Wood for scandal

While the Union government has finally permitted Tamil Nadu to export sandalwood, State monopoly of the trade is yet to be abolished

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Before bowing out of power, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre lifted a seven-year-old ban on the export of sandalwood from Tamil Nadu. The Centre's decision followed an appeal by Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on January 16. The Centre had banned the export of sandalwood in 1992, resulting in 6,000 tonnes of sandalwood being stockpiled in forest department warehouses.

While it is good of the Centre to have permitted the southern state to gainfully use its natural resources, it is time it also went in for a rethink on government controls upon trade in sandalwood.

There are valid reasons for lifting government controls on the sandalwood trade. The tree grows like a weed in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Yet, it is difficult to find a single sandalwood tree. If they spot a sandalwood sapling in their fields, landowners uproot it immediately, rather than let it grow, even though sandalwood is very expensive and can fetch good money for landholders.

Why do landowners resort to this drastic step? Because if they do not uproot the tree, they get caught in a double whammy. On one hand is the law. On the other are the outlaws who trade in sandalwood. The most dreaded of these outlaws is Veerappan, and government policy is the source of his power.

If the tree grows to maturity, the farmer is bound by law to protect it with his/her life. If an outlaw chops it down, the law will hold the landowner accountable. Landowners will require human-power and firearms to protect the tree from the outlaw, which they do not have. As a result, they will have no option but to die trying to protect the tree. The easy way out, therefore, is to uproot the sapling.

As a result, sandalwood remains in short supply. But the government's pricing mechanism does not take the law of supply and demand into consideration. The government buys sandalwood at an absurdly 'controlled' -- to be read low -- price. People are therefore encouraged to sell it to outlaws who give a far better price. In the end, there emerges a situation where only outlaws can trade in sandalwood.

A special task force set up to nab Veerappan has failed to do so. The vested interests involved in the trade and political interference in the work of the task force has made it impossible for any law enforcement agency to arrest him. Rumour has it that the establishment is not in favour of the sandalwood trade being privatised. This is because corrupt elements in the establishment realise that if the tree is allowed to grow free, or that farmers are allowed to cultivate and harvest sandalwood, it may lead to a fall in the price of sandalwood. It will also put an end to the black market in sandalwood. This may put an end to their cut in the sandalwood trade.

What these vested interests do not realise is that easy availability of sandalwood will lead to the artisans in Tamil Nadu becoming more prosperous as the volume of their work will increase. Also, the amount of money the government spends in trying to track down outlaws and sandalwood smugglers will be saved and can be diverted to better purposes.

All this apart, has anyone in the forest department or the state government tried to calculate the real cost of sandalwood? The government in Tamil Nadu has stockpiled 6,000 tonnes of sandalwood in its storehouses. Has anybody bothered to think how much it costs in the form of operations and raids, in loss of human lives and in artisans' loss of business? Or even taken the rental of the storage space into consideration? Have all these costs been factored into the cost of the sandalwood? Or is Tamil Nadu exporting the wood at a loss?

In other words, is the sandalwood policy sustainable; is it right for the state to think it is running a business? Or like most public sector undertakings, is this also a loss-making enterprise?

What is happening here is obviously a case of supreme disregard of not only a natural resource but also of the ordinary people in the state. The state government has expressed a complete lack of faith in the people who voted for it by disallowing them to trade in sandalwood. It also sets up a formidable array of laws to protect the sandalwood tree.

Here, again, it seems nobody has bothered to find out whether these laws actually save sandalwood trees and increase their numbers. If they conducted a survey, they would be surprised by what the results would show. The results would probably show that laws and policies meant to protect the sandalwood tree are leading to its destruction in the state. And the people of the state cannot grow sandalwood trees and trade in the prized wood because the government fails to do its job by arresting sandalwood smugglers like Veerappan.

It is high time that the Union government came up with an alternative to government-controlled trade in sandalwood. It would be for the good of every law-abiding citizen. It would also rid Karnataka and Tamil Nadu of the brigand called Veerappan. He smuggles sandalwood and is a poacher. The source of his power is the way trade in sandalwood is conducted. As it is illegal, only he -- an outlaw -- can do it. This defeats the very spirit of the law. And does not help conservation of sandalwood either.

Taking note of the public's interest, administrators will soon work on an exercise that compares environmental costs with economic returns that the state is currently earning.

Tata Energy Research Institute ( teri ), a national-level research body, will undertake this project shortly. The Union government has approved Rs 12 lakh for the first phase of the project.

The state will evaluate the resources used in the agriculture, mining, coastal tourism, forests and fishing sectors. For many decades, citizens of interior Goa have complained about having to pay the 'price' for widespread mining, while mine owners and various governments have stressed on the economic benefits derived from mining.

Now, the environmental costs would also have to be accounted for to get an idea of the real gain. Says Challam: "Goa's current gross domestic product is Rs 24,000 crore. We need to understand what this figure actually will be after taking into account the resources utilised to earn it."

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