Veerappan is dead

Long live the other Veerappans?

 
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imagekoose Muniswamy Veerappan is dead. The thousands of commandos that combed the Satyamangalam forest in Tamil Nadu for 12 years, looking for him, must feel vindicated. The forest department must be celebrating. Now, it is being said, the dastardly sandalwood smuggling business will also die. But Karnataka still reports sandalwood smuggling to the tune of 500 tonnes. Given that Veerappan wasn't much involved in this activity of late, the sense of comfort his death evokes is tinged with a discomfiting thought: how many more Veerappans are out there?

The rise and sublimation of Veerappan to a mythic brigand is directly proportionate to the fall in logical thinking the forest bureaucracy exhibits. Till 2001, trade in sandalwood was a government monopoly, a huge fillip to illegal trade -- at one time, the best trader was none other than Veerappan. Since then, although individuals can take up sandalwood plantation, the state government retains rights of extraction and trade. Also, the 2001 deregulation is not applicable to standing trees, in both the forest and private lands. In short, Karnataka's forest laws related to sandalwood remain mindlessly stringent. Anybody who wants to do decent business in it can do so only by bypassing these laws. This is why the illegal trade flourishes, and revenue from the legal version continues to dive. Meanwhile, the trees freshly planted will take at least 20 years to mature. Till then, if the state continues with its illogical laws, other Veerappans -- who exploit not only these laws but, crucially, people's discontentment -- will continue to logically pop up, faster than they can be eliminated.

Veerappan became what he did for a very simple reason. He made local people aware of the huge economic potential of the sandal tree growing just outside their villages -- a few kilograms of the wood sold in the local weekly market could easily earn a few hundreds rupees. At the same time he cleverly demonstrated what it takes to access this wealth: a long battle with security forces. Thus if we are to celebrate his death, we can do so by gleaning one lesson from his life. Natural resources are always fought for; more intensely, if brought under a monopoly. Therefore, for policy makers, the message is clear. Now that this dastardly Robin Hood is no more, the 8,000 square kilometres of sandal forests he ruled over should be turned into a free ecological trade zone. Put the sandalwood economy in people's hands. Give it back to them.

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