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Late last year, the Indian government introduced two Bills in parliament with no public consultation. The first was a Bill for proposed changes to the Biological Diversity Act 2002, which regulates the use of biological resources and their access and benefits. The second was a Bill for proposed changes to the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) 1972, an Act that concerns itself with the protection of wild animals from trade, poaching or other threats.
While the Biological Diversity Act is relatively recent, the Wildlife Protection Act, nearly 50 years old, does need an update. Yet pushing through Bills without public or expert consultation never bodes well, and subsequent criticism of this led the government to concede that the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Science and Technology, Environment and Forests would consider the WLPA Bill and the Joint Parliamentary Committee would consider the Biological Diversity Bill.
For an Act like the WLPA, a scientific consultation is not an option but a necessity. The principal Act lists species and the Schedules of protection they are under (such as corals, birds, plants, reptiles, etc.). Any upgrades or changes to this needs extensive work by scientists, botanists, entomologists and more. It is no surprise that the Bill for the WLPA is incorrect and inadequate when it comes to the species it names – some species are wrongly spelt or described, and many have been left out.
But there are also other issues with the Bill that are deeply problematic. Firstly, the Bill empowers the government to have arbitrary powers to declare species as ‘vermin’ (pests). Secondly, the Bill moots a reduction in the role of State Wildlife Boards – bodies which are crucial in determining the fate of large projects involving forests or protected areas in states. Finally, the Bill loosens provisions of transporting elephants, which is likely to encourage illegal trade in wild elephants.
Currently the WLPA gives states the power to hunt animals if they are a nuisance, but a procedure for this has to be followed. The Union environment ministry had also asked states to respond to which animals they wanted to declare vermin, which would be done for some time. Whether its Nilgai in Bihar or rhesus monkeys in Himachal Pradesh, the process of declaring vermin has been a political rather than an ecological one.
Instead of tackling the drivers of the problem, indiscriminate shooting or killing of wild animals was allowed, which most agree acts more like revenge than solution. In the 2021 Bill, it is suggested that Schedule II animals may be declared ‘vermin’. Several threatened animals are part of Schedule II, such as jungle cats. The matter of declaring animals as vermin is not problematic – the way it has been employed is. There is no reason to give blanket powers to declare any animal as ‘vermin’ from an entire Schedule. Instead, baseline population assessments should be conducted before any such move.
Several times, the Union government has wished to push through large projects that don’t have the support of local populations or even states. For instance, the proposed Ken-Betwa river interlinking project in Madhya Pradesh, which will divert the Ken’s water to the Betwa, has faced many protests by locals. In other cases, projects need greater scrutiny. A project to make a railway line connecting Hubli to Ankola by cutting lakhs of trees in the Western Ghats in Karnataka saw opposition from within the State Board for Wildlife, because alternate railway routes (which will also chop forests) had already been cleared.
The 2021 Bill inserts Clause 6, which suggests that State Boards for Wildlife should have a Standing Committee. This is a clear copy of the National Board for Wildlife, which by name is headed by the Prime Minister but leaves all its work to its Standing Committee – one that has cleared projects without due scrutiny.
Creating a similar system in states is a political move meant to further divest diverse views from environmental decision-making. With several chief ministers taking an active interest in wildlife and declaring new wildlife reserves (for example, Madhya Pradesh will make two new tiger reserves), this is also a move that in many ways undermines the fullness of the federal structure.
Finally, the issue of elephants, India’s national heritage animal. Elephants have a unique place in the WLPA. They are threatened animals that enjoy protection under the WLPA, but due to their cultural, and sometimes economic, importance, this is the only wild animal protected under the WLPA that can be kept in captivity. The caveat is that the owner should have got the animal through any means other than commercial sale and purchase. But how many times can the same animal be inherited, and where do gift elephants come from?
It is well-known that the law is violated and elephants are illegally procured and kept in captivity. A proposed change in 2021 Bill does away with some provisions of Section 43, allowing the transfer and transport of live elephants by persons having a certificate of ownership. The reason for this is clear: to make keeping captive elephants easier.
Pushing Bills through in haste is a bad idea for the environment. But the inadequacy of the provisions may be the reason for the haste in the first place.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author. She is the author of Wild and Wilful (2021).