Forester's dilemma

USE OF FIREARMS

Forester's dilemma

To fire or not to fire, that is the question on every forest guard’s mind each time he encounters a poacher. The use of firearms comes with many checks and balances, but do these checks often hinder a forester from opening fire on a poacher? Madhumitha B looks for answers to questions on the use of arms, the need for immunity, and the morale of foresters.

When faced with an enemy who is forbidden from entering an area, the men in khaki, against all odds, work at capturing the intruders. But the thoughts running in their mind of what a justifiable and non-controversial method to track down and stop this intruder is often a bigger obstacle. The race towards the finish line is not one that will necessarily go down as a victory for them.

The job of a forest protector is somewhat, if not exactly, like that of the army of men who defend the country against intruders. They are supposed to fight those who enter their territory, with the intention of harm, and in fierce terrains that challenges the toughest of spirits.

What makes an already difficult situation worse is the opposition they face. At times, the opposition comes not just from the enemy who is the poacher, but also in the form of situations that can be twisted to question their actions when in the line of duty. The means and methods employed by the forest protector to achieve his objective of nabbing criminals could themselves come under fire. The foot soldiers who march through the forests of Karnataka or those across India have more than the poacher to fight. They need to have nerves of steel to stand up against local residents who pose a threat to the safety of the forest, vengeful law enforcement officers who are unwilling to give up their authority and the most difficult at times, their own administration that is forced to crumble under pressure.

Conservation is certainly not an easy task. Add to that political pressures, influential bureaucrats, unnecessary power struggles between law enforcement agencies and a faint-hearted justice system that is clinging onto life support. What you get, then, is what we see today. 

On the one hand, dwindling forest cover, more endangered species, species extinction getting closer to reality and the slow but steady breaking down of the spirit of foresters who lead an unimaginably tough life. On the other, an unending cry for more aggressive policies, power and enforcement for crimes against wildlife conservation. At a time when poaching has managed to scale itself to become an organised crime, the will to meet it with an equal measure of gumption is inevitable, feel conservationists. One of the aspects of this would be the use of firearms, a controversial and sensitive issue, even today. Bring this subject up when in conversation with forest guards and officers and the synchronised apprehension that they reflect is followed by the fact that in their experience, this method brings with it more trouble for them than relief. Even if it means putting their own life at stake and shooting at a poacher and preventing a tiger or an elephant from being killed is, for a forest official, not always immunity against using firearms. He has to explain his action and it has to be determined whether it was necessary at all.

The moment an enquiry with the local tahsildar or commission is conducted for a forester having done his duty of protecting the forests, who would then want to open fire, questions A K Varma, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Karnataka and head of forest force. “Any official who opens fire has to answer too many questions from the enquiry machinery, it’s demoralising. In fact there was no power whatsoever to open fire for forest officials till 1991-92 after which we (foresters) were allowed to use firearms for protection and to safeguard forest produce. But that order, while it was accorded, also put restrictions on immunity,” added Varma.

Question of immunity

In this day and age when crime of all sorts has become an issue, land has become an issue, it has also become necessary to aggressively safeguard our Protected Areas (PA). And sometimes that means using firearms, felt Belinda Wright, Executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and senior conservationist who works towards combating poaching and the escalating illegal wildlife trade in India. She added, “One can’t expect them to face a gang of poachers with lathis in their hands. But they don’t always have a strong immunity for using firearms. And that will only come with a government notification that extends the protection that policemen have under Section 197 (Code of Criminal procedure).” The fact, according to conservationists, is that immunity exists for forest officers in Karnataka.

Then the question that remains is why such a notification is largely recognisable in Assam and Maharashtra with Assam’s notification being empowered under the State Legislature. The law covers immunity in Karnataka but it all boils down to the local officer who either enforces this protection or not. “Forest officials are often targeted for implementing wildlife laws as part of their duty to protect endangered species by those accused through filing counter complaints just to wreak vengeance. Many such counter complaints are false and rarely stand the test of law in a court. However, even those forest officials taking legitimate action against poachers and forest encroachers have to face the torturous process of harsh investigations by the police and other forms of harassment. This weakens their morale and resolve to protect wildlife and is therefore a matter of serious concern which requires the immediate intervention of the government,” stated Praveen Bhargav, former Member, National Board for Wildlife and Trustee, Wildlife First. But an eye for an eye is not what democracy believes in.

There is protocol to be followed, emphasised Bhargav who added, “Just because they are given weapons, it does not mean they are allowed to fire at anyone. There are strict regulations and protocols in place to ensure that such powers are not misused by anyone. After every incident of firing, a magisterial enquiry is conducted to rule out misuse of firearms.” 

Aggressive protection

If, for protecting the forests, there are so many questions raised, then eventually what answer is there when a forester begins to wonder why he needs to put in any effort at all? Conservation needs aggressive protection, both at the policy and grassroots level. On the part of the State Forest Department, Varma shared that their legal team has begun to take up the issue of immunity that will provide better protection for their foresters similar to the one that the police department has under Section 197 (Code of Criminal procedure) of protection while discharging their duty. “We are in the process of asking the government to re-examine the whole issue which is essential for conservation and protection against  smugglers, poachers or encroachers,” he added.

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