- The expeditious passage of the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021 (WPA) needs comment.
- While the aspects of protecting species from the wildlife trade, in line with international standards, have received thoughtful scrutiny by civil society, the impact of the criminal legal framework adopted by the WPA is less known.
- Pitting wildlife species against communities as human-animal conflict has eluded the true cost of criminalisation under the WPA.
The Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972
- It is the primary legislation protecting the country’s unique flora and fauna.
- It has safeguarded numerous species of wild animals and plants by prohibiting all forms of hunting and, more importantly, creating inviolate areas where wildlife conservation may be carried out.
- It further invests in the conception of protected areas and species by bringing in newer species to be protected, augmenting the penal repercussions.
- Rationalising schedules: From 6 to 4 – removing schedule for vermin (V) and a new schedule for CITES listed species.
- Obligations under CITES: Central government to designate a: (I) Management Authority, which grants export or import permits for trade of specimens, and (iii) Scientific Authority, which gives advice on aspects related to impact on the survival of the specimens being traded.
- Invasive alien species: to regulate or prohibit the import, trade, possession or proliferation of the same.
- Better Management of Protected Areas: It provides for certain permitted activities like grazing or movement of livestock and Bonafede use of drinking and household water by local communities.
- Protection of Forest Lands: It is so critical because it equally inculcates the protection of rights of the people who have been residing there since ages.
- Section 43 of the act amended which permitted the use of elephants for ‘religious or any other purposes’
Challenges to the Act:
- Social Injustice: A study by the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (the CPA Project examined arrest records of the police and Forest Department in Madhya Pradesh and found that persons from oppressed caste communities such as Scheduled Tribes and other forest-dwelling communities form the majority of accused persons in wildlife-related crimes.
- Use of muscle: The Forest Department was found to use the threat of criminalisation to force cooperation, apart from devising a system of using community members as informants and drawing on their loyalty by employing them on a daily wage basis.
- Pendency’s in cases: Cases that were filed under the WPA did not pertain solely to the comparatively serious offence of hunting; collecting wood, honey, and even mushrooms formed the bulk of prosecution in PAs.
- Over 95% of the cases filed by the Forest Department are still pending
- Misplaced regulations: Hunting offences against lesser protected species formed over 17.47% of the animals ‘hunted’ between 2016-20.
- Animals hunted the highest, only one in top five belonged to Schedule I (peacock).
- Surprisingly, fish (only certain species relegated to Schedule I) formed over 8% of the cases filed.
- A whopping 133 cases pertaining to fishing (incorrectly classified as Schedule V species) were filed in the last decade in Madhya Pradesh.
- Forest Rights Act subservient to the WPA – due to natural overlap of recognising forest rights in intended-as-inviolate PAs, thereby impeding its implementation.
- Collective Forest Rights not recognised in buffer zones over usage of forest resources, fishing, and protecting forest resources.
- Criminalisation of Fishing – which forms an important part of subsistence for tribal communities
- Due to their occurrence in Pas, they become punishable by three to seven years.
- In a case from 2016 documented by the CPA Project, the catch weighed less than 500 grams, yet the accused were charged with causing damage to a wildlife habitat under a host of WPA provisions.
- Fear mongering is a crucial way in which the department mediates governance in protected areas, and its officials are rarely checked for their power.
- Criminal cases filed by the department are rarely compounded since they are meant to create a ‘deterrent effect’ by instilling fear in communities.
- Unchecked discretionary policing allowed by the WPA and other forest legislations have stunted the emancipatory potential of the FRA.
- The need for criminal laws to assist wildlife conservation has remained unchallenged since its conception.
- From regulated hunting to complete prohibition and the creation of ‘Protected Areas (PA)’ where conservation can be undertaken without the interference of local forest-dwelling communities, State and Forest Department control over forests and the cattiest underpinnings of conservation would not have been possible without criminal law.
Source: The Hindu