Legal and wildlife experts are relieved that a provision of the Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which made trading of elephants possible, has not made it to the Bill of 2022, passed by Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
Another positive flag for experts was that another provision related to the formation of a standing committee of the state board for wildlife (SBWL) — to be headed by the state’s forest minister and comprising not more than 10 members nominated by the minister — has been retained . This clause is likely to ease the process of wildlife clearances for infrastructure projects at the state level as the panel will mostly consist of official members, experts have flagged.
The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, specifically prohibits trade in wild animals, including captive and wild elephants. Under sections 40 and 43 of the law, transfer, acquiring and receiving of a live captive elephant is permissible only with the prior approval of the chief wildlife warden. However, such transfer, acquisition and receipt of an elephant should not involve any commercial transaction.
The amendment Bill of 2021 had introduced a new subsection (4) to Section 43 that takes away the protection from trade of elephants. The parliamentary standing committee on science, technology, environment, forests and climate change, headed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, had recommended in its report in April, the deletion of the clause and asked the Center to provide an explanation of provisions for transport of captive elephants. This recommendation of the panel seems to have been accepted.
“The Bill of 2022 states that transfer and transport of captive elephants for religious and other purposes is permitted subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by the Central government. This is the situation that exists in the present law also, although the use of the word ‘religious’ seems to have been added due to the recommendation of the Standing Committee headed by Jairam Ramesh. The Bill of 2021 did not use the word ‘religious. Notwithstanding this, the decision to not open up commercial trade in live elephants is a positive development. It is pertinent to point out that the Bill of 2021 specifically allowed commercial trade in ‘live elephants’ whereas the Bill passed in 2022 refers to transfer (non-commercial) and transport of ‘captive elephants,’” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer, in a critique of the Bill passed.
“Unfortunately, the wrong practice of the standing committee assuming the role of the National Board for Wildlife which is seen at the central level will be replicated at the state level also with the state board made defunct and the standing committee with select members making all decisions on national parks and sanctuaries,” Dutta added.
The second major change is the clarification with respect to Section 29 of the Act. The Bill of 2021 permitted for bonafide use of water from sanctuaries for drinking water and household water for local communities. The word “local community” was not defined and left open to interpretation. The Bill passed, however, makes it clear that “local communities” refer to those within the limits of sanctuaries and hence, avoids the possibility of misuse, Dutta explained. Dutta’s legal team also said categorization of various species in terms of their families in the Bill passed will help officials in management of wildlife.
“Now, there are specific sections for Bears, Porcupines, Primates, Antelope etc. The fact that rodents, including different species of rats, have found an honorable mention in the Act is significant since they are all treated as pests. Enforcement agencies used to find it difficult to locate species in the Schedule since they were distributed all across. Besides, many sub-species that were not included have now been included in the Act,” the critic said.
Some experts have also flagged that there is an exception made for conservation breeding centers which can be misused. As per the existing law, a zoo cannot acquire, transfer or sell any wild or captive animal except from another recognized zoo. The Bill passed has a provision stating that this will not apply to breeding centres. This will allow the breeding centers to acquire animals which are either in captivity or in wild for conservation breeding, Dutta said.
“Now, there is an exemption for ‘conservation breeding centre’. Also exempts transfer of elephants. Given the recent interest by big corporates towards private Zoos, I seriously hope this provision isn’t misused,” tweeted Debadityo Sinha, senior resident fellow at Vidhi Center for Legal Policy.
The Bill passed on Tuesday amends the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, for better implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
According to a statement issued by the environment ministry responding to queries from HT, the Bill provides for the relevant definitions, the designation of the CITES Management and Scientific Authority, the conditions for trade of CITES-listed species, and other relevant matters. “In addition to this, certain other amendments have also been proposed so as to make the Act more comprehensive,” the statement said.
The new amendments make way for schedules to the Act to be rationalized and reduced from the current six schedules to four schedules; the monetary penalties for contravention of the provisions of the Act are proposed to be increased so as to ensure that they function as a sufficient deterrent; empowers the Central government to regulate or prohibit the import, trade, possession or proliferation of invasive alien species whose introduction or spread may pose a threat to wildlife; allows state boards for wildlife to constitute standing committees and other committees, sub-committees, or study groups as may be necessary; better care of seized live animals and disposal of seized wildlife parts and products, among other provisions, a senior environment ministry official said.
Neha Sinha, wildlife biologist and author said” “It is a welcome step that we are tackling invasive alien species, which have wreaked devastation both to the economy and ecology. However, the definition of invasive alien species is not complete. The bill defines it as: ‘invasive alien species’ means a species of animal or plant which is not native to India and whose introduction or spread may threaten or adversely impact wild life or its habitat;’; But in fact these are species that are not native to an Indian habitat. Even an Indian species may be invasive in another part of India – such as the Indian Crow in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We need to update such definitions and make them more scientifically accurate.”
“Secondly, there is a provision in the Bill to have a Standing Committee within the National Board for Wildlife, which shall have about 12 members. The idea seems to be that such a standing committee will speedily clear proposals. Yet, at a time of climate change and species loss, what we need is not necessarily speed but absolute thoroughness in decision-making, along with effective representation from wildlife and ecology experts. The 2002 amendment mentions “ten persons to be nominated by the Central Government among eminent conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists in the Board”. Will the standing committee have such independent and subject experts?” she added.