Ragged law, poor enforcement

  • 29/09/2007

Though the Salman Khan case is being actively prosecuted, and is in the public eye, this is no thanks to the legal, judicial and enforcement systems currently in place. There is a strong current of opinion among experts about the need to overhaul the system.

Hunting and trading in wildlife is banned under wpa. Under it, wildlife is categorised under various schedules. Tigers and blackbucks are among those in Schedule 1, ie they are endangered and stringently protected. Outlining wpa provisions, senior Supreme Court advocate Rajiv Dhawan says wpa provides for three years imprisonment or a fine up to Rs 25,000 or both for first offences. Subsequent ones invite imprisonment for three to seven years and a fine of Rs 25,000. The same applies to Schedule I species and crime in protected areas.Trade or commerce in parts of scheduled animals attract three to seven years in prison and a fine of Rs 10,000.

There are provisions which empower forest officials to initiate and participate in investigation: enter premises, search, seize, arrest, detain and record evidence. The power to arrest/detain can be anti-poor, when they are unable to provide bona fides , Dhawan adds.

Convictions are, however, few and far between. Some say wpa is the main problem, being riddled with loopholes and ambiguities. Lawyers representing Sansar Chand, the notorious poacher (see box: Jail-hardened), for instance, claimed the police had no authority to investigate a wildlife case, while some experts argued they could on the basis of complaints by the forest department. The judicial system comes in for the brunt of criticism from other quarters.

Some wpa loopholes were highlighted in the 2005 report by the Tiger Task Force. It pointed out that the act makes no distinction between serious offences and run-of-the-mill crimes, depriving authorities of manoeuvrability in preventing, detecting and deterring wildlife crimes. "Offences relating to endangered species should be placed at a higher level than those that relate to other animals,' says Sanjay Upadhyay, a lawyer associated with Noida-based Enviro-Legal Defence Firm. He also feels there should be a difference between big traffickers and small poachers, which the act does not provide for.

"There should be a clear distinction between critically endangered and other threat categories,' says Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (wpsi). For this, Ashok Kumar of the Wildlife Trust of India (wti), advocates rescheduling animals under wpa. Other experts agree. The Union ministry for environment and forests (moef) has formed a committee to frame criteria for rescheduling and another to look at wpa's criminal provisions. The latter has formed a subgroup to make recommendations. However, experts feel that unless recommendations are made binding, they will be futile. Bail is another grey area (see box: Bail confusion)

The role of the Bishnois in the Salman Khan case highlights another problem. wpa does not give third parties