A pair of bee eaters at Corbett national park, Uttarakhand. Photo: sankaracs/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
- For many of India’s researchers, obtaining permits for field research in protected areas is a big hassle: the process is long-drawn and bureaucratic.
- However, forest officials say they’re not anti-research, and that many of of the study proposals they receive have “deficiencies”.
- Thanks to these roadblocks, India is losing ground on critical research topics that need long-term research and monitoring, including climate change.
Kochi: Delays of months, sometimes even years. Or no response at all.
Obtaining research permits from state forest departments is often a frustrating, arbitrary, long-drawn and bureaucratic process, researchers say. On the other hand, forest officials say they aren’t really discouraging research – that often, the proposals that researchers submit are simply not good enough.
It may sound trivial, but this tussle between researchers and forest departments has far-reaching consequences. Most of all, it has been having an oft-overlooked detrimental effect on Indian scientists’ efforts to study the country’s ecology.
Scientists first brought up their concerns on paper in 2006. In an article in the journal Current Science, 14 experts from institutes including the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore, and the Nature Conservation Foundation, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), all in Bengaluru, wrote about a “disturbing trend across India where scientists are increasingly denied access to wildlife reserves for scientific research or are seriously impeded, without scope for redress.”
The process in which this happens is arbitrary, they noted, and often no justification is provided for refusals or delays.
The situation was unchanged six years later. While wildlife and conservation biologists across the world were developing “sophisticated long-term research projects in ecology, Indian biologists are left running from pillar to post in search of the permits,” Meghna Krishnadas wrote in 2012.
Nine more years later, things have still not changed. Getting permits, and on time, to conduct research is “one of the biggest challenges” that any ecologist in India faces, Mahesh Sankaran of NCBS, and an Infosys Prize laureate this year, said in an interview discussing his work and the challenges that ecologists face.
“Getting a permit is still a haphazard and arbitrary process, dependent on the whims and fancies of the chief wildlife warden of the state at that time,” Ajith Kumar, currently an independent scientist and a coauthor on the 2006 commentary, told The Wire Science.
The roots of the problem lie in a law that doesn’t have an enabling legislative or policy framework governing scientific research within protected areas, scientists have said. Section 28 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 – enacted to protect wildlife in India – deals with research permits. Under this Act, the chief wildlife warden of a state can grant an applicant permission to enter or reside in a sanctuary for several purposes, including research.
However, the Act doesn’t not describe or define several keywords, including “research” or “researchers”. “The legal terms leave a lot of room for subjective interpretation,” Krishnadas told The Wire Science.
Members of the Union environment ministry drafted guidelines in 2005 that define wildlife research, its appropriate duration in India’s protected areas, permits for research and other time frames. However, they are just that: guidelines – not binding and therefore not often followed, Kumar said.
Between 2006 and 2021, Kumar was the director of a programme that trained wildlife biologists at the postgraduate level, and has seen numerous permit applications filed and delayed.
As with justice, a permit delayed is effectively a permit denied. Timing is crucial in ecology research. Answering specific research questions depends on factors such as seasonality, time of the year, or even day, and/or specific ecological conditions that need to be met while collecting field data, wrote Krishnadas, currently a senior scientist at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad.
“Undue delay, denial, or curtailment of research activities can lead to aborting the project, with deleterious consequences for the scientist’s career.”
The problems run even deeper, however.
On the relationship between scientists and forest departments, there is a “lack of respect for contemporary ecological science in the forest bureaucracy,” Krishnadas and other scientists wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in 2011.
Scientists in the 2006 commentary in Current Science also pointed out that independent scientific research plays an “important but inconvenient role in identifying conservation threats and problems, not only from external agents, but also from inadequacies in internal reserve management policy and practice” – and that this could be making the department defensive about permitting research in these areas at all.
Not all scientists and institutes are equal in the eyes of the permit-granters. Younger researchers often have it far harder than seniors do, but sometimes it is the opposite too, Kartik Shanker of the IISc, and a coauthor of the 2006 commentary, said. Other scientists have also said they have noticed that granters favour some institutes over others.
A Nature News report in 2019 quoted scientist Ullas Karanth saying that managers grant research permits more easily to scientists from the government-run Wildlife Institute of India than to independent scientists. One reason his 30-year-long study of tigers in southern India ended in 2017 was because getting permits was becoming “very impossible”, he claimed.
Some projects, even if they are funded or approved by the Union environment ministry, don’t get permits at the state level, said a source who has been trying to obtain permits for such a project but to no avail. (They requested anonymity because they are awaiting permits and didn’t wish to compromise their chances.)
Research proposals that have more applications for wildlife management seem to obtain permits faster, Krishnadas added.
It’s also more difficult to obtain permits for projects involving sample collection – such as biological specimens, blood or tissue – said Shanker, whose research focus also includes phylogeography, which requires him to obtain genetic data from biological samples.
Many scientists, including Krishnadas, also confirmed that some states fare “better” than others when it comes to granting permits for research. Some have set up committees to deal with permit-related queries and have a set timeframe to respond to applications. But some states don’t have a specific system in place for this, according to Kumar.
“Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have made the process of obtaining permits very smooth,” Krishnadas said. “I applied online and received the permits in a month.” The states of Kerala, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have also been pro-research most often – while Karnataka, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Tamil Nadu have been notoriously difficult, multiple sources familiar with the issue said.
Not good enough
However, Shekhar Kumar Niraj, the chief wildlife warden of Tamil Nadu, rebutted saying “we are not averse to research.”
“Wildlife research is a very important domain in wildlife management,” he told The Wire Science. “It helps us understand many complexities of the natural world such as inter- and intra-species relationships and their habitats.”
But issues arise, Niraj continued, when research proposals seek to “duplicate” research that has already been conducted – while some others have a lot of “deficiencies” and “bring down the standards of research” for want of a clear objective and methodological clarity. Almost 95% of proposals are sent back “for revision and resubmission” after addressing proposal defects, according to him.
But scientists have questioned such authority. One of their first questions is: What is the need for the forest department to dictate what research is permitted and what is not? In many cases, many project proposals have already received funding – some to the tune of several lakh rupees – and have already undergone a stringent vetting process at this stage.
In the 2006 commentary, for instance, scientists including lead author M.D. Madhusudan – currently the Obaid Siddiqi Chair in the History and Culture of Science at the Archives at NCBS – likened scientific research to a public library and the forest department to its librarian who encourages reading but doesn’t decide what books a user should read.
But, Niraj said, it’s “absolutely wrong” to suggest that the forest department should not take a call on what research should be permitted. Incidentally, Niraj has a doctoral degree in wildlife research. “We are a science-based technical department. We understand science and practise it on the ground.”
The idea is to raise the required standards of research being conducted in India in the field of wildlife, he claimed. Researchers have to be “objective” when they are inside forests – or their presence there could only stress the local wildlife. Problems also stem from the fact that researchers often don’t revert with project reports once they complete their work, he added.
In his interview, Sankaran, of NCBS, agreed that researchers do indeed need to “better appreciate the constraints within which managers work, understand their need for solutions and applied science, and in general work towards better communicating their findings to managers.”
Many Indian wildlife scientists are unable to come together to create a united front to add a much-needed conservation focus to policy making, Krishnadas and her coauthors wrote in another EPW article in 2012, highlighting the need, among other things, for scientists to work together with the bureaucracy.
In September 2006, scientists – including some from the team that wrote the 2006 commentary in Current Science – made a presentation to the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. They requested urgent changes, including for ecological research by qualified scientists to be “incorporated unambiguously” into legislation, including the Wildlife (Protection) Act and the Biological Diversity Act 2002.
The team also sought to push an amendment to the former Act, but state chief wildlife wardens shot down the suggestions, several sources said.
Ideally, a separate set of Rules under the Wildlife (Protection) Act would go a long way in promoting research and also ensuring accountability on both sides, Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Upadhyay and founder of the Delhi-based Enviro Legal Defence Firm, told The Wire Science.
“The current system of permits under Section 28 for scientific research is amenable to wide discretion [and is] therefore liable to be misused,” he explained. “This must give way to more clarity of [the] role of the researcher as well as [the] regulator based on established principles of transparency and accountability. And most importantly, in the interest of wildlife conservation.”
We also need a cultural transformation among both researchers and forest officials, Shanker, of IISc, said. Researchers need to ask themselves what more they will do apart from publishing a paper out of their work – while forest officials should be incentivised to promote research and not be gatekeepers, according to him.
In fact, Upadhyay also said an amendment to the Wildlife (Protection) Act is in the works, so now would be a good time, he added, to tackle issues regarding permits.
But whatever the impetus, issues revolving around obtaining permits need to be addressed asap. India is already losing out on addressing critical questions in fields such as climate change, which require long-term research and monitoring and for which permits haven’t been forthcoming, according to Kumar.
“We have been talking a lot about promoting research and development and science in India,” Krishnadas added. “However, the issues with permits are a major impediment to the science we can do, a major impediment to how our work can be globally competitive.”