Allowing cultural and traditional practices involving animals, not holding farmers responsible for the death of wild animals and hunting to be treated as an offence only if there is criminal intent could soon be the cornerstone of India’s wildlife law.
The Centre’s draft proposal to amend the wildlife law enacted in 1972 - to ban hunting and introduce wildlife conservation - attempts to redo some of its basic tenets that experts say will have “drastic and dangerous” ramifications for wildlife conservation.
They say the new proposal is controversial because the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has added provisions that were not there in the original draft bill introduced in Parliament by the UPA government.
For the first time, the proposal speaks of allowing “traditional and cultural practices” of communities which could overrule the Supreme Court order banning animal sports such as Jallikattu - a bull taming sport popular in Tamil Nadu - and bull racing in Maharashtra and Punjab.
Experts also say the amendment would give legitimacy to practices like Nag Panchami (where snakes are believed to be killed by giving milk) and killing of animals as offerings in religious places, which has been banned by high courts in some hill states like Himachal Pradesh.
Through another amendment, the government wants to remove the responsibility of farmers for the deaths of wild animals who consume insecticide or get trapped in devices such as a solar electric fence, trenches or barbed wire installed by them to save their crops.
“Who will decide whether the chemical was given deliberately or the animal consumed it accidentally?” environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta asked.
In the past, tigers and leopards have allegedly been poisoned to death in human-animal conflict zones in Maharashtra and Uttarakhand, the two states leading the count of wild animals killed in these zones in the first six months of 2016.
Another key change proposed is the introduction of “with criminal intent” in the provision making hunting a cognizable offence. Legal experts say it will mean that a person can land in jail for up to 10 years only if the intention of the hunter to kill the animal is proven. Otherwise, he would be booked under softer provisions of the law.
The Centre also intends to delegate its power to make rules for “handling” human-animal conflict management, including culling of animals, to state governments saying they are best equipped to judge the ground situation.
Many states have sought this power to check what they call growing damage of crops by wild animals. The Centre has already permitted states like Bihar to cull nilgai (blue bull) and Himachal to allow people to hunt monkeys.
“One can easily understand the intention of amending the law. On one hand, the government wants to create an impression that it is bringing stricter penalties for wildlife crime but under that it wants to give license to states to kill erring animals,” Dutta said.
The government also wants to weaken the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife by turning it into an advisory body from the one with powers to stall a project coming in and around over 600 wildlife sanctuaries and parks in the country.
A senior environment ministry official confirmed that the functions of the committee were being re-defined in the amendment bill, but added that the main purpose of the changes was to “enhance” penalties for wildlife crimes.
As a result, the penalty for poaching would increase by up to 10 times from existing Rs 500 to Rs 5,000. Also, an informer will get 50% from the proceeds of the auction of seized wildlife products in place of existing 10% and the Centre wants the state to give Rs 10,000 as a reward for those informing about poachers.
“If there is a proposal to enhance penalties, it needs to be deliberated carefully. While it may increase the deterrent power of the law, we have noticed a number of cases in which the accused has been sentenced to less than the mandatory minimum imprisonment term. Penalties should be balanced so that they do not result in the reluctance to convict an offender,” Avinaash Pareskar of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) said.
The government has to amend the wildlife law to meet the requirement of the United Nations’ convention of wildlife conservation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES that aims at having uniform wildlife penalties across the world.