Excellence at Work: Indian Forest Service – Jyotsna Sitling, PGPPM 2011

Jyotsna Sitling, the first female tribal Indian Forest Service officer talks about her transition as an institutional entrepreneur who assiduously worked with the community at the grassroots to find sustainable solutions to diverse equity and environment-related problems affecting their livelihoods as a Green Warrior to becoming a seasoned policy entrepreneur who continues to work passionately at the intersection of the market, equity and environment on the need to create an impact on the ground.

It is sheer love for nature and all that it has to offer that drives Ms. Jyotsna, daughter of the mountains, to work with such vigour and passion. A recipient of the country’s highest environmental honour – Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar 2004-05 and Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration 2006-07 for her outstanding contribution to the public service of the country. She is currently serving as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests – Van Panchayat in Uttarakhand after completing her tenure as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.

Ms. Jyotsna has successfully restored & reformed The Valley of Flowers National Park, which has been named as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005 among many other ground breaking works that she has championed. She has worked tirelessly on the action and the policy front to create an ecosystem to provide equal opportunities for people and nature to live in harmony.

Ms. Jyostna’s journey is no short of an example of dedication and perseverance for many.

In a candid interview with Ms. Jyostna..

Please tell us something about yourself.

I was born in the Lepcha tribal community in village Chibbo of remote town Kalimpong bordering Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim in West Bengal. I did my schooling in a local school in Kalimpong and did a post-graduation degree in Botany with University ranks in 1987 and joined  Indian Forest Service in 1987. Since childhood, I used to appreciate nature and be with nature. During my college days, I participated in major environmental campaigns.

I love gardening, reading biographies and spiritual books and listening to instrumental music. Trekking and cooking different blends of ethnic food are my favorite hobbies.

Did you always want to be in Civil Services? What motivated you to join the Indian Forest Service?

As a young adult deeply interested in environmental issues,  Indian Forest Service was my natural choice. I am very satisfied and thankful now that I am in this service and contributing meaningfully.  

Can you please tell us about your journey as an officer and some projects that you have worked on?

My different postings have given me fulfilling experiences of various kinds. Here, I would love to cite here a few instances of my work that I had been blessed to perform with the local communities in different postings to solve their environmental and livelihood problems on community’s strength and how that transformed me to what I am today.

  • My work on conservation with the community started as DFO Pauri Garhwal (then in Uttar Pradesh) in 1993.
  • My posting in ecologically fragile Doon Valley from 1995 to 2001 as Deputy Project Director (Rishikesh Div)  of Doon Valley Watershed Management Project (DVWMP) was a unique challenge. Till year 1980, Doon Valley’s surrounding hills were greatly damaged by landslides due to reckless limestone querying. Sensing impending ecological fallout, DVWMP was launched by the then UP Govt. with EU support. I could see then, quite a number of villages getting wiped off due to landslide in front of me.  To overcome this surmounting problem and having a very limited resources to deal with this  problem at hand, my team launched a voluntary movement with the local community of 82 revenue villages. Villagers named this as “Dala Lagawa Gaon Tai Bachhava” (Let us green our village to save it). This helped reclaim 358 strategic erosion prone locations in different hamlets of 82 villages. A total of 10,813 villagers donated and planted 3.54 lakh plants and 102 kg seeds by from 1997-2001 without using  a single Govt. penny.  This simultaneously supported natural growth of 1.47 lakh saplings of indigenous trees in and around these villages. This prevented many villages from getting wiped off, got spread across in many villages and continued for many more years after the project.
  • My hands on experience of handling the local community’s much needed volunteerism in solving local erosion problems in DVWMP strengthened my resolve to  work with the local community of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve to address its conservation vis-à-vis  livelihoods challenges as Director Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve ( 2002-04). It contained two national parks – Nanda Devi National Park (NDNP) and Valley of Flowers National Park (VoFNP) in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand.
    • The challenge of NDNP was to end 20 years’ of acrimony between Park and Public over the park resources in the interest of conservation. This was done through a number of community consultations followed by reconciliation measures wherein enhancing local livelihood opportunities was the first important task.
    • With regard to the VoFNP, the challenge was that of 19 km trek route and its surroundings in Bhyundar valley –  the immediate buffer of VoFNP and the Hemkund Shrine (14000 ft msl). The environment here was under great duress due to accumulation of garbage and plastic waste accumulated over past 20 years because of unmanaged  religious  tourism.  We addressed this challenge first by inviting the local community to volunteer with the Park staff in cleanliness drive. I owe deep gratitude to the Mahila Mangal Dal (MMD) of the nearby village Bhyundar to have come forward without hesitation to support this drive.  This public support led to collection and safe disposal of 50 tons of plastic waste! Then after  the Govt. came to our help with right policy support to sustain this drive. This was followed by a series of conflict resolution and collaboration initiatives with different stakeholders to promote the conservation value of this area. All these efforts leveraged a new global value for VoFNP when it was declared World Natural Heritage by UNESCO in July 2005.
  • On a sightly different note from my green works with the community, the post of Director, Uttarakand Rural Livelihood Project (2004-09 and 2011-12) funded by IFAD gave me unique opportunity to work with 44K poor households (HH) in 17 poorest Development Blocks of Uttarakhand to change their lives for better. Basic thrust was on improving food security of these poor families through livelihoods promotion.  
    • A massive social awareness on poverty followed by technical, transactional and entrepreneurial capacity building led to formation of  72 Business Federations (BFs)  by 31K HHs (95% women) from 2007 to 2012. This was done by focusing on six agri-based value chains in a professional manner. By  2012,  BFs were able to garner an annual  turnover of Rs.4.51 crore and leverage additional investment of Rs. 97.77 crores (101%) against Rs.96.69 crore funding from the Project since 2007 in activities that helped  build the six value chains. The source of funding were FFIs, members’ equity and line Deptt. convergence.
    • Third party evaluation of this project showed 23 percent point increase  in the annual income per HH vis-à-vis non-project HHs with annual incremental benefit of Rs.40,500/- per HH in 2012 compared to 2004. This model showed how poor HHs from difficult geographies could be organized into profitable businesses when backed by well a strategized State support on social, technical and transactional competencies. These 72 BFs have grown by now to 233 BFs engaging 132 K HHs with further support  from the State and operate under the brand name  Hilans. Even at a difficult time like the year 2020, Hilans had turnover of Rs.35.18 Crore with a net profit of Rs.3.68 crore.  The State Rural Livelihood Mission drew vital learning from this project.
  • My tenure as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (2014-2019) remained an extremely enriching and  a rewarding experience. Could get the full experience of setting a new Ministry!  Backed by my meaningful experience from the ground on poverty, gender, equity, environment and livelihoods.  I could integrate the concerns of informal sector in  skilling and entrepreneurship policies of the country. The well rounded knowledge received in PGPPM equipped me with much needed knowledge and expertise  to handle many intriguing policy processes meticulously during this time. While deftly handling these policies, I simultaneously started to work on the ecosystem for social enterprise in the country. 
  • Now I am working on the policies for social enterprise in the country. As social investment is gaining momentum in our country, a huge responsibility lies with the Government to create appropriate policy and market framework conditions to let this sector grow to its full potential while meaningfully contributing to creation of an equitable, environment friendly and a just society required for nation building. My sincere endeavour at present is to work diligently on this front and create a visible impact.

Any special incident or experience in your life which you still recall with happiness. 

On July 14, 2005, I got that historic call from UNESCO  informing us about Valley of Flowers National Park (VoFNP)  being granted World Natural Heritage (WNH) Status on July 17, 2005. This followed one impromptu interview of mine by a BBC London correspondent. It was an exhilarating moment as this symbolised our triumph against massive odds. This breakthrough was the result of determined community initiative of two years to save VoFNP immediate buffer from heaps of plastic waste generated by the pilgrimage of past 20 years. This was bestowing a prestigious global honor for such an effort made by my team of foresters with the local community!

Can you please tell us about your family?

I am single.  But have extended family as my backbone.   

Who and what has been the biggest inspiration in your life?

The life energy in nature and the impermanency of life.

Any advice for aspirants who want to join the civil services.

The beauty of civil services is that it offers you unimaginable space to follow your heart to work for humanity.

Role of IIMB in your journey.

After having served in the field to the best of my ability by the age of 45, I knew I had to make a  larger contribution to the nation in the policy realm. Hence, I decided to do Post Graduation in Public Policy and Management (PGPPM) at IIM Bangalore (2009-11), an institute well known for its contribution in the public policy realm. Nothing could have been more rewarding than this program to a mid-career public servant like me at that point in time, to be able to evaluate, unlearn and refocus my role in public service with the contemporary emerging concepts and practices of public policy management in India and world over. PGPPM hugely helped me contribute immensely as a policy person in my career especially as Joint Secretary in the new Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship from 2014-2019.

A favorite quote.

God gave me a footprint that no one else has, so I can leave a footprint no one else can.