Need to protect informants

Need to protect informants

Arresting informants, like it happened at the BRT Hills, is like killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

There have been reports in the media recently about seizure of tiger bones by forest officials in the BRT (Biligiri Ranganathaswamy Temple) Hills, Karnataka. What was of concern here was the fact that the accused escaped from the scene while the informant who had been assisting in the operation was arrested and is being subjected to custodial interrogation. He has since been remanded to judicial custody.

Enquiries reveal that the NGOs who assisted in the operation are said to be bona fide wildlife enthusiasts and the informant a genuine one. This issue raises several questions pertaining to conservation, wildlife protection, cardinal principles of intelligence gathering and crime investigation itself.

It has been the experience of professionals in the field that the motive for providing information – crime, strategic, tactical or terrorist-related – is normally jealousy, fear, enmity or plain greed for money, reward or favour. A spirit of public interest or community service may also motivate informants. An unwritten rule is that the identity of the informant or source is never compromised and not disclosed even to a departmental superior.

The art of cultivating ‘informants’ or ‘sources’ is a tedious and long process. But once you invest in them, they can provide valuable and priceless information. Several major crimes have been solved through crucial information thus received and many a communal riot or terrorist attack has been foiled thanks to timely intelligence. Organisations treat informants as ‘assets’ and protect and handle them with utmost care and secrecy.

However, every officer in this business of intelligence gathering has to be wary of ‘double agents’ who pretend to work for you while in reality, he may be betraying you. One may recall how such ‘informants’ took a few police and forest officers for a ride making them sitting ducks when the brigand Veerappan was active.

The Karnataka Forest Act, 1963 and the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, confers powers of enforcement and investigation to both forest and police officers. Crime investigation being the bread and butter of a police officer, he undergoes rigorous training with regard to the entire gamut of investigation and gets to hone his skills right through his career by handling a variety of cases and each would be a new learning experience.

This is not to suggest that all police investigations are perfect. The courts often point out lacunae in investigation for which corrective action would be taken. Suffice it to say that police are the only trained outfit to carry out investigation in criminal cases.

Investigation encompasses a wide range of issues like preservation of a crime scene, knowledge and application of criminal law, collection of intelligence through informants, interrogation techniques, forensic scien-ce, medical jurisprudence, court attendance and the art of deposing evidence to name a few.

Exposure to training
The two legislations mentioned above bestow powers of investigation to forest officers of and above a certain rank who, in stark contrast have had little or no exposure to or initiation or training in any aspect of investigation. Yet, scores of cases are registered and investigated by forest officers across the country everyday. Scepticism is in order as far as cases investigated by the forest officers is concerned.

It is precisely this scenario, which appears to have been played out in the BRT Hills when forest officials chose to arrest the informant, thereby killing the goose that lays the golden egg. One can be certain that this single incident is sufficient to dry up all information in this region on wildlife crime, which perhaps is the second largest international illegal trade next only to narcotics.

This may well prove to be a severe blow to wildlife conservation and is sure to provide impetus to illegal trade in wild flora and fauna. That illegal wildlife trade nurtures and funds terror and terrorist activities is well known.

It is time that the forest department takes steps to build up a cadre of officers across ranks, train them in crime investigation – both theory and practice – and entrust wildlife crime investigation to such trained personnel. They can perhaps leverage the resources at the disposal of numerous police training institutions across the country in order to organise a six-month capsule course for its personnel.

Alternatively, a Wildlife Crime Investigation Squad may be set up at the State CID, headed by a police officer with an equal compliment of police and forest officers of all ranks. This squad may be entrusted with the investigation of major cases of forest crime including those with interstate ramifications. Either of the above solutions appears to be the only way to save our fast depleting forest wealth and wildlife.

These offences are professional crimes having internal security implications and calls for meticulous investigation. It is too serious a matter to be left to an ad-hoc and unprofessional investigating apparatus.

(The writer is  former Director General and Inspector General of police, Karnataka)