INTRODUCTION

Protection of forests is both a responsibility of the State[1] and a duty of the citizens[2] in India. It is even a moral obligation of the entire humanity to protect and conserve the forests since they provide with the basic necessities for surviving on this Planet. Moreover, at present conservation of forests has become even more important since they have the potential to function as the major carbon-sink for reducing the impact of climate change which is now the major concern. However, besides being sympathetic towards the environment, humanity made significant contributions in destroying the environment. In India, itself, it is recorded that environmental offences increased from 4,732 in 2016 to 42,143 cases in 2017, most of which are detrimental to the forest cover.[3] This article will, therefore, highlight the nature of environmental crimes and the issues related thereto, committed in the forest of Kamrup District, Assam from the facts that were empirically collected during my research for my LLM Dissertation.

LEGAL AND INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK REGULATING THE FORESTS OF ASSAM

Forest is listed under the concurrent list in our Constitution for which both the Center and the State have the powers to legislate on matters relating to the regulation of forests.[4] Thus, wherever there arises a vacuum in laws related to any matter over forest regulation made by the Center, the State can enact to provide for such matter in their respective jurisdictions staying in conformity with the Union legislation. The principal National Legislations that govern the regulation of forests are – Indian Forest Act;[5] Wildlife Protection Act;[6] Forest Conservation Act[7] and to some extent the Biological Diversity Act.[8] While in Assam, the major laws regulating the concerned subject-matter are- Assam Forest Regulation 1891 which is a replica of the Indian Forest Act providing the State Government with the powers to declare forests as protected, reserved and village forests as well as to regulate the forest department;[9] Assam (Removal and Storage of Forest Produce) Regulation Act 2000 which is a very important Act since it defines several offences related to stealing, trading and smuggling of forest produces with their penalties and also provides the forest officials with the powers to seize, search and arrest the accused of commission of such offences;[10] and finally the Assam State Biodiversity Rules 2010 which was enacted for the purpose of implementing the objectives of the BD Act in Assam and it too provided for certain offences related to the protection of forests.[11]

While the principal institution established by the legal framework for the protection of forests in Assam is the Forest Department. This department is again divided into four main wings, via-Territorial Wing which occupies jurisdictions over specific territories distributed in Ranges within every district and provides protection to such areas; the Social Forestry Wing which is mainly focused in expanding the forest cover by plantation activities with the help of the local people; Wildlife Protection Wing that is mainly entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the wild animals and plants by keeping records and monitoring of illegal activities against such wild species; and at last is the Research and Analytical Wing which is again divided into Genetic Division for collecting seeds from Genetically Superior Plus Trees and nourishing them, Silviculture division focused on research activities related to conservation of forests and the Forest Research and Survey Division for the purpose of conducting surveys, research and spreading awareness related to the protection of forests.[12] In addition to this institutional framework, the BD Act has established the Assam State Biodiversity Board (ASSB) and the Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) mainly for regulating Access and Benefit System but are also entrusted with the responsibilities of looking after protection and conservation of the forests and they mostly perform their activities in cooperation with the forest department only.[13]

ENVIRONMENTAL CRIMES AGAINST FORESTS OF KAMRUP DISTRICT

It was on November 1, 1993 when the news of first Green Martyr, Kunjoram Tamuli came to light. He was killed brutally and was cut into pieces on duty in the forest under Bamunigaon Range on November 2, 1993 by smugglers.

His widow revealed that in those days the forest guards were not equipped with any weapons which added to the advantage for the smugglers. She further revealed that during the incident, her husband managed to cause injuries on a few of the smugglers by snatching their weapons only. The police were later able to arrest them due to such injuries but because of political support, they got absconded. That was the first incident while such incident continued since then.[14]

Even recently a forest guard was again cut down in the Rampur Range on duty. It is expected that these smugglers are supported by local people residing in the forests since they are provided with a huge sum of money for contributing towards illegal trading of forest produces. Further, so-called indigenous people are given the right to possess resources from the forests for maintaining their livelihood but it becomes difficult for the forest department to monitor all of their activities from within the forest especially those related to illegal trading of Non-Timber Forest Produces.[15] In 2019, a case of pangolin smuggling was recorded where the offenders were arrested and sent to jail by Rampur Forest Department.[16] Such kind of offences are getting common in the region but when asked to ASBB members, it was reported that they never received any complaint about illegal bio-trading in Assam.[17] Further, the forest officers also opined that even if they arrest the offenders and take them to the Court, it requires a huge amount of time to secure sentences against such offenders since these offences are rarely given importance over other matters pending before the Court, while in most cases those offenders are backed by strong political nexus, as a result of which they get released even before reaching the Court after the arrest.[18] The forest officers are not equipped with modern weapons but the smugglers are for which their lives become vulnerable against them. They even lack proper human resources, where there should have been 20-25 persons in a Range, there are only 8-9 persons serving in such divisions and this makes it very difficult for them to protect the entire forest area for the whole day and night throughout the year.[19]

CONCLUSION

The above-mentioned facts highlight the dismal conditions of the forests in the Kamrup District alone while there had been many such offences committed in other parts of Assam and even in entire India. It seems that even though the law provides for adequate provisions to deal with such offences but there seems to be a lack of adequate resources to enforce such laws. In one district itself, we have seen that forest officers had to sacrifice their lives in protecting the forests while if a generalization is made for the entire country then we can’t even imagine the number of such sacrifices that have been made so far by the forest department. The justice delivery system is also alleged to be quite lazy over such matters while the offenders are mostly backed by strong political backgrounds. Even the local people are involved in the smuggling activities which makes it very difficult for the forest departments to get hold of such offences. Thus, it is required that more than simply making laws, investments shall be made for the purpose of increasing the available resources of the forest department and also special Courts at the regional levels shall be instituted with special jurisdictions over environmental matters besides having the National Green Tribunal as an appellate authority in such cases.

[1] IND CONST. Art 48A.

[2] IND CONST, Art 51(A)(g).

[3] Bhaskar Tripathi, India has some of the most polluted cities, yet 70% of its environmental crimes ‘crimes’ involve smoking, SCROLL (May 03, 2020, 11:11 PM) https://scroll.in/article/941896/india-has-some-of-the-major-polluted-cities-yet-70-of-its-environmental-crimes-involve-smoking.

[4] IND. CONST. Concurrent List, Entry 17-A Forests & Entry 17-B Protection of Wild Animals and Birds.

[5] Forest Act 1927, No. 16, Acts of Parliament, 1927 (India).

[6] Wildlife Protection Act 1972, N0. 53, Acts of Parliament, 1972 (India).

[7] Forest Conservation Act, 1980, No. 69, Acts of Parliament, 1980 (India).

[8] Biological Diversity Act, 2002, No. 13, Acts of Parliament, 2003, (India).

[9] The Assam Forest Regulatio0n, 1891, Regulation 7 of 1891, (Assam).

[10] The Assam Forest (Removal and Storage of Forest Produce) Regulation Act, 2000, No. XII, Acts of Assam State Legislative Assembly, 2000 (Assam).

[11] Assam Biodiversity Rules, 2010.

[12] Kaushik Phukan, Ranger Forest Department, Genetic Cell Division, Basistha, Assam.

[13] Nayan Das, Technical Assistant, ASBB.

[14] Reena Tamuli, Fr 1, Genetic Division, Basistha Forest Department (Widow of Kunjoram Tamuli).

[15] Syed Jainur Ali, Fr 1, Rampur Anchalik Block BMC, Forest Department.

[16] Ananta Kalita, Deputy Ranger, Singra Range, EST Kamrup Forest Division.

[17] Oinam Sunenda Debi, Scientific Officer, ASBB.

[18] Supra, 16.

[19] Hafizudeen Ahmed, Forest Department, Rongia & Jogi Kona Block BMC.

The article has been written by Jayanta Boruah

This article was first published in the Blog namely The Criminal Law Blog