A SMALLTIME actor from Rajasthan, and a former air hostess and model from Kolkata are at the centre of a major investigation launched by Andhra Pradesh Police to bust a red sanders smuggling network with agents in Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
Citing interrogation reports, officials said that model Sangeeta Chatterjee and Telugu actor Neetu Agarwal had taken over the smuggling network from their jailed lovers. Chatterjee was sent to judicial custody Thursday by a Chittoor court after her arrest in Kolkata on March 28, while Agarwal is in jail after being nabbed in Hyderabad last April.
Officials said police are now searching for agents involved in red sanders smuggling in six states, based on information provided by Chatterjee. According to police, Sangeeta, 26, is the girlfriend of Markondan Lakshman alias Lakshman Dange alias Tamang, who was arrested in 2014 by Chittoor Police from Nepal. Police said that Lakshman, who is married to another woman, was involved in smuggling at least Rs 20 crore worth of red sanders from the forests of Andhra Pradesh.
Sangeeta was first arrested by Chittoor Police on May 11 last year from a flat at Netaji Nagar in Kolkata and produced before a court there on May 12, which granted her bail and directed her to appear before a Chittoor court a week later.
But then, Sangeeta went missing and failed to respond to six legal notices sent by Chittoor Police. After tracking her for six months, including 28 trips to West Bengal and Manipur, Chittoor Police and the CID in West Bengal arrested her last month from a house in Kolkata.
“She is helping us join the dots in the network. She has accepted her role in helping Lakshman and developing new agents and smugglers across India. She told us that a large group of agents smuggle red sanders logs in small quantities in shipping containers from Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. The consignments are sent to Hong Kong and onwards to parts of China. Until her arrest last May, she used to handle these agents and had information on which consignment was in which container at which port,’’ said Chittoor SP, G Srinivas.
Officials said small consignments weighing 40 kg to 200 kg were smuggled to Hong Kong where there are streets selling furniture made of the rare wood (see box).
“By the time the logs reached Hong Kong after being cut in Andhra and transported to Kolkata or Chennai, the price increased by 10-20 times,’’ an official said.
Officials said police have, so far, seized two kg of gold, three kg of silver and ownership documents of four flats from Chatterjee, apart from sealing accounts and lockers in six banks. “Sangeeta and Lakshman led a luxurious life until their luck ran out,” said an official.
According to police, Chatterjee studied up to Class 10 before she started modelling for TV commercials. She then joined the cabin crew of a private airline following which she met and fell in love with Lakshman, a frequent passenger on the Chennai-Kolkata sector.
“Sangeeta took over his smuggling operations after he was arrested in 2014. Four cases were registered against her between 2014 and 2016 at three police stations in Chittoor for smuggling red sanders,” said an official.
Chatterjee has allegedly told police that she also obtained a firearm licence from Chittoor using forged documents and helped four smuggling agents get licences similarly.
Officials said that information obtained from Chatterjee, following her arrest and interrogation, soon caught the attention of police in neighbouring Kurnool, where a similar story had unravelled two years ago. On April 26, 2015, Kurnool Police arrested Telugu actor Neetu Agarwal, 28, for allegedly financing and organising red sanders smuggling through her husband Kondampalli Mastan Vali, a film producer and politician.
“It is possible that Lakshman, Sangeeta, Neetu and her husband Mastan are all part of the same ring. Just like Sangeeta, Neetu was involved in smuggling and financing. She handled agents in Bengaluru and supported Mastan in his operations,’’ said Kurnool SP, A Ravi Krishna.
Vali, who allegedly organised gangs to cut red sanders trees in the Nallamala forest and smuggle them to Bengaluru, was arrested on April 21, 2015, in Rudravaram after the driver of a vehicle carrying freshly cut logs led police to him. When police confronted Vali with bank records showing transfers of huge amounts between him and Agarwal, he confessed that he had secretly married the actor in February 2014. Agarwal was arrested from a flat in Hyderabad on April 26, 2015.
Vali told police that Agarwal was his third wife. They had fallen in love on the sets of Telugu film ‘Prema Pranayam’, which he had produced with Agarwal as the heroine, he told police. After their marriage, police said, Vali moved to Hyderabad, joined the YSR Congress Party and became its mandal president in Chagalamarri, his home town in Kurnool.
As for Agarwal, police said, she arrived in Hyderabad from Rajasthan in 2012, looking for work in Telugu films. Agarwal told police that Vali forced her to invest in his business and that she had no idea it was being used for red sanders smuggling. “After her first film, she did not get any new offers. She started investing the money she earned from that film and by working as an extra artist or from dubbing assignments in the racket through Vali,” alleged an official.
When contacted, Chatterjee’s lawyer Irugu Ramesh said she has been sent to judicial custody till April 24. “I cannot comment on or discuss this case,” he said. Agarwal’s lawyer could not be contacted.
Red Sanders is non-fragrant variety of sandalwood mostly found in a small pocket of roughly 5,200 sq km covering parts of Kadapa, Chittoor, Anantapur, Kurnool, Prakasam and Nellore. Felling is illegal, export is highly restricted.
Permission is required to fell and sell even trees in private farms. But there is a big demand, especially in China and Japan, where Red Sanders furniture, chess sets and musical instruments are status symbols.