A brigand called government

Whatever the outcome of the hostages crisis in Karnataka, stupid sandalwood protection laws will keep creating smugglers out of India's exploited poor people

Published: Thursday 31 August 2000

Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, ground to halt in the first week of August. The rich and the powerful of the software industry would probably have failed to understand why. Ironically, their operating systems have crashed under the collective burden of the cries of the thousands of poor villagers and tribal families who have been kept in misery by the same government which rolls out the red carpet for the software industry.

imageThe mob frenzy that has paralysed normal life in Bangalore is misdirected. If the people of Karnataka are genuinely concerned about the safety of Rajkumar - the matinee idol of yore and a cult figure in the state, who, along with three others, has been abducted by Veerappan, the elephant poacher-turned-sandalwood smuggler - they will target their politicians and bureaucrats (see p15-17: King without a jungle). And it is not just about the cine star's fate. What about the agony of families of 130 people murdered by the brigand?

Veerappan is nothing but the creation of mindless forest and wildlife protection laws that take away from poor people their means of existence, all in the name of nationalisation. Pitted against the law and order machinery of both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and a Special Task Force created to nab him, there is no way Veerappan could have survived for more than 20 years without the support of the villagers near the forests he rules. Why do the people support him?

For one, they are extremely poor and sandalwood helps them earn a living. Valued at Rs 5-6 lakh per tonne, there is a great demand for the wood from sandal oil units and carvers. But every sandalwood tree in India belongs to the government, no matter who owns the land. If you have a sandalwood tree on your land, the economic benefit of harvesting it will never come to you as the government only can sell sandalwood. So, either the forest department will harass you or the smugglers will raid you. Which is why India has very few sandalwood trees left, even as there are reports that Southeast Asian countries are planning largescale sandalwood plantation for export.

Indian governments have always believed that natural wealth should not belong to people - only the government babus should have the right to destroy these. When people cannot legally own and use what is valuable, they do it illegally. Veerappan rules the forests because he is smarter than all the politicians and forest officials put together. After pressurising the government to peacefully secure the release of Rajkumar, the people of Karnataka should try to secure the release of poor people writhing in the clutches of mindless laws.

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