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Andhra cracks down on red sanders’ smugglers

The Andhra Pradesh police and forest departments are on a massive hunt for smugglers of red sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus). Last week, three men from Tamil Nadu were gunned down by the authorities. Around 1,000 people, mostly from Tamil Nadu, involved in the smuggling of these precious trees are now in jail.

The operation comes against the backdrop of Chandrababu Naidu taking charge as the chief minister of residual Andhra Pradesh. Naidu has been a target of these smugglers for trying to curb their activity. In 2009, a bomb planted by Naxalites targeting Naidu was allegedly funded by the red sanders smugglers.

While campaigning for the elections, Naidu had said he would crack down on smuggling, which has increased after prices of the red wood surged. Red sander is a valued item in traditional medicines and woodcraft across China, Myanmar, Japan and East Asia.  In India, red sanders wood costs Rs 2,000-5,000 a kg, and the price goes up to Rs 1 lakh in China, according to traders involved in this business. Felling happens mostly in the hills of Seshachalam and Nalgonda forest in Andhra Pradesh by woodcutters from Tamil Nadu, especially from Tiruvannamalai and the tribal villages of Javadhu Malai.

A forest department official said agents target drought affected villages with large illiterate populations. The three men gunned down in Andhra Pradesh were Tamil sugarcane farmers who bought an agent’s  story. They did not know what they were doing was illegal. They were offered Rs 10,000-15,000 for three days of work. Reports suggest, agents in 274 border villages ensure a steady stream of Tamil workers for the smugglers.

Smuggling of red sanders took off after the over-exploited tree was put on the endangered list in 2000. “A tonne of red sanders fetches up to Rs 20 lakh in India but its international price is above Rs 50-80 lakh,” a forest officer from the Vellore range said. “It is smuggled out in ship containers or as air cargo. Sometimes air passengers carry them as luggage from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur or from Delhi to Beijing.”

Sources say villagers hired to cut the trees and lug them out are paid Rs 3,000 for a six-foot log. Agents make Rs 75,000-100,000 a week as commission. The trade turned violent after a gang of Tamil villagers hacked two Andhra Pradesh forest rangers to death in the Seshasalam forests last December.

This prompted the state’s police to set up a special unit that has in the past four months shot down four Tamil villagers, seized over 20,000 tonnes of wood and arrested nearly 1,000 Tamil smugglers.

Tamil Nadu politicians have tried to turn this into an inter-state issue by accusing the Andhra Pradesh police of targeting innocent Tamils. But the Jayalalithaa government sees it as an illegal activity that needs to be curbed.

The crackdown and resultant shortage may push prices of legally sold red sanders up to Rs 9 lakh a tonne, says a farmer who stopped felling because of the legal hurdles. The official price for red sanders is around Rs 3-5 lakh a tonne.

Exporting became tough after rules were tightened internationally for the endangered tree. A few farmers still sell legally, but many have stopped because of the restrictions on trade.

Big buyers with the capacity to buy 300-400 tonnes at a go and collect the necessary approvals for exporting the wood are now seeing shrunken supplies. There is still scope for exporting the wood as the last date for sales of confiscated red sanders falls in the second half of the year.

Tamil folk dancer in the net

Last week, the Tamil Nadu police arrested 60-year-old folk dancer Mohanambal at Vellore for her links to red sanders smuggling. The police said Rs 4.4 crore and 72 gold sovereigns were recovered from her house.

After absconding for nearly two weeks, Mohanambal and her sister surrendered in the Vellore court and were taken into custody. She has bought over 30 houses in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

THE RED GOLD
| Red sander is not known to have much use in India, but it is a rare and valued item used in traditional medicines and woodcraft across China, Myanmar, Japan and East Asia. It is also used in the shipbuilding industry and and it known to reduce the radiation of Nuclear reactors
| In China it would cost Rs 1 lakh a kg
| Villagers hired to cut the trees and lug them out are paid Rs 3,000 for a six-feet log. The agents make anything between Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh per week, as commission
| The operation comes against the backdrop of N Chandrababu Naidu (pictured) taking charge as the chief minister of residual Andhra Pradesh
| The crackdown and resultant shortage may push prices of legally sold red sanders up to Rs 9 lakh a tonne

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