In 2011, Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti enrolled in the two-year Master of Science degree in Wildlife Science degree at Dehradun’s Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous institution operating under the aegis of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). One of the few academic and research institutes exclusively dedicated to studying wildlife across the country, WII became an academic haven for Chakrabarti and the 13 other students in his batch, which included international students as well.
“It was an exhaustive and holistic course, with a fair combination of theory and practical experiences,” says Dr. Chakrabarti, now an Assistant Professor of Animal Behaviour at Minnesota’s Macalester College. After his M.Sc., he also completed his doctoral research at WII. “For many like myself, the Institute was a launchpad [into wildlife research and academic careers].”
During his time at WII, Chakrabarti and his batchmates saw many well-funded Central government projects being assigned to the Institute—and with them came research opportunities for its students. In 2016, the National Mission for Clean Ganga made WII a lead knowledge partner. As of 2019, 36 government research projects are ongoing at WII, ranging from studies on aquatic life in the Chambal river, on large carnivores in Maharashtra, and on eastern Himalayas’ clouded leopards.
But, today, researching wildlife is not as smooth a process at WII. “Many researchers [across levels of study] are not receiving their monthly fellowship allowance on time, and there are frequent obstacles in getting approvals for travel and field visits for research projects,” a source from WII requesting anonymity informs The Bastion. The source estimates that there are around 500 researchers at the institute.
The finance crunch is attributed to a “disengagement” process that the Ministry of Finance recommended to the MoEFCC in a report in September of 2020. The report sought the rationalisation of 109 autonomous bodies to ensure that public funds were being ‘effectively’ utilised. Five of these bodies were under the MoEFCC’s jurisdiction: Wildlife Institute of India, GB Pant Himalayan Institute of Environment and Development (NIHE), Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), and Indian Plywood Industries Research and Training Institute (IPIRTI). For IIFM and WII, the report specifically recommended an annual budget reduction of 25% for three years, as well as their conversion to deemed universities. Allocations for the recent Union Budget for 2022-23 are also witness to these changes, with a dip in the allocated budget for all five institutes.
What does this disengagement look like in the 2022-23 Union Budget? How does it eventually impact the institutes’ research and education on wildlife and conservation?
The Disengagement Lowdown
The Ministry of Finance envisions disengagement to be both financial as well as administrative—or where institutes are governed independently. Financially speaking, following the discussions on disengagement in October of 2020, the Union Budget 2021-22 saw a narrowing kitty for the institutes, a trend that continues well into the 2022-23 Union Budget.
Soon after the news of disengagement broke in October 2020, WII’s Director wrote to the MoEFCC in the same month, highlighting that the Ministry’s ₹34 crore grants-in-aid extended to WII helped pay for 112 serving employees and 65 pensioners. In comparison, WII’s self-raised funds were only a minuscule ₹3 crore, the letter stated, calling the disengagement “unviable”. In the following months, the impact of the budget cuts was evident. “Since October of 2020, we have seen 10 to 15 daily wage staff and one researcher relieved from their work very abruptly from WII, that too amidst the pandemic,” the WII source tells us.
But, when it comes to research—the core activity around which the institutes operate—experts seem to be on the fence about how financial and administrative disengagement might impact it.
To Disengage or Not to Disengage
In 2014, scientists and other employees of ICFRE were in for a shock. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) memo had been received, sharply critiquing ICFRE for allowing 104 Indian Forest Services (IFS) officers to occupy high positions within the Institute, “without any knowledge and experience of the initial alphabet in the field of research.” It was in “public interest”, the CAG memo suggested, that the research field should instead be left open for researchers. The memo also noted that public funds at ICFRE were being consumed for “no public gains, but only personal gains and favouritism.” That the Council has a large number of IFS deputations, a figure that doesn’t seem to be reducing, and that it has been an “exclusive domain” of IFS officers was noticed as far back as 2000.
Given this state of affairs, perhaps the ongoing administrative disengagement could make the Council more independent of bureaucratic management. But, a former statistician with ICFRE suggests a softer alternate approach.
“In order to ensure the proper utilisation of funds, a work study could have been conducted to analyse how many posts and deputations are needed at ICFRE to efficiently contribute to the institution. Decisions could have been made accordingly instead of planning a blanket disengagement,” says Raman Nautiyal, a former scientist with the Council who voluntarily retired in 2019.
In its current form, financial disengagement has also made scientists at ICFRE anxious.
“Of the [Central] grants-in-aid that come in, most go into the costs of running the establishment, like salaries and pensions,” explains Nautiyal. “A very small amount goes into research. Now, since 2020, project money has started coming in often in instalments only every quarter [as opposed to annually], which sometimes is delayed and becomes a hurdle for season-specific projects. When a project has to be implemented in the planting season, for example, the researchers cannot be left waiting until the next tranche of funds.”
An alternative to government funding in light of disengagement is adopting a free-market economy of sorts for research. Dr. Fawzia Tarannum, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Regional Water Studies at TERI School of Advanced Studies, believes that this might not be such a bad thing. “If these institutes are determined to continue research, they can still apply for funding by answering the many calls for proposals that various multilateral banks and donor agencies announce. Yes, it would increase the competition for them as more institutions would also be applying for it [as opposed to the previous scenario, where the government would approach autonomous institutes with projects], but such an open process would ensure that the best institution bags the project.”
However, when it comes to wildlife research specifically, Dr. Chakrabarti makes an important point. “Much of wildlife research is guided by the availability of funds, or the lack thereof. WII, with its stable government funds allocation, conducted research not only on the grant-heavy charismatic species but across different biomes and taxa that typically don’t get a lot of funding,” he says.
“Science is all about finding answers and risk-taking, and that [ethos] needs to be secured through a sense of continuity and perpetuity [of diverse research], a sentiment which government funds were able to bolster.”
— Dr. Stotra Chakrabarti
In 2020-21, the MoEFCC funded 35 research projects at WII, making it the second-largest source of funds to the Institute after “externally aided projects”. How financial disengagement has shaped WII’s research projects will be clearly shown in the MoEFCC’s forthcoming annual report for 2021-22.
Apart from its research and education commitments, WII also conducts Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) for upcoming development projects and is commissioned to do so by the MoEFCC. With disengagement then, Chakrabarti points towards a possible conflict of interest. “With funding no longer coming in from MoEFCC for these EIAs, WII will have to look for alternate sources, one of which could be the private companies about whom these reports will be made. This will raise questions of how unbiased these reports might be.”
Contrary to the multiple opinions on how research might be impacted by this withdrawal of the MoEFCC, experts unite on one sector certain to bear a negative fallout—wildlife and conservation education.
Facing the Brunt of the Fund Crunch: Students
“Currently, while all these institutes avail fees for their courses, without government support, the fees would become phenomenally high,” Dr. Tarannum says. “For a large number of students interested in conservation, these courses would be unaffordable.” Similar issues have brimmed in the recent past at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where 40% of students are from economically weak backgrounds. They were set to lose out on their education due to a large and unaffordable increase in fees in 2020.
In 2019, WII’s M.Sc course cost ₹5,32,800 for the two years of study. But, Chakrabarti confirms that during his M.Sc., students had the option to apply for a government-sponsored scholarship, which he himself had also received. “This opportunity of government aid is absolutely essential for ensuring that the ecological field is not just restricted to people who can ‘afford’ to be in it.”
But, from September of 2021, WII’s M.Sc course stands cancelled. First, the Dehradun-based WII’s affiliation to Gujarat’s Saurashtra University came under fire—the University Grants Commission only permits institutions to be affiliated to universities within the territorial jurisdiction of the state they’re located in. The other option for WII to continue the M.Sc. course was to attain the status of a “deemed university”, which it had been previously unsuccessful in doing so on account of the institution’s limited courses and students.
But, an additional reason behind cancelling the course, as suggested by a MoEFCC official, was also the fund crunch. The Institute’s Ph.D. program went through the same fate, but, after a pause in 2021—a year in which no new doctoral students were enrolled—it was revived. This happened after WII signed an MoU with Uttarakhand’s Doon University in December of 2021 to co-facilitate the doctoral program, falling in line with the UGC’s guidelines.
MoU was signed by @wiiofficial1 & @doonuniversity on 18.12.21 for the collaborative Ph D Program. This would facilitate the exchange of collaborative research in the field of Natural Resource and Biodiversity Conservation. @moefcc #AmritMahotsav #innovation #PhD pic.twitter.com/v5caRArbrk
— MoEF&CC (@moefcc) December 20, 2021
With this forthcoming joint doctoral program, new problems might emerge. While the MoU calls for joint supervision of a student’s thesis, it mentions that in case a WII scientist wants to supervise a doctoral student, their names will have to be first forwarded by the WII’s Director. After that, “recognition of scientists as supervisors would be granted by the concerned academic advisory committee of Doon University after due evaluation on a case-by-case basis,” the MoU states. “While Doon University has great faculty in a lot of subjects, they do not have the hardcore wildlife expertise that WII does. The fact that a WII scientist’s expertise and guideship will be considered, and is not confirmed by default, will make [prospective doctoral] students uneasy,” says the WII source who requested anonymity.
The initial signs of the MoEFCC’s disengagement are not promising. So, if the effective utilisation of public funds was indeed the rationale behind this move, then could a different strategy be adopted?
Increasing Accountability vs Disengagement
“Rather than taking away the funding, a detailed audit could have been conducted on the functioning of these autonomous institutes—how useful has the research of all these institutes been? Have they helped the Central government make good decisions? These are some aspects that could have been judged to ensure accountability,” says Dr. Tarannum. “If the MoEFCC does continue with disengagement, then government support for education, scholarships, or subsidies must be considered for the courses these autonomous institutions offer.”
While soliciting interviews from the institutes in question for this piece, a few refused to comment because they did not have clarity on what the way forward for them looked like. Some, like WII, seem to be stuck in a limbo between the statuses of “deemed” and “affiliated”. But amidst this variety of responses lies the common loss of environmental education from prestigious institutions for a generation of Indian students.
“What is the ‘proper utilisation’ of public funds if not also for wildlife and conservation? Our environment is a public asset, and it has to be our [collective] responsibility to safeguard it,” says Chakrabarti. “India is a fast-growing economy with a huge human footprint, and we need strong ecological stewardship in policies and decision making to build an ecologically viable society. But, this disengagement is a dismal blow to the spirit of understanding, admiring and protecting biodiversity.”
IPIRTI and G.B. Pant University did not respond to The Bastion’s requests for an interview and IIFM and MoEFCC declined to comment. This article will be updated if this changes.