Red sandal labour killings in the name of protecting national resources

September 8, 2014

By. M.K.Kumar

In Andhra Pradesh the number of woodcutters arrested by the police on charges of cutting red sandal wood trees has gone up. Tons of red sandal logs worth of 100 crores rupees have been seized by the police every month. This has been going on for last two years. All the wood cutters are allegedly from Krishnagiri, Vellore and Tiruvannamalai districts of Tamil Nadu. They come to Andhra Pradesh to cut red sandalwood trees in the Seshachalam hill ranges spread over 350 kilometres, approximately stretching in two districts Chittor and Kadapa. It is exported to China, Japan and other counties where red sandal toys are considered prestigious. Local villagers around the Seshachalm forest guide them to the forest to cut the red sandal wood. Villagers also arrange sufficient food. Wood cutters are organized by the smugglers.

Recently on December 13, 2013 two forest officials, David and Sridhar Rao were murdered by the red sandal smugglers in the Seshachalam forest area in Chittoor district. The staff of Forest Department barely enter the forest without any protection. They appealed the government several times for providing sophisticated weapons to tackle smugglers. In retaliation of the murder the police staged a fake encounter and three people were shot dead in the forest. Allegedly they were picked up by the police before the incident. The story was manipulated as usual, that the police shot them dead for self protection. The media exposed that it was the revenge for the killing of forest staff. Telugu Desam party leader Sri N. Chandrababu Naidu, who assumed the charge of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, had ordered a stoppage of red sandal smuggling in a time bound period of 72 hours. As a gift, the forest officials as well as some of his fans in the Forest Department took lives of three wood cutters from Tamil Nadu and labeled as smugglers.

The Andhra Pradesh Government killed 7 red sandal wood cutters in the name of smugglers and about 2,500 labourers belonging to Tamil Nadu are detained.  All the seven are below the age of 30 years. They were brutally killed after they were apprehended from different places. Three of them were killed on 29.05.14. They belong to Daniyar Attamoor Village, Porur Taluq , Tiruvannamalai. All were picked up by the police and were kept in the deep forest to give the spin that they were killed in exchange of fire. The killings of poor wood cutters started one year earlier. The media were told that this is being done to stop red sandal smuggling.

The situations in the hamlets of forest area in Tamil Nadu are very poor. Wood cutters, mostly belonging to scheduled castes and tribes, are picked up by the smugglers from here. They are economically poor and socially oppressed. No scheme of the Government reached their door steps. They have to go for work daily to nearest towns, in the construction sector and other works, for their livelihood. Most of them belong to forest area, they are skilled in cutting trees. The skilled wood cutters, particularly in the 16 villages of Maramangalam Panchayat area went along with labour agents to the Sechachalam forest in Chittor district of Andhra Pradesh for earning more money. Many of them did not return to their villages and were detained in different jails. They were arrested by the AP Police under PD Act. In the meantime many of their parents died due to illness. They could not visit their village to perform the last rituals of the deceased. Secondly, they are skilled in cutting trees and shaving off trees bark. They are fast trekkers in jungles routes. For this reason they managed to escape from the police sight. Smugglers lured them with big money and paid Rs. 25,000 per month. They worked for 10 days in the entire month. The police started picketing in the jungles, so these labourers were arrested first and were killed for their repeated sandal wood smuggling. The real smugglers are hidden. They enter the seacoast areas, from where red sandal woods are exported.  Smugglers have links with the police and Forest Officials. They paid huge sums of money to the political parties as donations. Recently main smugglers entered politics and spent more money for getting elected as legislators to cover their black money, also to garner government support for their crimes.

There are five layers in red sandal smuggling: cutters, carriers, loaders, transporters and exporters. Main brokers are monitoring the entire system and they are assistants of political kingpins. The brokers deal with the police, lawyers and courts. They manage to escape law. Their names do not enter even in police records.

In China one kg of red sandal sells for Rs. 1 lakh, whereas it fetches only Rs. 5000 in Indian market. It is used in medicines, traditional wood ornaments, and red sandal wood is a traditional symbol in Chinese society. Police started to arrest the low level mediators, belonging to the opposition parties, in order to clear the way for the ruling party in the smuggling business. Brokers earn crores of rupees in smuggling. This was revealed after the arrest of Mohanambai at Vellore, where police recovered Rs. 5 crores hard cash and 2 kgs of gold. The killing of the red wood cutters took place because of disputes between two major political parties in the Andhra Pradesh. At present the police are targeting the red sandal coolies who were engaged by the opposition political party. The killings started to put a full stop of the smuggling by the opposition party.

Sandal coolies Vaaradhi in 2011 and Murugan and Sambarian Mani in 2012 were killed for the above reason. Now the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh has given a letter to the Governor in person, that he faces life threat from Kollam Gangi Reddy group, who was arrested by the police after Alipiri blast took place in 2003. The said incident was by the Maoists and even the court acquitted the Gangi Reddy and all other individuals who were slapped false cases. The police had failed to show appropriate evidences in the court.  The Chief Minister targeted Gangi Reddy because he was an established leader of the opposition political party and was the right hand man to the main politicians of  the Chittor district. In order to put an end to the opposition party and to invite them to join the ruling party, this strategy was chosen.  It is a fact that, without the assistance of the forest officials not a single red sandal wood can be moved from the forests. More than 20 forest as well as police staff have been suspended for their involvement in smuggling. Cases are being lodged on some custom officers who maintained links with the smugglers.

All the seven encounters were stage managed. Bullet wounds were from point block range firing. The victims were caught by the police, were tortured severally and then brutally murdered by the police, who are specialists in this. All the encounters took place in the darkness of the night. How the policemen managed to escape from the incidents without any severe wounds is a mystery as they said that the wood cutters attacked with them arrows, axes and stones. The victims are Tamil, dalit, tribal and landless labourers in the sugarcane farming and other cultivation works. No smugglers backed by the ruling political party were arrested. The victim coolies were all recruited by people from the opposition party. Political leaders involved in the smuggling escaped because of their money and muscle power. They have influence over the constituencies of entire Chittor district. These are state-sponsored murders in the name of protection of sandal wood resources. Of the 2,500 individuals of Tamil Nadu who are lodged in the jails for the past 8 months, majority were arrested not in the scene of offence. About 4 persons died in jails due to improper treatment. Some are in juvenile homes. The PD (preventive detention) Act is often used for harassing political rivals. But actually the act was meant for the security of the state to maintain public order. The detainee shall know the reasons for his detention after he was taken into custody for 3 months, and another 3 months were extended on permission of the advisory board constituted with the judges of the High Court. In the name of fighting the menace of red sandal labourers, the police is misusing the Act.

The worth of red sandals available in the Seshachalam forest is about one lakh crore rupees. Thousands of tons of it are with the Forest Department, which were seized by the police from different areas, whose worth is Rs. 30 thousand crores.  Heavy restriction on the sandal trade is in place which is a reason for problems in its export. This increased the price of the red sandal in the international market. The present AP Government planned to sell the red sandal available by calling e-procure tenders, in order to utilize the money for waiving the loans of peasants.

It appears to be an ecological issue, but it is actually a socio, economic and political issue. On the one side, the red sandal tree species are under the endangered list. On the other side, the poor peasants are killed by the state, in the name of protection of red sandal wood. Politicians, the mafia, police officials who are with them are left untouched. The government should take steps to take over the red sandal wood sale as it is the source of billions of rupees. Collusion of smugglers with main leaders of political parties results in the killing of rival group members in order to clear the way for illegal export. Low level employees and workers in the business are paid only a small part of the money earned. The poor labourers who are accused as smugglers and are killed by the police in fake encounters become the scapegoats. Without knowing the ground of the detention they were in the jails for years.

The kingpins behind the smuggling have connections in the political parties. Often they jump to ruling parties by showing their money and muscle power. Political parties, police and forest officials who advocate the prevention and protection of red sandal are in fact responsible for violation of right to livelihood of local tribes and forest dwellers. The state imposes Section 144 across the forest areas and issues shoot at sight orders illegally. The villagers are apprehended. Key mafia leaders get easy bails with the help of the political leaders, the police and the mafia whereas helpless poor laborers rot in jails.

The government has to probe the encounter killings by the committees constituted with the High Court sitting judges and take steps to release about 2,500 poor Tamil Nadu labourers. All false cases should be unconditionally withdrawn. Large compensation has to be announced for the deceased and victims of the detention. The government should itself market the red sandal in international market and spend certain amount of the earnings for the development of the rural poor people living nearer the Seshachalam forest. It is the responsibility of the state to protect the red sandal wood spread in millions of hectares of forest land in Chittoor and Kadapa districts of Adnhra Pradesh by adopting a properly planned system.


Living conditions of the red sandal labourers

They are downtrodden people, from economically and socially backward sections. They are very poor. In spite of government schemes and reservations they have not been able to avail any. Not even a single respondent had reached high school level of education or have  government jobs. There are no schools nearby for higher secondary education. They have to travel above 13 kilometres to reach such schools.  90% of them do not have the habit of saving. Only 10% had savings, mostly women. All take petty loans for meeting their daily basic needs, which leads to dissatisfaction in their social life. The poor economic conditions made strong emotional family bond, which pushes them to earn money to meet the minimum basic needs of their family members by way of illegal methods. It was the main factor why they were easily lured by the agents of the smugglers. None have toilet facilities in their village. Not even public toilet facility is available there. They do open defecation. As per census 2011, 72% of rural households do not have toilet facilities. In Karnataka 29% of the tribes have toilet facilities. All the families work as agriculture labourers and very few of them have taken land on lease for farming. No one has his or her own agricultural land.

The villages where tree cutters come from mostly belong to schedule castes and tribes. It was evident that since majority of the villages are situated near the forests, hill areas living conditions are marked with illiteracy, poverty, poor housing conditions, indebtedness.  The government should take all major steps to provide necessary psychosocial intervention and facilitate suitable alternative rehabilitation measures. Prior to that the government should provide at least 3 acres of cultivation land with good water system to the landless poor of each family.

The government’s response to the situation not only here but also across India has been to introduce debt waivers, food security bill, land reform policy bill etc.,. The total system is carried out with the neo-liberal policies under the umbrella of globalization. This has created crisis in agriculture. Since long, steps taken could not balance industry and agriculture. In India agriculture and allied sector’s share in GDP is 14.2%, whereas the workforce involved in this  sector is 58%, as reported by the Economic survey 2010-11. 41.6%  of rural households do not have lands. The cost of agriculture production has become very high, which can not be borne by the peasants. Thus, the poor farmers, thrown off from agriculture, rush to the nearest towns to join in the reserve labour force. Improved variety of seeds produced only by the private sector, like the BT cotton, are labeled as improved seed variety. A number of farmers  have committed suicides after using these deadly seeds. In the above-described villages all family members including the women and children migrated from agriculture to the nearby urban areas in search of employment. The government thinks that the only way to hike the production is by forward trading and contract farming. It is nothing but a capitalist solution, in order to allow the direct access to multinational companies of the agricultural markets. The inhabitants of the villages go for daily wage labour, since they get  2 to 3 times as large as the farm income. The indebtedness in Tamil Nadu was found to be 74%.

The crisis in agriculture and allied sectors is the main cause for the tree cutters to migrate across the state boarder into Seshachalam forest for illegal red sandal cuttings. Thus the root is linked with social and economical crises.


List of the dates of killings

1. 2011            Vaaraadi from Tamil Nadu (Place of Death: Sankariah gari palem, Mittapalem villege, Chandragiri mandal, Chittoor dist)

2. Dec, 2012   Murugan from Tamil Nadu (Place of death : Karivepakula kona, Chamala forest, Chittoor district)

3. 29.1.14       Sambariyan Mani from Tamil Nadu (Place of death: near Kalyani dam, Bobadi hill, Chittoor dist)

4. 29.5.14       Venkatesh, 25 years Siva, 28 years Vijayakanth, 25 years Daniyar Attimur Villege, Polur tq, Tiruvannamaalia Dist, Tamil Nadu (Place of Death: Guddeddula banda, 12 kms from Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, Chittoor dist)

5.  21.6.14       A. Veeramani, 35 years, Vinayakapuram South, hamlet of Attimala pattu, Vannurpuram post, Arani Tq, Tiruvannamalai District, Tamil Nadu (Place of Death. Forest area in Kadapa District)

6. 31.7.14       unidentified red sandal labourer (Place of death.  Forest area in Koduru(m), Kadapa Dist.)

7. 2.8.14         unidentified red sandal labourer (Place of death. Kadatala hill forest, Bhakarapeta region, Chittoor dist)


M.K.Kumar is a member of the Civil Liberties Committee, Andhra Pradesh.

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