Between the lines

Veerappan's history has been written in red in official records. But support from high places as much as from the ordinary people has sustained him

Published: Wednesday 15 October 1997

Between the lines

there seems to be more than meets the eye in the case. Veerappan appears to be, despite his notoriety as a law unto himself, the tip of the iceberg, an epiphenomenon. For one, political involvement in sandalwood smuggling is common. Apart from Veerappan, other gangs are known to deal in sandalwood, and are said to be politically well connected. "Recently, when the forest department apprehended a vehicle carrying a load of sandalwood, a minister rang up the forest department and had the vehicle released," says John Peter, a correspondent for a Bangalore-based English daily.

Even in Veerappan's case, his arrest in 1986 (before he attained his notoriety) and his mysterious escape, point towards other forces that encourage the existence of this mafia. Ethnic differences also have a role. Karnataka stf personnel at their headquarters in M M Hills smirked when asked about the efforts of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu. They point out that tn stf had been ordered into their barracks several months ago, as Veerappan 'enjoyed protection from very high up'. Allegations are aplenty.

Veerappan himself was involved in supporting Raju Gowda, the Kollegal Congress mla in 1989, when he is reported to have forced people to vote for Raju at gunpoint. At the time, the relatively unknown Veerappan was also into extortion, with granite mine owners in the area his targets.

According to most observers, there are probably many other smugglers and poachers who are carrying on business as usual. Where Veerappan went wrong, they insist, is that he killed forest officers and guards and police personnel. So there could well be several other low-key operators who are cleaning the forests of sandalwood. Observers feel that Veerappan may be a smoke-screen that many vested interests want and need.

Forest officials admit that it is not difficult for sandalwood to be smuggled out of the forest area. "We know that forest guards accept small payments to allow vehicles to pass out of the forests. But with so many roads and tracks leading out of the area, it is not realistic to hope to stop everyone." And even when there is a seizure, the smugglers are soon back in action.

Local support
According to Rajgopal, the majority of villagers support Veerappan. "Out of 10 villagers in the area, six would be Veerappan's informants," says Rajgopal. With such a massive ground support, its no surprise that Veerappan has evaded capture so long and so successfully. At Marthahalli village, close to the spot where the stf recovered an estimated 65 tonnes of sandalwood in 1990 from one of Veerappan's hideouts, villagers say that they are proud of Veerappan. "He is a hero, one of us who has made it very big," says Ramaswamy.

In reply to questions regarding how they viewed the sandal tree, villagers at Marthahalli, Nullur, M M Hills, Ramapura and Hannur say that they stay away from the tree. "It seems to bring us bad luck," they opine.

Another factor which works in Veerappan's favour is the ethnolinguistic identity of people in the area where Veerappan operates. While the townfolk are Kannadigas, most of the interior villagers and tribals are of Tamil origin. This divide comes to the fore in a letter to Nakkheeran from villagers in Mysore district (areas bordering Tamil Nadu's Salem district) speaking of the 'atrocities' committed by the stf . "Since we are Tamilians, we get no support from the police and public of the Mysore area," it says.

It is not as though Veerappan has differentiated while killing people. But it is likely that his actions in knocking off informers and competition has the approval of the majority of the people. Of the 77 members of the public that he is credited to have killed, 64 belong to Tamil Nadu. Yet, the aura of a people's hero remains around him.

Veerappan has also used terror tactics against the local people, when he suspected them of being police informers. On November 2, 1993, he killed eight cowherds at Manjugummapatti in the Guttiyellattur forests. On October 8, 1994, he attacked Gaddesalu village, in Satyamangala taluka , and killed five people. On May 21, 1995, two people in Nullur village were killed by Veerappan. On August 8, 1995, he is also reported to have killed five Soliga tribals in Periyar district, Tamil Nadu. The next day, the gang struck at the Panjanur village and killed five more Soligas. In all these instances, Veerappan is reported to have suspected the people to have assisted the stf .

Alienating the people
While it took sustained pressure from government agencies for some people to become disenchanted with Veerappan, it was a flawed policy on sandalwood that accounts for their supporting him in the first place. The law makes sandalwood an exclusive property of the government. This translates into a situation where every tree - be it on forest, revenue or on patta land - belongs to the State.

While the citizen doesn't have any responsibility for the tree that is on government land, he is responsible for the protection of the tree when it is on his land. The government expects him to declare the presence of a sandal tree on his property. In case of theft of wood, the individual must report the incident. "This puts undue pressure on the people, who have a mental block towards this tree," says a senior official at the office of the principal conservator of forests, Tamil Nadu. "In most cases, the patta owner is the prime suspect. Unless the man is able to prove his innocence, he is penalised."

Even if an individual looks after the sandal tree, the forest department issues a licence for its removal, and pays the man 75 per cent of an amount predetermined by the department. While the current market rate of sandalwood is between Rs 5-6 lakh per tonne, the forest department has valued sandalwood at Rs 1.44 lakh per tonne. Moreover, payments are not immediate.

Tamil Nadu minister of state for forests P N Palaniswamy, while refusing to comment on the Veerappan case, is of the opinion that illegal trade in sandalwood gets a fillip because of the inconsistency of Indian laws towards sandalwood. "There should be a uniform policy on sandalwood. Laws applicable in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are separate from the rest of the country. Thus, when a truckload of sandalwood enters any other state, we cannot do anything about it," he says. He, however, has not much of an idea as to why it is a nationalised tree, and what changing that policy would bring about.

There are efforts to change the government rules regarding sandalwood at the state level. At the state forest department in Aranya Bhawan, Bangalore, a note recommending various changes in the forest policy has been drawn up and is currently at the state Assembly, where the proposed changes will be deliberated over.

"Among these are recommendations to changes in rules governing sandalwood," says conservator of forests, Bangalore circle, Praveen Chandra Pandey. "This policy has alienated people from a very valuable resource. It has also created a psycho-logical barrier in the people who areclosest to the areas where sandalwood grows," says Pandey.

The wood of contention
There are two opinions in the forest department on sandalwood policy. One is for opening it up and encouraging common farmers to plant and grow sandal trees. The proponents of this policy feel that when the tree is made accessible to the people, sandalwood smugglers like Veerappan would be marginalised. The other view, epitomised by the principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka, B S Adappa, is against liberalisation. "When there are no controls, anyone can exploit the situation," he says. Under the present policy, when a seller brings sandal wood to a government depot, which has the exclusive selling rights, he has to bring along documentary evidence that the sandal belongs to him. Any change in policy, Adappa argues, would do away with this check, and anyone could sell sandal wood to the depots. He does have a point.

Changes that would make sense, he says, are payment of 90 per cent of the market value to the grower and removal of the responsibility clause, which has created the maximum resistance among people. According to Adappa, the state machinery would be involved in the process only when the grower wished to cut a tree. "We want to see sandalwood grow on a plantation scale. We want even private companies to take it up and plant sandalwood as other cash crops such as tea, coffee and cardamom. It is only then that the strangle-hold the sandalwood smuggler and other vested interests would be broken for good." But will not an open policy avoid a situation when the problems of smugglers assume gigantic proportions? "That can happen anyway, unless there is adequate protection," argues Adappa.

He is not alone in this aspiration. Guruswamy, of Nullur village, states that if he is allowed to grow sandalwood on his own terms and get something like a 90 per cent of the market value on sandalwood, he would defend his trees. "I'll shoot anyone who tries to cut a tree that is so valuable," he says. Here lies the crux of the issue. If farmers feel this way, the creation of another Veerappan - on the gains from sandalwood - doesn't arise.

Yet, such chances are slim. "Sandalwood will continue to remain state property," says Karnataka's law minister M C Naniah. "Whatever the proposal to amend the sandalwood rules, this one aspect cannot change. We may consider changing the payment rules, at best. Nothing else seems possible." Senior forest officials, in Karnataka as well as Tamil Nadu, violently disagree with the minister. The officer at the office of the principal chief conservator of forests, Tamil Nadu, asks, "Why should there be government licences and controls at all? It is a crop as far as a farmer is concerned. Give the people a stake in such resources, and we'll see them defending their crop with their lives," he argues, echoing Guruswamy's opinion.

"If the tree is allowed to come above ground, the smuggler will vanish on his own. Let the market forces dictate sandalwood policy," he adds.

Policing policy
While the government refuses to relinquish its hold over sandalwood, the fact that it is considering making the tree more people-friendly is certainly an improvement. Chandrashekhar Murthy, chief conservator of forests (production and management), Karnataka, says that once these changes come about, illegal activities could come down drastically.

This may be a late move, but a positive one that should remain in force and, if possible, improved upon. Too many lives have been lost and a lot of the taxpayer's money wasted on a battle that serves little purpose. The government has lost face as well. This may be the only solution to a vexing problem. If the Veerappan case shows anything, it is a reminder of how a top-down bureaucratic system alienates the people and encourages them to support what is against the law.

The law of the land derives from the people. The written code must follow the law of the land, not vice-versa. The colonial approach of governance was full of pitfalls precisely because it ignored this simple rule. Veerappan is the illegitimate child of the post-Independence approach of continuing policies formulated by the British. This is especially true of the policies on forests and wildlife. At face value, these appear to be in keeping with the socialist aspirations of the State. But that alone does not make them appropriate. The failure of state farms ( sovkhoz ) in the erstwhile Soviet Union are a good example of the direction such policy experiments may take.

Force, it is said, is the crudest form of politics. Laws are violated and crimes committed. Unable to comprehend the genesis of crime, the State applies force to counter those crimes. And so are Veerappans born and sustained, the antithesis of the way the system should function. What is required is serious rethinking of the decision-making process. It is only when people are involved will they stand by policies that affect their livelihood.

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