A bench of the top court questioned how unarmed forest officials can protect India’s forests against heavily armed poachers.
“Police officers can at least call for help; forest officers can’t,” Chief Justice of India SA Bobde observed during a hearing on an application that alleged that forest officers are harassed by filing of counter-cases against them.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan flagged the issue by citing the example of cases filed recently in Mt Abu police station in Sirohi district of Rajasthan, as well as some in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, against forest officials as a counter to their actions against poachers.
The bench stayed the Rajasthan cases for the time being. “It is not appropriate at this stage to go into the truth of the allegations and to ascertain what actually transpired in the instances brought to our notice,” the bench said.
Citing data, Divan said that 31% of the attacks on forest officials take place in India.
The CJI pointed out that while in Assam forest officers are armed and feared, in other states such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra, they are armed with just lathis, undermining their ability to “protect the forests unarmed”.
He expressed concern over the danger and helplessness forest officials face during the course of protecting flora and fauna.
“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 CJI said. “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.” “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 tracts of uninhabited land and of which poachers take undue advantage for carrying out their nefarious activities.”
The CJI sought a report from all states and UTs on what steps have been taken to protect forest officials in areas known for poaching and steps proposed to protect the forests and the lives of forest officers and staff.
The bench adjourned further hearing in the case for four weeks.
These reports may be submitted by the home secretary of the respective states/UTs, it said.
Rahul Chitnis, counsel for Maharashtra, denied that state forest officers are not armed. He said officials above a particular rank carry arms.