We came up with an idea for using ‘extra’ income of forestry officials
It is axiomatic that positions alone do not determine attractiveness in public services. For instance, one might prefer a posting in the customs department rather than a similar, or even higher, posting in say the general post office. Many public positions bring more power and perks beyond the official allowance. The Ministry of Forests (where I served for over two decades) isn’t much different. Generally, people prefer a posting in the Tarai compared to the hills.
However, I was a variant who almost invariably shied-away from Tarai postings. This was mainly because of my fear that challenges in forest management there were much greater than what I thought I could handle. Consequently, in my twenty-two years of service with the government, I worked in several hill districts, including Dhankuta, Panchthar, Achham, Palpa and Nuwakot and always avoided the Tarai. However, my trend was soon altered when I was finally posted in Siraha, a Tarai district.
THE SIRAHA EXPERIENCE
Within a short while of being in Siraha, I gathered that though it was in the Tarai, the ‘extra’ income in Siraha was nowhere near that of the other forest-rich Tarai districts. However, it definitely surpassed many hill districts I had worked in. Cutting trees in Siraha and bringing them to sell in Kathmandu was the main source of such income.
Aware of the unethical side of the prevailing practice, I was inclined to curb the anomaly. However, a number of impediments arose. My proposed idea did not go down well with several of the support staff for whom this extra income was the principal attraction. I quickly gathered that rigidity on my part could boomerang for me. Besides, I could also empathize with these officers’ compulsion to earn extra money; I was also in fact finding it difficult to meet the expenses of my family and three growing children. Hence, I had to seek the middle ground that was both practical as well as ethical. We arrived at a consensus that diverting a substantial part of the extra income towards public investment was the best alternative.
A FORESTER’S TALE
We decided to use the money to construct a cottage that we could all use for trainings and as a guest-house, but did not have adequate government budget for that. Eventually, however, the construction work began. Impressed by our uncommon enthusiasm and idea, the local wood-based industries were happy to extend some financial support to our endeavor. Within months, a white cottage with a blue roof and majestic front pillars stood proudly in the campus of the district forest office. We soon started to use the building with plenty of enthusiasm and as much as we could. We were pleased that the Civil Construction Section of the district valued the building at Rs. 700,000. Though, of course, no monetary value could appraise the majestic look of the cottage we had built with our common efforts.
However, while we were still busy giving finishing touches to the cottage, a gentleman came to see us, introducing himself as a personal aide to the then forest minister. After a brief chat and eager to impress him, we made him take a tour of the building but quickly realized that he was showing little interest in it. It seemed he was more interested in direct financial gain. Still trying to arrange for some funds for the final leg of the construction work, I had to politely refuse, and the gentleman quickly left, but not without an evident air of frustration and ire.
Not surprisingly, we soon started hearing the news of my transfer, which proved to be true. A week later, I received a letter of Kaj Saruwa (deputation-cum-transfer). A full-fledged transfer was avoided because I was still to complete the mandatory two years in the district. Those who were supporting me tried to raise their voice against my transfer, but to no avail. Though the official letter did not state the reason behind my transfer, it was obvious that the trigger was the very building we had constructed with such pride and enthusiasm. Public construction without an allocated budget is extra-legal, if not illegal. It seems Chitralekha Yadav, the then Honorable deputy speaker in the House of Representatives, tried her best to defend our move in front of the minister but without success.
Hence, I had to quickly pack my bags and take over as deputy regional director in the directorate office in Pokhara—a position which may sound impressive but was considered to be inferior. We had found a fitting name for the cottage—Apjas Kuti, the cottage that brought discredit, to symbolize our experience. I left Siraha with mixed feelings, amidst a huge crowd that was present to bid me goodbye. On my way to Pokhara, I was reminded of what someone had said to me at my farewell: “Do not despair; the principle feature of our country is that it is shaped by monsoon and Bhansun
[monsoon rains and Bhansun as in unfair influence] and you cannot be an exception to this process.”
For me, it was even more shocking to hear the responses of some of my own colleagues than that of the minister. They were convinced that this might bring a bad name to the forestry by indicating that there is room for illicit maneuvering. One of our top-brasses, who never bothered to talk to me earlier, even ridiculed me when the building was damaged during the insurgency. He was asking me if I was aware the Apjas Kuti was no longer an elegant building. Clearly, a change in our overall attitude and value system is a prerequisite for meaningful societal change. However, we obviously have a long way to go before we can get there.
The author is former joint secretary, Ministryof Forests and Soil Conservation