'The forest mafia is very powerful'

AJAY S RAWAT spent six months in the Indo-Nepal terais to trace the methods of timber smugglers

Published: Friday 15 November 2002

How did you, a historian, get so deeply involved with deforestation issues?
The history and culture of Uttaranchal is directly linked with its forests. I was working on the history of deforestation, and realised that the lucrative business of illegal timber trade is the single-largest cause of deforestation. Unless this is stopped, initiatives like joint forest management (jfm) and social forestry programmes would only grow forests for mafias.

How critical is the issue of deforestation in Uttaranchal?
Uttaranchal is a biodiversity hotspot. In the terai region, timber smuggling is also linked with the poaching of tigers, panthers, elephants, Himalayan black bear and musk deer. There is also the illegal procurement of medicinal plants. These activities have intensified over the last seven-eight years due to unemployment. So, basically, it is a livelihood problem today, and could become very dangerous if unchecked. Almost 20 to 30 trucks get past illegally through important checkposts, and each truck carries about 10 cubic metres of wood. The forest department can do nothing. The mafia is armed to the teeth. The forest department, one the other hand, does not possess sophisticated ammunition.

How did you get started on your work?
I started out alone, and am still not part of any group. Three years back, I conducted the study 'Illicit timber trade on the Indo-Nepal border'. The study was part of a World Bank funded project on jfm in Uttar Pradesh. I am still working on that. I also chair the forest history division of the International Union for Forestry Research Organisations, Vienna, which is a 100 year-old body spread across 112 countries.

What was the study about?
The study was to be conducted by the police and forest departments, but they failed to complete it. Then it came to me. I spent about six months in the terai forests, trying to understand the modus operandi of timber smugglers operating along the Indo-Nepal border, right from Uttaranchal to eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Those were very exciting times, but also very scary.

Scary? In what way?
Well, dealing with the mafia. You must understand that they are very powerful. I had a tough time in the Gorakhpur and Kushinagar areas. I would get anonymous calls threatening to kill me. But I persisted and met these smugglers. I studied their lifestyles, profession and methods. It is very difficult to check their movements.

Why is that so?
They have direct links to the highest political power centres. Besides, the forest department lacks the infrastructure required to check their activity. And they get adequate local support because they provide livelihood to the people. People work for them not because they want to, but because they have no other option. Poverty is rampant, and the social structure is feudal. These people, even when involved in this trade, have much bottled-up resentment because of the exploitation they have been subjected to.

What is the spread of this mafia's influence?
Illegal timber has a market ranging from local to inter-state trade. Timber ferried from Bihar has a market up to Chandigarh and even Haldwani in Uttaranchal. Noida is a big market for khair wood, which comes from sub-Himalayan terai.

How does the timber mafia operate?
They have developed very subtle and ingenious methods to avoid being caught. Specially designed cycles are used to transport khair from the interior areas of forests to the road ahead. The whole operation is carried out at night. Once timber is procured, it is mixed with timber purchased from forest corporation depots in auctions. This is managed by conniving with foresters. The timber is then transported to different destinations through predetermined transit points.

But how do you see the study helping curb this trade?
The High Court of Uttaranchal has suo motu instituted a public interest litigation (pil) on illegal timber trade. The case is still in process, and I have been included as a party to the case. My study was, in fact, the basis of the pil. One hopes that the court will come up with positive recommendations towards governance.

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