Red sanders trade

Law of the jungle

Print edition : May 15, 2015

The scene of the "encounter" in the Seshachalam forest near Tirupati on April 7. Photo: K.V. Poornachandra Kumar

Police and forest officials with the arrested workers and seized red sanders logs at Vanipenta forest office in Kadapa district on January 29. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The nexus between the timber mafia, politicians and government officials and the rivalry over the control of the illegal red sanders trade are said to be behind the police action that killed 20 woodcutters from Tamil Nadu.

IT is a lethal cocktail of politics, power and caste that has made the smuggling of the endangered and highly valuable red sanders ( Pterocarpus santalinus) in Andhra Pradesh an outrageously lucrative trade. The brutal killing of 20 woodcutters from Tamil Nadu by the Andhra Pradesh Police’s Special Task Force in the 5,160-square-kilometre forest ranges of Seshachalam near Tirupati in Chittoor district in the wee hours of April 7 is just another addition to that cocktail. Never before has the dominance of the timber mafia been so pervasive as it is today, and never before has the fallout of the smuggling activity been as brutal as the killing of the poor woodcutters.

The woodcutters belonged to the Vanniyar community, a Most Backward Class (MBC), and the Malayali Scheduled Tribe and hailed from the border districts of Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore in Tamil Nadu. When agriculture, which is rain-fed in their villages and is their main source of livelihood, failed them, they turned to this dangerous vocation for a living.

It is not the first time that the police have acted against woodcutters from Tamil Nadu in the forest ranges of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. A detailed field study carried out in 2013 by the Secunderabad-based National Campaign for De-notified Tribes Human Rights (NCDNTHR) claims that it has been a recurring phenomenon. “The present killing hogged the national limelight because of the number of persons killed. The fake encounters in the past did not get such widespread attention since the number of deaths was in single digits,” said S. Annadorai, Tamil Nadu convener of the NCDNTHR.

To substantiate his claims, he further said that he and others had carried out a detailed investigation into red sanders smuggling and the frequent police action against woodcutters from Tamil Nadu. The report points out that three woodcutters from Attamoor village in Porur taluk in Tiruvannamalai district were killed in an “encounter” in the forests on May 29, 2014, and another person from Arani taluk in the same district was killed on June 21.

The bodies of three more persons from Tamil Nadu were found in the forests subsequently with bullet marks. Nearly 10 woodcutters from Tamil Nadu have died so far in different police actions. The Andhra Pradesh government justifies them nonchalantly by saying that the tree-fellers attack the police and forest officials whenever they are engaged. A report from the Andhra Pradesh government says that its Forest Department lost two of its officers on December 13, 2013, and six police personnel in earlier incidents.

The Andhra Pradesh government’s Communication Adviser, Parakala Prabhakar, said the State had filed 4,800 cases under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) against those involved in the smuggling of red sanders. He pointed out that nearly 6,000 vehicles had been seized from the timber mafia in the past five years during combing operations.

Activists, however, claim that Sections 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC and the provisions of the Indian Arms Act, the Indian Forest Act, and the Wild Life Protection Act, besides the Preventive Detention Act, have been invoked against the alleged smugglers, making it difficult for them to seek quick judicial redress. They are all languishing in various prisons in Andhra Pradesh. “Our investigation has revealed that even juveniles are among them. No one has any details about the exact number of the people arrested or those who died in prison,” said Annadorai.

Significantly, the Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu government has not come forward to reveal details such as the identities of those arrested or killed. Even death certificates, Annadorai claims, are not issued to the family members of those persons from the villages of Vellore, Salem, Tiruvannamalai and Dharmapuri districts who have been missing for years.

Timber mafia

Rights activists are annoyed at the way the governments on both sides of the border handle the issue. They have for inexplicable reasons tolerated the timber mafia-related corruption and money laundering so far. Instead of controlling these sinister activities, the police have resorted to the chilling and deliberate killing of innocent woodcutters. “They should have gone after the mafia, which has strong international connections,” said Chiluka Chandrasekhar of the Civil Liberties Committee (CLC) of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The State’s action against the kingpins, he says, has so far been timid and weak.

But the basic question is whether the two governments are serious about combating the twin problems of human trafficking and illegal tree-felling. Those in the know of the dynamics behind timber smuggling say the answer is a firm “no”. They say that the Seshachalam encounter was just to intimidate one section of the politically connected and a dominant caste-backed loggers’ mafia to keep off the forests in the region of Kadapa and Chittoor where 90 per cent of the red sanders are found.

Red sanders is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is in demand for its medicinal, “aphrodisiacal” and ornamental properties in China, Japan, Myanmar and Thailand and other countries in the neighbourhood. The State government took over trade in the timber in 2014.

According to a forest official in Tiruvannamalai, a tonne of red sanders logs costs around Rs.20 lakh in the Indian market, while the same quantity fetches anywhere between Rs.60 lakh and Rs.80 lakh overseas.

The timber dons are affiliated to major political parties of the region and often their rivalry over the control of the “trade” is said to be behind the police action.

K. Jayashree, a Kadapa-based rights activist, said that the timber mafia-politician link has never been a secret in the region. “But it is not fair to blame one particular caste group or political party for the smuggling. We are well aware that many groups owing allegiance to different political parties are involved in the smuggling of red sanders,” she said.

Jayashree, also a member of the Hyderabad-based Human Rights Forum (HRF), said that because of inter-gang rivalry, labourers from Andhra Pradesh are afraid to engage in woodcutting. “These gangs betray each other and hence native woodcutters are reluctant to go. In this game of deceit, invariably poor woodcutters suffer. Besides, the cost of labour in Andhra Pradesh is high because of the risks involved.

“Since 2005, the gangs have been recruiting innocent villagers from Tamil Nadu through middlemen. These people carry rice and water with them and stay put in the forest for a month or so. Each one earns Rs.1,000 a day which for them is a luxury wage,” she pointed out.

V.S. Krishna, secretary, HRF, and former journalist, endorses Jayashree’s views. “It is not caste alone that plays a role here,” he said and added that the State government saw the trade in red sanders as a major source of revenue. “It is a sheer revenue-earning exercise of a government that is finding it extremely difficult to build a new State from scratch. It is common knowledge in Andhra Pradesh that political parties had made dirty money from red sanders smugglers. But we strongly condemn the liquidation of poor labourers just to create fear in the minds of those who are engaged in the illegal activity,” he said.

Krishna said the smuggling went on all these years only with the connivance of politicians, forest officials and the police. “They are all hand in glove with the smugglers who operate at the international level.”

International links

Independent investigations of various agencies into the illegal trade point out that smugglers use ports, mainly Mumbai and Kolkata, to ship contraband under the guise of foodstuffs and fruits. They also have an alternative mode of transport—roads. They reach their illegal consignments to the India-Nepal border and through Tibet to China.

But after taking over the timber trade officially in 2014, Andhra Pradesh has stepped up its vigil against illicit felling and smuggling of red sanders, especially with the formation of the elite and well-equipped Andhra Pradesh Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Special Task Force with three senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officers in command. Though the vicious nexus between forest officials, politicians and the timber mafia is still intact, it is true that the State’s all-out drive against illicit activities has started paying dividends.

“It is fact that the Seshachalam encounter has created fear in the minds of smuggler gangs. The number of ‘forest invaders’ has come down drastically of late while the seizures have gone up. Prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure] around the reserve forests have also played a deterrent role against woodcutting,” said an informed source in the Department of Forests in Tirupati.

Punitive action and subsequent seizures have swelled the coffers of the State. Since 2002, nearly 14,000 tonnes of logs have been seized and stored in depots for sale. The government’s first e-auction, after obtaining necessary approval from the Centre, in October 2014, brought in a revenue of Rs.851 crore from 2,000 tonnes, while the second auction realised Rs.1,300 crore from 3,500 tonnes. The big money involved prompted the government to go in for global auction, which in turn has upset the kingpins of the illicit trade who have called the shots internationally despite a ban on the export of red sanders under Section 11 of the Foreign Trade Act, 1992. Gujarat is another State that earns revenue from red sanders sale, though not on the scale of Andhra Pradesh.

The State’s drive against red sanders smuggling received an unexpected boost when the notorious smuggler Kollam Gangi Reddy was arrested in Mauritius in the third week of April. The Union government had issued a red alert against Gangi Reddy, who is said to be a close associate of YSR Congress leader Jaganmohan Reddy. Gangi Reddy was one of the accused in the assassination attempt on Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu by Maoists in Tirupati on October 1, 2003.

Gangi Reddy, who was acquitted subsequently, is involved in as many as 27 other criminal cases, including the murder of an industrialist, all connected with red sanders smuggling. He has 20 non-bailable warrants pending against him. He was jailed and later released by the Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy government on humanitarian grounds. Later, after Chandrababu Naidu took over, he was arrested, but he jumped bail and went underground in Dubai.

The Enforcement Directorate also slapped a case against him under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. In fact, after winning the elections, the first step the Chief Minister-designate took was to shoot off a letter to Governor E.L.S. Narasimhan asking him to take measures to issue a red alert against Gangi Reddy. Chandrababu Naidu feared that Gangi Reddy would be a threat to his life. Based on an Interpol alert, the Mauritus Police arrested Gangi Reddy when he was about to leave for Sri Lanka. A close associate of a Chennai-based international smuggler, Gangi Reddy, once a gunman of Rajasekhara Reddy’s father Raja Reddy, is expected to be repatriated to Andhra Pradesh any time now.

‘Futile exercise’

Former forest officials on both sides of the border say the present operation against illicit logging will be a futile exercise unless the top operators are identified and eliminated. “You just cannot kill hapless woodcutters who are lured into this illegal act on the promise of huge money. The smuggling will continue since it involves huge amounts of money,” one of the officials said. “Red sanders smuggling is very lucrative and is hence a dangerous activity here,” said Jayashree. The arrest of 55 Chinese nationals so far for possessing red sanders logs and the suspension of nearly 60 police and forest officials, including two Deputy Superintendents of Police, and 11 drivers of the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation for their connivance with woodcutters and smugglers point to the dangerous network behind the smuggling. Besides, the Andhra Pradesh Police have arrested a few smugglers and conduits from Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Hosur under the Preventive Detention Act.

The Tamil Nadu government has confined itself to demanding a “credible inquiry” into the incident. The Union Home Ministry has sought a detailed report from the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister even as the National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the government. “Strangely, the Tamil Nadu government has kept a low profile in the issue. We have filed a petition to the Chief Secretary asking him to procure details from his counterpart in Andhra Pradesh on the details of those who are imprisoned there. We have not received any response,” Annadorai said.

The only concrete action Tamil Nadu has initiated so far in this connection has been the arrest of the folk artist Mohanambal of Vellore who used to recruit labourers from villages for woodcutting. “Many such brokers with connections to the timber dons are active in 270 villages bordering Andhra Pradesh. They earn Rs.50,000 to Rs.1 lakh a week by recruiting poor villagers for the dangerous job. The Tamil Nadu government should take stern action,” said M. Kranthi Kumar of Tirupati, a CLC member. It is money that brings hapless and ignorant woodcutters into the activity despite the risks. And they pay dearly for that.

A fact-finding team of various human rights groups from Tamil Nadu, led by A. Marx of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organisation, spent nearly a week in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to inquire into the incident. Claiming that it was a planned execution, the team wants a Supreme Court-monitored Special Investigation Team to be constituted to investigate the encounter. A separate independent inquiry should be ordered into the politician-smuggler nexus, and a sum of Rs.30 lakh should be given to the kin of those who were killed in the encounter, the team said.

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