Red sandalwood smuggling has thrived over the past 10 years. But the trade has once again taken a bloody turn, bringing back memories of the violent clashes between Veerappan’s gang and the police
Early this morning, a joint team of special police and forest personnel killed 20 persons allegedly involved in sandalwood smuggling in the Seshachala forests in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh.
Kantha Rao, deputy inspector general of police, special task force, told Down To Earth that all 20 men were from Tamil Nadu. Of them, two were smugglers and the others were their workers. Rao said the group attacked the police first and the police opened fire in “self-defence”.
National daily Times of India says on its website that this is the largest police “encounter” ever reported involving red sanders smugglers. The firing took place in two places, Eetagunta and Vacchinodu Banda, in the forest.
Andhra Pradesh Home Minister Chinna Rajappa said, "Red sanders smuggling is a serious and regular problem in forests on the Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu border, which often leads to law and order issues."
The news has sparked angry reactions across the border in Tamil Nadu. Vaiko, chief of MDMK party, told NDTV, “While police have every right to arrest and prosecute offenders, shooting them dead like birds is unacceptable.”
Red sander or red sandalwood is an endangered tree species found only in the forests of Chittoor, Kadapa, Nellore and Kurnool districts of Andhra Pradesh. A tonne of red sanders costs more than Rs 25 lakh in the international market.
DTE had reported in July last year that red sanders smuggling was a thriving operation in the region and that attacks by smugglers on forest officials had increased in the past few years. Andhra Pradesh decided to auction half its stock of red sanders in the international market. The state had a total stock of 8,550 tonnes seized from smugglers since 2002.
"The auction took place and the Andhra Pradesh government earned Rs 2,000 crore," said R Hampiah, former chairperson of the state's biodiversity board. The state board will get five per cent of the amount. It plans to use this money to cultivate red sanders in villages across the state.
Despite efforts, Andhra Pradesh has failed to check smuggling. The special task force has arrested more than 3,500 people in over 4,500 cases of red sandalwood smuggling since 2004. An Andhra PradeshÃ”Ã‡Ãªforest official told DTE that most jails in the Rayalaseema region have a high number of redÃ”Ã‡Ãªsanders smugglers. But these arrests have not deterred people from joining the illegal trade as “smuggling red sanders offers high returns without any investment”.
With inputs from M Suchitra
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