The Institutional Framework for Wildlife Conservation in India

Shekar Dattatri
The Ministry of Environment & Forests is the nodal agency in the implementation of India's environmental and forestry policies and programmes.
The Indian Forest Service (IFS)
MOEF website
The IFS is the principal body that oversees wildlife conservation in India

State Government Institutions

State governments exercise complete administrative control over all statutorily recognized forests and other government-owned lands in the country. The state government’s power to constitute reserved forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is absolute but it has to seek prior approval of the Central Government for de-reservation, de-notification, diversion, logging, or leasing of forests for non-forestry activities.

The Forest Minister of the State is in charge of all matters concerning forests and wildlife and is assisted by a Principal Secretary belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) along with a full-fledged forest secretariat which is in charge of all statutory and policy matters.

The State Forest Department is vested with the task of administration and management of forests, including wildlife reserves. State Forest Departments are headed by Principal Chief Conservators of Forests (PCCF) who are officers of the Indian Forest Service (IFS).

The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) is the statutory authority, under the Wildlife Protection Act, who heads the Wildlife Wing of the department and exercises complete administrative control over Protected Areas (PAs) within a state. Every PA is typically classified as a Wildlife Division and is headed by a Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF).

The Forest Department is charged with the tasks of protection and law enforcement within forest areas through the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of all forest and wildlife offences.  Officers over a certain rank are also vested with quasi-judicial powers to deal with cases of encroachment, seizures of illegal wildlife produce, and other notified forest offences.

In addition to the Forest Department, various other government departments that make up the broader administrative structure of the state government play significant roles in the administration of land. These include:

  • The Revenue Department, which controls public lands not statutorily designated or defined as forests;
  • The Police Department, whose primary responsibilities include prevention of crime and maintenance of law and order, which is critical to enforcing forest laws, including tracking of illegal trade in forest and wildlife products.
  • The Irrigation/Water Resources Department, which plans and manages dams, reservoirs, barrages, and canals.
  • And lastly, the Public Works Department which maintains all state highways and roads.

There are major conflicts of interest between central and state governments as forests represent a major source of non-tax revenue for the latter. Thus, while recent forest policy is gradually moving away from commercial forestry to conservation, state governments are often faced with competing demands on forests from various powerful interest groups, including the state treasury and forest-based industries.

Further, conservation and management objectives of the Forest Departments are not clearly formulated; projects are often poorly funded, equipped and staffed; and ongoing efforts rarely monitored. Consequently, there are no significant efforts made towards:

  • Consolidation of forests through acquisition of enclosures.
  • Resettlement programs for people living within PAs
  • Identification of wildlife corridors.

Lack of transparency and accountability, in combination with the lack of sufficient financial resources, are significant constraints to effective implementation of conservation. A radical restructuring of the forest sector through a clear separation of protective and productive functions is proposed under the National Forestry Action Programme (prepared with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Other Democratic Institutions like the Panchayati Raj institutions, comprising the Gram Panchayats at village level, the Taluk Panchayats at Taluk level, and the Zilla Panchayats at the district level, form a three-tier system of decentralized, democratic local self-governance. State legislatures can legislate and devolve certain powers to the Panchayats under the Panchyat Raj Act on matters concerning agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, rural housing, electrification, roads and water management, social welfare etc.

Statutory Bodies

Several statutory bodies require to be constituted at the federal and state levels with varying mandates to enforce, advise, and monitor a wide range of issues concerning forests, wildlife and environment. Some of the key bodies include the following:

(a) The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) (formerly known as the Indian Board for Wildlife) is constituted under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and chaired by the Prime Minister with the Minister of Environment and Forests as the vice-chair. Apart from a number of government functionaries drawn from both the Central and State governments, five non-governmental organizations and ten conservationists/ecologists are nominated to the NBWL. The board advises the federal and state governments in matters concerning wildlife conservation policy, illegal trade and poaching, management of national parks and sanctuaries, impact assessments of projects on wildlife, and other related issues.  The tenure of each board is 3 years, after which a new one is constituted.

(The NBWL is ordinarily expected to meet at least once a year, but this does not always happen.  However, a Standing Committee of the NBWL, comprising of a few government and non-government members of the NBWL, meets every three months under the chairmanship of the Union Minister of Environment and Forests, primarily to examine proposals for non-forestry use of forestland within National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, and issue or deny permissions.  These include, among others, proposals for highways, dams, industries and mining.  The minutes of every Standing Committee meeting are put up on the website of the MoEF).

(b) State Boards for Wildlife at the state level similarly advise the state governments in selection and management of protected areas and other matters connected with the protection of wildlife.  The SBWL is headed by Chief Minister, with the Forest Minister of the State as the Vice Chair.

(In many states, the SBWL is either totally defunct or simply a rubber stamp.  Very often, retired government officials and ‘nature enthusiasts’ with questionable knowledge and credentials make up the board, thus making it fairly ineffective).

(c) The Biodiversity Act, 2002 mandates the constitution of a National Biodiversity Authority which, among other responsibilities, advises the Union and State governments on matters relating to biodiversity conservation, equitable sharing of benefits arising out of biological resource utilization; regulating access to biodiversity and initiating measures to oppose the granting of Intellectual Property Rights on any biological resource obtained from India.

(d) Central and State Pollution Control Boards have been constituted under the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986 with wide-ranging powers to regulate the setting up of industries in Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) and to inspect and prosecute individuals or industries who violate specified pollution control norms.

(e) The Central Empowered Committee (CEC): initially constituted under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 for a period of five years, starting in September 2002, it functions as a Committee of the Supreme Court to assist and monitor compliance of the orders of the Supreme Court in the major public interest litigation (Writ Petition (Civil) 202/1995 – Godavarman Tirumalpad v/s Union of India & others) concerning protection of forests, wildlife, and related issues.

(f) National Green Tribunal (2009): The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is a institution that is empowered to adjudicate environmental disputes. The tribunal has jurisdiction over all civil cases where a substantial question relating to the environment – arising out of the implementation of the Environment Protection Act, Forest Conservation Act, Biodiversity Act, Water (Prevention and control of pollution) Act, and related laws – is involved.   The National Green Tribunal is intended to drive effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources, including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment, and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

(g) Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) Is a statutory committee constituted under Section 3 of the Forest Conservation Act to consider proposals for diversion of forestland (other than in National Parks or Sanctuaries) for non-forestry purposes, and render advice to the Central Government.

Corporations, Cooperative Societies and Business

Forest Development Corporations, independent of state forest departments but staffed by forest department officials exist in most states. A portion of the sales from logging operations and sales of certain forest products are channeled through Forest Development Corporations. In certain states, the Forest Development Corporations also control public lands that are developed as plantations to meet the demands for commercial timber. In the State of Kerala, although tree felling in protected areas is illegal, the Forest Development Corporation, a government institution, still converts forestland to plantations.

Cooperative societies such as the Large Area Multi Purpose Societies and Forest Labour Cooperative Societies are involved in extraction and marketing of timber products and NTFPs (non-timber forest produce) from individuals and small groups of collectors.

Corporate business interests in mining, timber products, and NTFPs have significant impacts on biodiversity conservation primarily due to procurement of mining permits and leases through bureaucratic and political patronage. The category includes public and private sector industries, plantation companies, and forest-based industries. The primary mandate of these industries is revenue maximization and thus directly conflicts with the conservation of biodiversity. There are no incentives for such organizations to adopt pro-conservation activities. Hence, such organizations are sometimes sympathetic to the conservation cause but not committed to specific issues and often lack conservation awareness. However, these institutions are able to successfully interface with traditional/local use in order to further commercial extraction with little emphasis on sustainability issues. Many plantation companies have not adopted effective eco-friendly activities and continue to exploit resources without appropriate land-management practices. Forest cooperatives involved in minor forest product extraction are largely unregulated and weakly monitored, resulting in extraction that is rarely sustainable.

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Shekar Dattatri is a Chennai-based wildlife and conservation filmmaker.


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