After many violent clashes with notorious teak smuggling gangs from remote villages of Sironcha tehsil in Gadchiroli district for about two decades, Maharashtra’s forest department have tamed them into surrender without firing a shot, virtually bringing the rampant tree felling to a halt.
As a result, 312 habitual tree-fellers have “surrendered” before the forest department since June 2014. They have given an oath on stamp papers to their respective Gram Sabhas that they will not return to the forest to fell trees ever again. The Gram Sabhas have assured the forest department that they would tackle the defaulters, if any, at their own level. In return, the forest department has assured the offenders that it would not pursue the pending cases against them.
Till about two years ago, the forest officials would often go after the smugglers in the night and end up in a fierce battle with them, suffering injuries after being hit by stones and axes. Sometimes, opening of fire also led to death of smugglers, who would carry out felling of teak trees and ferrying of logs through Indravati and Pranhita rivers to the other side of the border (Telangana) where the buyers would pick up the logs. Sironcha forest is famous for its world-class teak trees.
Over the last one year, the department implemented a comprehensive new strategy. They used trap cameras to monitor and identify the smugglers, spent heavily on secret information, identified sources of bullock carts used to ferry the logs, deployed ex-army men in sensitive areas, started patrolling in greater numbers to deter the gangs that would often outnumber them and started patrolling in the day time also.
“All these measures created such a pressure on the smugglers that they found the going tough,” Sironcha Deputy Conservator of Forest Prabhunath Shukla told The Indian Express.
“Teak smugglers used to earn up to Rs 20,000 to 50,000 per month, and so it was virtually impossible to provide a matching alternative livelihood to prevent them from indulging in the crime. So building up pressure was the most effective option available before us,” Shukla said.
Since December last, only three persons have been arrested, compared to over 40 arrests in the first three months last year.
In 2012-2013, two smugglers were shot by the forest guards while 16 forest officials were injured. Both numbers dropped to zero last year.
“In the first lot of surrenders in June 2014, 55 people from four villages gave up felling trees. The second lot of 257 from 16 villages came in December. In the last three months, we virtually had no tree-felling,” Shukla said.
The forest department has also initiated alternative livelihood projects for the people. These include placement of 50 ITI-trained youths in industries, jobs at the forest department’s flagship agarbatti project which has created over 1000 jobs in the industry-starved Gadchiroli district, eco-tourism management by locals, etc. A few more projects are coming up, like cooperative furniture mart, flower nursery, augmenting income through plantation of the pulpwood trees on private lands.