SC concerned on attacks on forest officials, says they be given arms, bullet proof vests

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New Delhi, Jan 8 (PTI) The Supreme Court Friday expressed serious concern over attacks on forest rangers by armed poachers and smugglers and said it is difficult to imagine how any law can be enforced by the forest officials who are “poorly unarmed against poachers who are likely to be heavily armed”.

The apex court said it may pass orders to provide arms, bullet proof vests and helmets to officials above a certain rank to deal with heavily armed poachers as in some States they are only given ‘lathis’.

The top court said that the “situation is serious” and it is difficult to comprehend how these officials would protect the environment and forests which are normally vast tracts of uninhabited land and of which “poachers take undue advantage for carrying out their nefarious activities”.

It took note of the fact that in Assam forest officials are heavily armed to prevent poaching but in Maharashtra the forest officials are only given ‘lathi’ and in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the staff are seen wearing ‘Chappals’ (slippers) on duty.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian asked the home secretary of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to file a status report on the cases filed against the miscreants who have attacked the forest officials in four weeks.

It also stayed the proceedings in an FIR lodged against the forest officials in Mount Abu of Sirohi district in Rajasthan under Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribe Act. “We are of the view that the situation is serious and we find it difficult to comprehend how these forest officers and staff would be in a position to protect the environment and the forests which are normally vast tracks of uninhabited land and of which poachers take undue advantage for carrying out their nefarious activities,” the bench said.

The top court took note of the fact that there are States notably Assam and especially Maharashtra, which have armed some forest officers above certain ranks. “We do not know what steps are being taken by other States/Union Territories where this poaching is rampant, for protection of the forests and the lives of the forest officers and staff”, the bench said.

It added that it is difficult to imagine how any law can be enforced by the forest officers and staff who are poorly unarmed against poachers who are likely to be heavily armed. It said that the forest officials are up against the 'bigger force and millions of dollars are being siphoned off by smuggling' and suggested that 'ED (Enforcement Directorate) should be roped in. It should have a separate wildlife wing. These are all proceeds of crime.' The top court was hearing an intervention application filed by an NGO in a 25-year-old PIL of one T N Godavarman Thirumulpad seeking to protect the forest officials from malicious prosecution.

The bench said that it is not appropriate at this stage to go into the truth of the allegations made in the FIR and to ascertain what actually transpired in the instances brought to our notice.

Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for NGO 'Nature Conservation Society,' said that recently some attacks have taken place on forest officials, who were on duty in the state of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

He pointed out the danger and helplessness to which the forest officers and staff are subjected in the course of protecting flora and fauna in the forests and said that the action which is taken by the forest officers is met with the counter blast in the form of an FIR prosecuting them in return for some or the other act.

The bench asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Ministry of Environment and Forests, amicus curiae ADN Rao and Divan to make a joint submission about the measures which can be adopted for protection of forests as well as the lives of forest officers and staff.

It asked the home secretary of these States to file a status report on the cases filed against the forest staff and took note of the submissions of Divan that India accounts for 38 percent of attacks on forest officials.

'When we go to Assam, (we see) they are given arms while in Maharashtra they are given only 'lathi', ' the bench said and added 'We will direct that the officials are given arms, bullet proof vests and helmets. In Karnataka, forest officials are seen roaming in 'chappals' and are being slapped by poachers. We want the Solicitor General to make a statement on the next date of hearing that arms will be given to personnel....' The bench adjourned the hearing by four weeks and said that it would pass a detailed order after taking note of the statements of the lawyers concerned. During the hearing, it said forest officials cannot even call for help in distress in the forest when they are attacked by poachers. Like in a city, police can call for help, there should be some mechanisms, it said.

'We need to check all these crimes. Last month I was in a forest in Maharashtra and have seen that forest officials were not even armed. How will they protect themselves when they are attacked? SG, we want you to explore all possibilities. These are all sophisticated crimes which need to be checked,' the CJI observed.

Rao submitted that due to non-utilisation of funds by some states, forest officials are not provided adequate infrastructure and safety gears to protect the environment and forests.

He said that similar attacks have taken place in Uttar Pradesh in 2001 and 2019 in Telangana on the forest officials. PTI MNL PKS SJK MNL RKS RKS