Environmentalists agree that the data in no way reflects the actual number of environment crimes. “The NCRB data is a good start, but is in no way an accurate reflection of either the scale or gravity of environmental crimes committed,” says Prerna Bindra, former member, National Board for Wildlife. “For one, only a fraction of the crimes committed are reported. For example, a spike in a particular state may indicate better vigilance,”
A closer look at the data, which includes all crimes recorded under the Forest Act, Wildlife Protection Act, Environmental Protection Act, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and Water Act, puts things in perspective. Crimes against air and water—two of the biggest environmental concerns in the country, show only 60 cases and states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and even Delhi, don’t figure in the list.
Environmental laws are often sidelined within the country, ostensibly in the larger interest of promoting ‘development’. Over the past few years, a trend has emerged where the central as well as most state governments have slowly diluted environmental laws to encourage infrastructure development. “The last 10-12 years have seen a dilution in structural norms and clearances when it comes to infrastructural development,” says Vimlendu Jha, an environmental activist. “States are now allowing work without any environmental clearances in place. This is resulting in a clearance regime, rather than a protection regime, as it should be.” He cites the example of the Mumbai builder’s norms which were recently changed to accommodate clearances for construction in the coastal regulatory zone—an area which is considered unstable for construction by most environmentalists.
Drive through the highway over the Yamuna floodplains on the outskirts of Delhi and the sight of white foamy residue of industrial waste floating on the water will hit you as rudely as the puffs of smoke from overburdened trucks plying on the road. Similar sights are commonplace in most Indian cities.
Pollution, whether of air, land or water, has become synonymous with India’s growth story, with evidence of damage visible across the country. Delhi and Mumbai are rated among the most polluted cities by the World Health Organisation. Yet, the recent data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on environmental crime tries to paint a different picture. The data, recorded for the second year, projects a 12 per cent drop in the number of environmental related offences with only 5,156 cases being registered.
A part of the problem is that environment protection has over the years evolved to become the onus of the courts rather than the responsibility of the regulatory and law enforcement authorities. Since the setting up of the National Green Tribunal, environmental law implementation has been largely perceived as a process which flows from the courts to the law enforcers instead of the other way round. “The fundamental problem with India’s environmental laws is that we don’t work through the Act, where the police as well as departments have authority to prosecute, but instead through High Court and Supreme Court directives,” says Supreme Court advocate and environmental activist Ritwick Dutta. The T.S.R. Subramanian committee report on cleaning of river pollution has also pointed out that unless a deterrence for non- compliance in the form of police prosecution as well as criminal charges exists, projects to clean up, protect and rejuvenate rivers will never be effective.
The disparity within the NCRB data thus arises due to lack of a structured as well as easily available system to address crimes against the environment. “An ideal legal recourse to a crime which includes authorities that file the complaint along with bodies which prosecute the wrongdoer as well as announce a judgement simply don’t exist within the country,” says Dutta.
The environment protection, air and water legislations in the country suffer from similar lacunae. The onus for prosecuting industries as well as individuals under the Act lies solely in the hands of the state pollution control boards, which, most lawyers allege, have been relegated to modular bodies without any actual power. “Bodies such as the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and other state pollution control boards are only allowed to issue certification to industry or individuals and cannot prosecute,” says Jha, citing the example of several building and industrial construction within Delhi which don’t bother seeking environmental clearances from such bodies.
Dutta adds that even when environmental crimes are brought to the notice of such PCD’s, they prefer to simply issue a civil action notice, even in cases of blatant violation of norms, without taking any subsequent action. “The law clearly states that most offences under the Air and Water Act are criminal in nature and punishable by fine as well as imprisonment of not less than 18 months. Yet, since filing cases can be a lengthy process stretching over a few years, state pollution boards opt not to take up the additional burden of litigation. This is why many refuse to register cases,” says Dutta. He does not recall a single INStance in the last one decade of someone being jailed under any of the acts.
A majority of the crimes reported in the NCRB data, accounting for almost 77 per cent of all the cases, are under the Forest Act. While representatives of state departments of Rajasthan and Maharashtra (which recorded the highest number of crimes) attribute the arrests to a “proactive approach” of authorities, environmentalists and lawyers strongly disagree. Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of Centre for Science and Environment, says the high number of cases is because the forest departments in most states function in a much more structured manner. “The Forest Protection Act has been in place since the British era making it a more established system,” Bhushan says. “Recording an act of crime under the system is a much easier task since tree felling or harming wildlife is a more tangible offence.”
Bindra says that the high number of cases do not necessarily point towards a more efficient system of operating. She moots that instead of going by sheer quantity, it is important to see the types of crimes being registered under the Act. Most offences under the Forest Protection Act include minor offences such as cutting of wood by farmers or cattle grazing as these crimes are far easier to catch and prosecute compared to other bigger crimes such as clearing of entire forests. “The data does not reflect the massive violations under the Forest Conservation Act where forests are being illegally cleared for anything from a mine to a mall, or encroachments of forests and even protected areas. Nor do I see a fair account of the violations of the Coastal Regulation Zones, illegal filling of wetlands and air and water pollution laws.”
The climate talks held in Paris paved the way for India to be considered as one of the most sustainably developing countries in the world. Yet, when it comes to enforcement of laws to protect the environment, it is evident that India has a long way to go.
The 2015 Crime Chart
- 3968 Forest Act
- 829 Wildlife Protection Act
- 299 Environmental (Protection) Act
- 50 Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act
- 10 Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act
- Total = 5156
Fall in crimes from 2014- 11.6%
Number of people arrested- 8034
Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or any Union Territory don’t record any crime under the air and water pollution Act.