
Sanjay Kumar, the director general of forests and special secretary, said the reason for the delay is that the approval process has been centralised until the new staff positions can be filled. “We have advertised for these positions and the last date for applying is July 3. Then a committee will look at the applicants and decide,” he said. “The process will take another month or two.”
While the environment ministry tries to recruit staff for the offices it has already opened, India’s beleaguered environmental regulation has further come under strain.
“Honestly, there is a lot of work and things are falling through the cracks,” said another official, employed at one of the Integrated Regional Offices, who also requested anonymity. “For instance, there is no staff to monitor the plantations.”