Will the wildlife amendment bill save India’s rich biodiversity?
This time around, substantive changes have been introduced in the wildlife Act
On December 17, 2021, Union minister for environment, forest and climate change, Bhupender Yadav, introduced the Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021, in the Lok Sabha. The bill amends the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the most comprehensive legislation for protecting India’s biodiversity. Any changes to this law will have profound implications for India’s conservation policies.
However, this is not the first time that changes in the Act have been introduced. In 2002, the Act was amended to constitute the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) under the chairmanship of the prime minister. NBWL was earlier known as the Indian Board for Wildlife, but had no statutory status.
This time around, substantive changes have been introduced in the wildlife Act. In addition, a new chapter has been added to make the original Act compliant with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This multilateral treaty aims to regulate the international trade in animals and plants.
While this is a positive step, it is not the only change suggested in the amendment bill. A series of other prominent changes have been introduced. For example, the bill allows for commercial trade in elephants. This is problematic. Asian elephants have long been used in religious and spiritual activities; they work for forest departments and are often tourist attractions. Thus, the demand for live elephants in captivity is high. Wild Asian elephants are taken from forests, often illegally, to maintain captive populations to meet the demand.
Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who has examined the wildlife Act amendments in detail, warns that this section effectively gives legal sanctity to commercial trade in live elephants. It is very difficult to discern whether the animal being traded was born in captivity or caught from the wild. This could affect wild populations of elephants.
The executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, Vivek Menon, had hoped for an amendment in the Act that would legalise elephant corridors or give them habitat protection from linear infrastructure such as roads and railway lines. Such a change could have been a more positive step for wild elephants.
There is another contentious portion in the amendment bill on declaring a species as vermin. Once a wild animal is declared vermin, it can be traded, killed or maimed. But the law is silent on the process by which a species is declared as vermin. Section 29 in the amended Act adds that “bonafide use of drinking and household water by local communities shall not be deemed prohibitive under this Act”. While the intent is good, there is no clear definition of “local communities”. Was this clause included to allow projects such as the linking of river Ken and Betwa that will lead to the submergence of parts of the Panna Tiger Reserve? Or allow water to be transported from National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary for providing drinking water to Sawai Madhopur?
The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021, has been sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Technology, Environment, Forest and Climate Change, chaired by former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. He is expected to share the suggestions of the committee by March 2021. It is up to the minister to accept or reject the changes suggested by this committee.
Even as this process is undertaken, one cannot help but wonder if the amendment bill has lost out on an opportunity to help conserve India’s rich biodiversity. For example, declaration of corridors, better management of India’s marine protected areas, greater scope for encouraging scientific research, upgradation of the schedules to include species recently discovered or rediscovered (such as the Purple frog) could have been more progressive ways for conservation.
Bahar Dutt is an environment journalist and associate professor, Shiv Nadar University
The views expressed are personal