The latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau show an eight-fold rise in environmental crimes between 2016 and 2017. However, 70% of the offences recorded are under the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 – such as smoking in public and use of plastic in packaging for tobacco products – which have only a minor environmental impact, experts said.
“I feel that the data is misleading,” Sanjay Upadhyay, an environmental lawyer and founder of the Enviro Legal Defence Firm, India’s first environmental law firm, told IndiaSpend. “It shows that the number of environmental offences have increased so many folds but without any true impact on the environment.”
In 2016, the police registered 4,732 environmental offences, which rose 790% to 42,143 cases in 2017, according to the NCRB’s latest crime data released on October 21, after a year’s delay. As many as 29,659 cases were under the tobacco law.
In comparison, the police recorded only 36 offences under the laws for air and water pollution, even though India is home to 14 of the planet’s 20 most polluted cities.
The police registered about 8,400 cases – 20% of all cases – under another new category of environmental offences: noise pollution. Some of these offences might impact the environment, such as noise near a forest reserve, but these could also be related to offences within a city. There are no publicly available data on the details of the crimes.
Crimes under tobacco law
The Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 prohibits public smoking, advertisement of tobacco products, and regulates the terms of trade of such products, among other things.
Of the 29,659 cases under the law, Tamil Nadu registered the most – 20,640 cases, or about 70%. The second-highest number of cases was in Kerala, with about 23% – or 6,743 – of the total cases. (Click here for the state-wise number of environmental offences.)
The data do not specify whether these offences are related to the use of plastic in the packaging of tobacco products, public smoking or the illegal sale of tobacco or tendu leaves, a forest produce used to roll bidis, Upadhyay said. “These numbers need to be disaggregated to show their environmental impact.”
Air and water pollution
Experts found the 36 recorded offences for air and water pollution misleading too.
“This number is completely disputable,” said Upadhyay. “There are 5,000 cases in the National Green Tribunal itself, out of which a good 80% would be related to air and water act.” The tribunal was set up in 2010 as a special tribunal for the expeditious disposal of civil cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources, including enforcement of legal rights related to the environment.
One of the reasons for such a low number of environmental offences in the NCRB report is because it records only criminal cases related to the environment, whereas most of the environmental cases are civil in nature, Upadhyay explained. Any agency collecting data on environmental crimes should also source data from pollution control boards and all environmental regulatory agencies, he said.
Law targets tribespeople
The police recorded 3,842 environmental offences under the three laws governing forests – the Indian Forest Act, the Forest (Conservation) Act and the Wildlife Protection Act, making up 9% of total environmental offences recorded in 2017.
All three laws govern resource extraction, often excluding people from the forest and restricting human activity in protected areas such as national parks and tiger reserves. Some experts believe that these laws unfairly punish deprived communities, especially tribespeople.
“...State officials tasked with implementing pollution control laws often do not fully comprehend them,” Geetanjoy Sahu, an associate professor at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences wrote, in an article co-authored for Scroll.in in January 2018. “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.”
Sahu advocated that the forest administration must make tribespeople aware of the environmental rules and regulations they seem to be breaking.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.