Sanctuary Pledges Support to Pench Forest Staff
On February 23, 2015, over 250 locals illegally fishing in the waters of the Totladoh reservoir of the Pench Tiger Reserve were confronted by a section of the park’s Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF). The fishermen were requested to cease all activities and clear out of the Protected Area. Yet, instead of acquiescing to the instructions of the park authorities, the encroachers surrounded the two department boats and began to abuse the STPF members. The argument escalated and they then began to hurl dynamite sticks and petrol bombs at the staff boats.
In retaliation, the forest personnel fired a number of rounds into the air. Unfortunately, due to the motion of the boat and the ongoing chaos, one fisherman was shot and succumbed to his injury while six others were injured. The forest staff also suffered injuries, with three members requiring medical aid.
The reaction to this incident has been inflammatory. On the same night, locals entered the core area of the reserve and set fire to two forest staff quarters and two staff boats, and damaged two of the park’s entry gates. The fishermen are now pressuring the Deolapar police to arrest the officer who fired the fatal shot on a charge of murder. In addition, there are also moves afoot to place charges on M.S. Reddy, the Director of the Pench Tiger Reserve.
While deeply regretting the tragedy of the death, Sanctuary Asia would like to clearly voice its support for the forest staff of the Pench Tiger Reserve. The men in question were acting in the line of duty and retaliated in self defense. The250 or so fishermen heavily outnumbered the 25 forest staff members. While the death of any person is tragic, Sanctuary Asia maintains that the forest staff cannot, and must not, be held accountable to murder. The fishermen were in clear violation of the law and a Supreme Court order on the ban of fishing in the area.
On September 19, 2006, the Government of Maharashtra, under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, made it obligatory to provide the forest personnel of the State with fire arms in acknowledgment of the extreme threats to Protected Areas and the dire conditions in which they work. As this implies that the foresters using fire arms may be exposed to vexatious criminal proceedings, the Government of Maharashtra also vested the provisions of sub-section (2) of section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 on Forest Guards, Range Forest Officers, Assistant Conservators of Forests, Deputy Conservators of Forests and Divisional Forest Officers in the State of Maharashtra, clause (a) of which states that in case of any instance of firing, the incident will be enquired into by the respective Executive Magistrate whose enquiry will result in any arrest or institution of a criminal case against the accused forester.
Thus it would be contrary to the law for any forest officer to be arrested without first an enquiry by the Executive Magistrate.
Sanctuary Asia would like to reiterate its support for the Forest Departments and the officials and field staff of the Pench Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. We will be following this story closely, and are working towards acquiring video footage that supposedly exists of the incident.
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Also Read: On Their Shoulders – In Praise Of The Forest Guards Of India.