The wildlife bill needs a review

Even as the eyes of the country were trained on assembly election results, Parliament passed an important, if somewhat controversial, piece of legislation that amended key sections of India’s wildlife law. The Wild Life (Protection) Amendment Bill, 2021, was cleared by the Rajya Sabha, four months after it received the nod from the Lok Sabha. It now amends the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972.

The amendments bolster protection for species that are protected by the law, implementing key provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or CITES (India is a signatory). It also simplifies complicated regulations, making legal implementation of the rules easier and empowers the Centre to regulate or prohibit the trade, possession or proliferation of invasive alien species. As environment minister Bhupender Yadav rightly observed in the House, there were gaps earlier in the application of CITES, which was being invoked largely at the borders. Now, the forest and wildlife departm-ents can take action in cases of animals deemed exotic, a good move when several such illegal consignments have been caught in border states. But while most of the provisions in the amended bill have been welcomed (especially the rationalisation of schedules and the provision on invasive alien species), two aspects merit further deliberation and possible review. First, the exemption made to allow the transfer of captive elephants and second, the provision of standing committees of the state wildlife boards.

Since 2003, WLPA banned trade in all captive wildlife and any non-commercial transfer across state borders, allowed only with the permission of the chief wildlife warden. This strict provision checked the elephant trade to an extent, but also forced it to go underground. The 2021 version of the bill proposed an exception, saying that the section will not apply to the transfer and transport of any live elephant by a person with a certificate of ownership. However, this language was criticised by conservation groups and political leaders, including former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who recommended limiting the provision to temple elephants.

Under pressure, the government modified the exemption, but experts feel the newly worded provision — allowing the “transfer or transport of a captive elephant for a religious or any other purpose by a person having a valid certificate of ownership” — is dangerously vague because the words “any other purpose” is open-ended, potentially increasing the demand for the illegal capture of these animals in the wild. It is well-known that in parts of the country, captured young elephants are put through torturous training methods and then transported as commodities, condemned to a lifetime of slavery and bonded labour.

The second criticism is on creating a standing committee of state wildlife boards. Many fear this will increase central control over the clearance of infrastructure projects in the states. Environmental clearance for projects has been a festering problem, with top leaders in the government often urging state environment ministers against creating obstacles to the ease of doing business. Central government data says more than 6,000 proposals for environmental and 6,500 for forest clearances are pending with the states. Many of these projects face serious local protests and criticism for being climate-negative. Less scrutiny may mean more environmental damage.