Veerappan gone, but his group still active in Seshachalam forests

Veerappan gone, but his group still active in Seshachalam forests

The abode of Lord Balaji in Tirumala is also famous for rare red sanders wood, making the Seshachalam forests surrounding the seven hills a hot bed of illegal cutting, smuggling of the red sandalwood and the consequent mayhem created by international mafia.

Red sanders grow mainly in Seshachalam hill ranges spread across Kadapa, Chittoor and Kurnool in Rayalaseema region and parts of Nellore district. However, bulk of the red sander smuggling takes place in Chittoor and Kadapa.

Shortage of supply and ever increasing demand in international market made the rare commodity hot favourite for smugglers as a high price -- up to Rs 10 crore per tonne in the Chinese market --  is attracting notorious criminals into this lucrative business. According to Andhra Pradesh state biodiversity board (APSBB), the cut pieces of red-sanders, smuggled out from the forests regularly hoodwinking the forest staff, is found to have been used for atomic energy projects instead and for making a Viagra-like drug. Dr R Hampaiah, chairman, APSBB, ruled out the possibility of anyone using the red sanders for musical instruments or furniture as it was not too heavy and hard and would break easily. It was light weight wood which would be used to make musical instruments as it would enhance the sound.

The interest shown by smugglers on this wood was such that nearly 2,000 SUVs were seized by the forest staff in the recent past while they were being used to transport it. Some people, attired as ‘sadhus’ sneak into the forest on the plea of doing meditation. Each person mostly from bordering Tamil Nadu was paid Rs 500 per kilogram weight, for carrying the illegally cut logs from Seshachalam forest to nearest road making it a lucrative employment for the illegal cutters.

Thus, a meticulous system of cutting, transporting and shipping of the wood has evolved down the years making it very difficult to the ill equipped forest officers to put a check to this illegal activity. Following the brutal killing of two forest officers in Seshachalam forests recently, state police suspected the involvement of gang members of slain sandalwood smuggler Veerappan in the illegal smuggling of red sander. Andhra Pradesh DGP B Prasada Rao said on record, “That talk is there... People who worked with Veerappan gang or group are active. Some are active and there is no doubt in this regard. But there are many others who are coming (into AP) and are involved in red sander smuggling as stakes are very high’.

Huge challenge

Andhra Pradesh police agree that red sanders smuggling has become a big challenge. “Efforts are underway to check smuggling of red sanders and nab the kingpins of the smuggling rackets, the DGP said. “We plan to maintain the pressure on the red sander smugglers so it doesn’t assume the dimension of a mafia.”

Of late, red sanders smuggling has taken serious dimension with attack and the killing of two forest officials following which chief minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy urged the AP police and forest department to work in coordination to curb the menace. As part of the measures, in each of the seven (affected) forest divisions, one platoon of AP special police would accompany the forest officials when they go into the forests for their operations because forest officials are not provided with weapons and are hence vulnerable to attacks. A special task force constituted in June 2013 has been carrying out daily raids on the hideouts across Kadapa, Chittoor, Nellore and Kurnool districts to check the rampant felling of the red sander trees.

Increased vigilance in Seshachalam forests resulted in 531 cases against red sanders mafia in 2013, 3,249 persons were arrested and 13,958 logs were seized. In 2012, Fifty one cases have been registered, 326 persons arrested and 1489 logs weighing 35471 kg estimated at Rs 8.86 crore seized. The number of persons arrested rose from a mere two in 2008 to 149 in 2010. “This is a pointer to vigilant and proactive policing,” said Chittore police.

Pending procurement of its own weapons, the Forest Department will get 150 rifles and other firearms from the police to meet the threat of red sanders smugglers. The police will also train the forest staff in the use of weapons. The government issued an order permitting the principal chief conservator of forest to purchase 250 single bore breach loading guns with 20,000 rounds of ammunition and 125 non-prohibited bore revolvers with 7,500 rounds. The procurement was cleared by a technical committee of police and the forest departments two days before the incident.

Recently, the beleaguered forest department has asked the government to declare Sri Venkateswara sanctuary and the National Park areas of Seshachalam Hills, which is rich in red sanders, as a ‘no entry zone’. The sanctuary spread over Chittoor and Kadapa district with an area of 525.97 sq km, covers the Seshachalam hill ranges.

Forest guards have sought powers to arrest at sight or shoot in self-defence in case of retaliation. Cattle grazing and local villagers have to be stopped and collectors have to issue orders invoking the provisions of the law to prevent trespass into forest area.
A senior official said, “It is already a national park and sanctuary area. There are laws that prohibit trespassing. Cattle grazing have to be strictly stopped.”

However, state government is yet to take a final call on the proposal to make the Sri Venkateswara sanctuary and the National Park area of Seshachalam Hills ‘a no entry zone’.

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