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Environmental offences

When it comes to environment-related offences like tree felling and poaching, Assam’s record continues to be dismal. Not only does the State witness the highest number of such crimes in Northeast region, it the fifth worst States in the country in 2016, compared eighth worst in 2015. As per the latest data furnished by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 149 environment-related offences committed in Assam in 2016, of which 82 cases were registered under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and 67 cases under the Forest Act, 1927. The number of arrests in Assam for environmental offences last year stood at 248, with 110 of them being charge-sheeted. The other sister NE States are placed far better than Assam, recording few such offences in the two years 2015 & 2016. Environmental activists have pointed to hitherto low conviction rates in Assam of such offenders. With environment-related offences long getting a low priority in Dispur’s scheme of things, many offenders go scot free. Those who happen to get caught are soon out on bail, as the police and law enforcement agencies often fail to put up airtight cases that would stand scrutiny in court. The cases drag on for years in desultory fashion, and are then closed for good. It has been found that many known rhino poachers are repeat offenders, which shows that they are least bothered by fears of punishment. Worse, there are persistent suspicions that environmental offenders are in cahoots with a section of law enforcers, sharing the spoils between them. And the spoils are substantial, considering that mafias are flourishing on various kinds of forest produce across the State, ranging from valuable timber to wild animal body parts, from charcoal to stone chips. When Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s anti-graft crusade netted DFO Mahat Chandra Talukdar in June this year, vigilance sleuths found in one of his houses tiger skin and elephant tusks along with unaccounted wealth. The discovery of animal parts which command a premium in clandestine foreign markets, at a forester’s residence is troubling, to say the least. If a section of foresters are selling of the forest produce they should be safeguarding, it requires the Forest department to keep a sharp eye on its own. Lately, there has been some movement in giving more firepower to forest guards, with the first consignment of AK-ghatak assault rifle, INSAS carbines, SLRs and other weapons. It would doubtless boost their ability to take on well-armed poachers, but more than firepower, it will be a question of political will by Dispur to back its forest employees. The controversy over a BBC documentary this year, ascribing the successful conservation efforts at Kaziranga national park to the ‘shoot and kill powers’ given to its rangers, showed the challenges in image building the park authority is faced with. It is a thankless task, considering how ill-equipped, short-staffed and overworked park rangers are in covering its 858 sq km area. After all, apart from rhinos and tigers, they also have to protect lesser (though precious) animals like pangolins. On the prosecution and conviction fronts, there are hopes that things will improve with the setting up of fast track courts as per Gauhati High Court’s order. Provided the intelligence mechanism is sufficiently geared to track poacher gangs and the law enforcers do their job properly in collecting enough evidence to nail them, the conviction rate in the fast track courts ought to show a distinct improvement next year onwards. As per NCRB data for 2016, no cases were lodged in Assam under Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 or laws relating to air and water pollution. However, this does not mean there has been no wilful pollution by rogue industries and other entities. Activists at the forefront of battling such offences need all the government backing they can get.