Chennai, April 8: To sum it up in brief Red sandalwood smugglers are cowards who use the poor from Tamil Nadu luring them with money to carry out their activities.
For the state of Andhra Pradesh it is between deciding between the devil and the deep sea and has to take action to protect its red sandalwood reserve which is soon depleting. [Gunbattle in Tirupati: 20 sandalwood smugglers killed]
Statistics would show that there are around 2300 people from Tamil Nadu who are in jail for Red Sandalwood or red sanders smuggling.
These are from the lower strata of society who are lured in by the smugglers to chop down the trees with the promise of three square meals a day. [Two international red sandalwood smugglers killed in Chittoor encounter]
Yesterday 20 persons were killed in an encounter at the Seshachalam hill range by the police officials after it was alleged that they were trying to smuggle red sandalwood.
There has been a hue and cry and the National Human Rights Commission had issued a show cause notice to the Andhra Pradesh government.
How the poor from Tamil Nadu are lured?
In the past year the police from Andhra Pradesh have gunned down 27 people from Tamil Nadu. Prior to yesterdays incident, seven were killed by the police in the forest areas of Andhra Pradesh for cutting down red sandalwood trees.
In addition to the encounters, the Andhra Pradesh police have also arrested 2000 such persons who are in jail today.
On being questioned most of them have no clue about the value of red sandalwood and only say that they were promised to be paid Rs 500 per tree and hence they were chopping it down.
In some of the other cases, people were caught transporting red sanders in buses and trains.
Once again many claimed that they were not aware of what they were carrying and were only told to reach the product to a destination in Tamil Nadu and were paid Rs 300.
Targeting the drought hit areas
The red sanders smuggling racket is controlled by the Chinese mafia. They have appointed several persons both in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to further their activities. Red sandalwood has a huge demand in the international market.
Many of the touts working for these smugglers have in the past few years targeted the areas of Kootu muthal, Sonapadi, , Arangam, Koothamedu and Vaazhavand which have been affected by drought.
With no government aid coming into these areas from the Tamil Nadu government, the people fall easy prey to the money offered by these smugglers.
The money offered to them is good and this is why they are lured in so easily into this racket. However it is the agents who lure these poor people who walk away with the big buck.
The job of the agent is to find people to cut trees and they work on a weekly salary of Rs 80,000. However these agents are never at the spot when the wood is being chopped down and it is always these poor people who come in the line of fire from the forest and police officials.
The irony of the Andhra Pradesh government
Smuggling red sanders is a racket that had gone beyond the control of the government. It is extremely rampant and no matter how much they had increased patrol, the problem was never solved.
Officials in the forest department at Andhra Pradesh say that these wood cutters are told specifically to attack when a patrol team approaches them. Sometime they hurl stones and very often come to attack the officials with axes and sickles.
Red sanders is extremely rare and has a very high value. It is the wealth of the state and needs to be protected at any cost, the official also points out.
A cry for compensation
The other issue is that those persons who are lured in by the smugglers are never bailed out by their agents when they go to jail. They are completely ignored and since red sanders is protected under the law, it is a non bailable offence and could attract imprisonment up to five years if convicted.
The other issue is that the government would never compensate the families of the dead. Since it is a Class A offence, the talk of compensation never comes up. They are not entitled for compensation since they have committed a crime.
It is the families of these deceased and those jailed who suffer the most. If the person manages to come back then they are lucky or else they have to lead a life of starvation.
Without trying to romanticize these persons, it would be necessary for the Tamil Nadu government to take steps to ensure that these persons come out of the poverty line. No amount of law will prevent them from committing this crime as money is extremely necessary for them. The solution to the problem is in reforms.