The Seschalam forest range situated on the foot hills of Tirumala, comprising the districts of Nellore, Kadapa, Kurnool, and Chittoor has increasingly become a battlefield between Andhra Pradesh government and bigwig Red Sandal Wood smugglers. And, similar to the idea of warring nations, those who get killed in these battlefields are forest officials and daily wage laborers. The bizarre killings (called as ‘encounter by AP government) of 20 alleged red sanders smugglers from Tamil Nadu has elicited strong reactions across TN, but if we look closely at the past headlines, we could see that this isn’t an isolated incident.
For the past decade or fifteen years, Andhra Pradesh is the state which has registered more number of red sanders smuggling cases. In August 2014 alone, nearly 900 smugglers were arrested in the forest area of Chittoor, Kadapa, and Nellore, and more than half of these arrested men were from Tamil Nadu. As many as 3,000 men from tribal villages of TN were said to be detained in the prisons of AP in 2014. The same number of people were also said to be arrested in 2013. So, the AP government and its forest department seem to have waited to stage such an ‘encounter’ to teach the laborers a harsh bureaucratic lesson. The question is that why the AP government didn’t try to teach a lesson to the million-earning agents of red sanders smuggling gang or to the political bigwigs involved in the illegal operation.
Perhaps that would have uncovered the failed nature of the governments in both AP & Tamil Nadu. The blood split by the 20 alleged smugglers would definitely not curb the smuggling network in AP, but it could help to distract media & people to see how the natural resources & tribal people are being exploited by politicians with muscle and money. As per a 2013 statistic, India’s go-downs contain at least 15,000 tonnes of seized red sandal wood, which was worth Rs. 5,000 crore. As of the latest estimate, one ton of red sandal wood is worth Rs 10 crore. Of the 15,000 tonnes, nearly 9,000 tonnes belongs to Andhra Pradesh. The forest officials of AP alone have seized more than 3,000 tonnes in the last five years.
The Preventive Detention Act hasn’t deterred the smugglers, since the maximum imprisonment under this act is not more than a year. The recruitment of forest officials in the state of AP is inadequate as one official is expected to cover 2,000 square kilometers of forest, which couldn’t be done by any human. In December 2013, Forest Officer Sridhar and Assistant Beat Officer Karunakaran were hacked to death by smugglers in Sesachalam forest. As a result, 346 men were arrested and booked under murder or assault. Once again, most of these arrested men belong to Tamil Nadu tribal community. This recurring detainment of men from TN districts like Tiruvannamalai, Selam, Dharmapuri, and Kanchipuram makes us to ask that what steps were taken by Tamil Nadu government to provide a livelihood for those men, who opt to go to AP to cut ‘trees’.
The current government ministers or the former ones might give us some baffling answers, often glossed with words like ‘Amma’ or ‘Kalaignar’. But the real answer is ‘nil’. Tamil Nadu is one of the states to have not implemented the Forest Right Act of 2006. The act gives power to the tribal community or forest dwellers. Not a single piece of land has been given to the people of Tamil Nadu tribal community, and moreover the tribal funds allocated are diverted for other works. So, these tribal men, who were robbed of their land and livelihood, go across AP. They are mostly recruited by vicious mafias to cut the ‘trees’. None of the agents or mafia men of the smuggling ring would be present when the men are cutting the red sanders.
More than 90 percent of the chopped red sandal wood is exported to countries like China, Japan, and other south East Asian countries. In the list of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the red sandal wood is the foremost prohibited item for exports, and this status has only increased its international demand (mostly used in comfy furniture and some musical instruments). The chopped red sanders from Sesachalam forest area is said to be transported to Vishakapattinam port for exports (located nearly 800 kilometers away from the forest range). The illegal transportation from the forests are in no way possible without the help of political kingpins or real-estate tycoons (from both TDP and Congress –prominent political parties in AP) or uniformed men. The persons who get the lion’s share of this illegal trade seek MLA candidate seat, while the 500 rupee earners are slaughtered.
Bhutan is also said to be the prefect conduit for the illegal trade of red sanders. The Indo-Bhutan border is an open one where adjacent country citizens do not need any visa to cross. Wildlife Crime Control Bureau platform and a section of Indian media have recently reported that the red sanders illegally exported from AP are used in China for its atomic energy projects. The availability of radioactive elements like Thorium and Uranium in Red sandal wood is a major attraction, although the concentration of these chemical elements isn’t very high. But, even this small concentration found in red sanders is said to have given a newer alternative for nuclear fuel source (it is impossible to by-pass the strict international regulations to attain or trade directly the nuclear fuel source).
There is no doubt that the smuggling of endangered red sanders must be curbed, but these ruthless killings of laborers (who themselves were victims) is an utter human rights violation. The questions raised (on burn marks, captured red sanders, bullet injuries, and a dubious CCTV footage) by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the usual ‘self-defense’ answer from involved police officials shows us another increasing problem in democratic India – ‘Fake Encounters’. As rampant queries are being raised in the killing of alleged smugglers, the Telangana police claimed to have shot down five SIMI terrorist suspects, who tried to escape. The suspects were actually escorted by 17 policemen and were handcuffed. Even our Supreme Court has called such custodial killings as one of the worst kind of murder, but such acts continue, since the so-called law men were granted impunity by throwing around the word ‘encounter’.
Cockeyed politicians, hate-filled individuals & news-making corporate media might view this killing of laborers as an inter-state issue. Some might even believe that pelting stones on the APSRTC buses or attacking Andhra Bank or Devastana offices would solve this problem. But they are as stupid as the ones who thought that shooting at laborers would curb illegal smuggling of red sanders. A quick & honest probe and harsh punishment for uniformed perpetrators & smuggling kingpins could only bring justice to this convoluted issue or else these strings of incidents could make our nation a third-rate banana republic.