Forest staffs in Maharashtra have 'lathis' to defend, in K'taka they roam in 'Chappals': SC

Forest staffs in Maharashtra have lathis to defend, in Ktaka they roam in Chappals: SC

New Delhi: Forest staff in Maharashtra have 'lathis' to defend themselves while in Karnataka they are seen roaming in 'Chappals' (slippers), the Supreme Court on Friday said while expressing concern as how they will protect the law and environment against heavily armed poachers.

The top court wondered as to how forest rangers in Assam are well armed while in other States they are not even adequately dressed and said that it may pass orders to provide arms, bullet proof vests and helmets to officers above a certain rank to defend themselves from poachers.

A bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian asked Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for Ministry of Environment and Forests, amicus curiae ADN Rao and senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for an NGO to file a joint submission about the measures which can be adopted for protection of forests as well as the lives of forest officers and staff.

We are of the view that the situation is serious and we find it difficult to comprehend how these forest officers and staff would be in a position to protect the environment and the forests which are normally vast tracks of uninhabited land and of which poachers take undue advantage for carrying out their nefarious activities, the bench said.

It said unlike police in city, forest officials cannot even call for help in distress in the forest when they are attacked by poachers and there should be some mechanisms.

Recalling his recent visit to a forest area, the CJI said, Last month I was in a forest in Maharashtra and have seen that forest officials were not even armed. How will they protect themselves when they are attacked? SG (Solicitor General), we want you to explore all possibilities. These are all sophisticated crimes which need to be checked .

The bench asked Rao as why is this problem that in some States forest officials are armed while in others they are not even adequately dressed.

Rao submitted that due to non-utilisation of funds by some states, forest officials are not provided adequate infrastructure and safety gears to protect the environment and forests.

He said that similar attacks have taken place in Uttar Pradesh in 2001 and 2019 in Telangana on the forest officials. Mehta said that the biggest problems are of wood smugglers. The bench said that millions of dollars are siphoned off by the smugglers and a Enforcement Directorate should be roped in and suggested it should also have a separate wildlife wing to deal with these crimes.

The NGO Nature Conservation Society' brought to the notice of the court recent attacks on forest officials by miscreants in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

"When we go to Assam, (we see) they are given arms while in Maharashtra they are given only 'lathi'," the bench said and added "We will direct that the officials are given arms, bullet proof vests and helmets. In Karnataka, forest officials are seen roaming in 'chappals' and are being slapped by poachers. We want the Solicitor General to make a statement on the next date of hearing that arms will be given to personnel...."

The top court said, It is difficult to imagine how any law can be enforced by the forest officers and staff who are poorly unarmed against poachers who are likely to be heavily armed .

The bench adjourned the hearing by four weeks and said that it would pass a detailed order after taking note of the statements of the lawyers concerned.

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