Off the mark: National Crime Records Bureau data gives a misleading picture of environmental crime

Apparently, poor people living in and around forests break the law more than industrial polluters and illegal miners.

The National Crime Records Bureau has been collecting data on offences related to environment for three years now. But a closer look at the data suggests it is not a reliable indicator of the extent of environmental crime in the country.

Consider this: In 2016, Madhya Pradesh registered six cases under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, while the rest of India reported just five such cases. That these numbers are way off the mark is borne out by the fact that the Central Pollution Control Board has categorised as many as 150 rivers in the country as polluted. Or, take the Ganga and the Yamuna, which multiple studies have found are heavily polluted, largely from the discharge of untreated effluents by tanneries and other factories. Yet, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, no criminal case has been filed in the last three years against any polluter in the states through which the two rivers flow.

Similarly, just 25 offences under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act were registered across India in 2016, with Maharashtra alone accounting for 21. Delhi may be one of the most polluted cities in the world but it has not reported a single criminal offence under the air pollution law in the last three years.

It is not much different with offences under the Indian Forest Act. In August 2017, the Union mines ministry informed Parliament that more than 96,000 offences related to illegal mining of major and minor minerals had been reported in 2016-17. This is several times the total number of cases under different environmental laws recorded by the Bureau.

There are several reasons for the mismatch in the Bureau’s numbers and the ground reality. One is the reluctance of pollution control boards to file cases against polluters. As the environmental lawyer Meera Gopal pointed out, the regulators prefer issuing show cause notices to polluters because launching, and fighting, criminal proceedings is cumbersome.

From our discussions with the regulators and legal experts in different states, it emerged that the authorities are also reluctant to report, and punish, industrial polluters and illegal miners for fear of attracting “bad publicity”, which they hold would harm the economy as investors prefer “less litigant states”.

Another reason is that state officials tasked with implementing pollution control laws often do not fully comprehend them.

Unequal before the law?

While they rarely punish industrial polluters and illegal miners, pollution control officials often deploy the full might of the law against the deprived communities that are dependent on natural resources for livelihood such as the Adivasis.

From 2014 to 2016, as per the Bureau, 12,584 cases of violation of the Indian Forest Act were registered in the country, the most under any environmental law. In the same period, 2,458 cases of violation of the Wildlife Protection Act were registered.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 is essentially aimed at extracting resource and excluding people from the forest, while the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 restricts human activity in protected areas such as national parks and tiger reserves.

Though the Bureau does not record the demographic characteristics of the people booked under the two laws, we found, after surveying 10 villages in Rajasthan’s Dhaulpur district in October-November 2016, that the majority of the accused in the state were poor people living in and around forests. Most were booked for gathering firewood and minor forest produce even though they are entitled to it under the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

In other states, forest-dwellers were booked in criminal cases for carrying out agricultural activities or practising shifting cultivation on forest land, despite being legally allowed to do so if they had occupied the land prior to December 13, 2005.

Clearly then, the National Crime Records Bureau’s data is not an accurate measure of environmental crime. Indeed, even its method of gathering the data – taking only what is reported to it by state governments – is faulty. To generate a more accurate database, it needs to also collect data regarding complaints against polluters from the regulatory agencies and the departments charged with implementing environmental laws. At the same time, forest and wildlife authorities must work to make the communities dependent on natural resources for livelihood better aware of the environmental rules and regulations they seem to be disproportionately punished for allegedly violating.

Samriddhi is studying for a Master’s in Law and Economics at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Geetanjoy Sahu is associated with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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