Sandal act

Winds of change in the scented wood

Published: Saturday 15 September 2001

Early this month, the Karnataka legislative assembly passed the much-awaited legislation to deregulate the sandalwood business, by lifting government monopoly over sandalwood. The Karnataka Forest (Amendment) Bill, 2001 will now allow cultivation of sandal trees in private lands and the government will also revise its cost.

The Bill comes as a major policy change as far as the sandalwood is concerned. Government's total control over sandal has in fact caused much harm to it than it has helped in its protection. Under the existing laws so far, sandalwood is state property and no one has any rights over it whether in private or in forest lands. The laws don't allow anybody to sell sandalwood except to the government

This strict regulation and illogical pricing alienated the people from its protection giving an upper hand to bandits like Veerappan whose primary business is smuggling of sandalwood.

The legislation is a welcome move as it is expected to reduce smuggling and curb the likes of Veerappans. Yet, doubts are expressed over its implementation. The objective of the amendment is primarily to increase the area of sandalwood trees. But, unless people are made equal partners in the regeneration programmes, criminals like Veerappan will continue to plunder India's forests.

The sandal forest spreads over three states -- Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. By deregulating in one state, that also limited to private lands, the bill might not be an effective instrument in saving the tree from extinction or from smugglers. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been demanding for a uniform sandalwood policy stating that two different sets of regulations have given a fillip to smuggling. Since the regulation is limited to Karnataka alone, there is a good possibility of this fear turning out real.

The Bill comes at a time when the state, which along with Tamil Nadu boasts of India's 90 per cent of sandal growing areas, was losing the battle against smugglers. Once a high revenue sector, Karnataka now earns less from sandalwood than what it earns from charcoal and fuelwood.

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