INVESTIGATIONS have revealed that Pune is an important link to the rampant red sandalwood smuggling. Sources said smugglers have developed strong connections at the Nhava Sheva and other ports in Mumbai. They transport huge quantities of red sandalwood from villages in Andhra Pradesh to Mumbai via Pune by illegal means. Then,from the ports in Mumbai,the red sandalwood is smuggled to foreign countries.
A senior officer said,There are different routes by which red sandalwood is suspected to be smuggled out of India. Pune is an important place for smugglers operating from Mumbai ports. So,they look for places or godowns for storing red sandalwood in and around Pune district,from where they can transport it to Mumbai.
On Friday evening,the Pune rural police had seized about 10,000 kg red sandalwood worth Rs 2.24 crore in a container at Belhe village on the Ahmednagar-Kalyan Road. Police arrested container driver Taukir Irshad Khan (31),a native of Uttar Pradesh,and currently residing in Navi Mumbai. The container had a government seal.
When the police questioned Khan,he initially said he was Manish Suresh Tiwari. He also produced a driving licence with the name. But police found it was a fake licence and his real name is Taukir Khan. Police said the containers engine number and documents were also tampered with. Khan wanted to take the consignment to Nhava Sheva Port in Mumbai. His aide from Kalamboli has also been arrested.
In January,the Pune rural police had raided two godowns at Waki Budruk village in Chakan and seized huge stock of red sandalwood and teak wood worth Rs 3 crore. The racketeers brought red sandalwood from AP to this godown in Chakan. From there,it was to be taken to Mumbai. Police had arrested kingpin Deepak Zare of Navi Mumbai.
In August,the Pune Customs Department had seized three trucks carrying about 15 tonnes of red sanders valued at Rs 3.5 crore from Kanhe Phata area in Wadgaon Maval taluka. Five persons were arrested in the case.
An officer said,Investigations revealed that documents,such as driving licences,seized from the suspects were fake. The vehicle documents,seals on the containers used for red sandalwood trade were also forged. There is a big chain from the drivers of the containers to their masterminds. The suspects who are arrested give false information. Also,they easily get bail and then flee. It becomes difficult to reach the masterminds in AP.
The Modus operandi
Red sanders or red sandalwood (Pterocarpus Santalinus) is a rare and and precious wood found only in India. It naturally grows only in the Seshachalam hill ranges in the Kadapa,Chittoor and Nellore districts on the border of AP and Tamil Nadu. Red sanders is a prohibited goods under Customs Act,1962.
From AP,it is dispatched in containers to godowns or warehouses at different spots,including some around Pune district. Racketeers have expertise in making duplicate seals with the exact details mentioned on the original seals put on by Customs Department on these containers carrying export items.
Investigation into a racket busted in Jainapur,Sangli,in 2011 revealed that racketeers broke the customs seal,loaded the cartons filled with export items like pulp and textiles and replaced it with red sandalwood illegally stocked at the warehouse. As many as 60 labourers were deployed for replacing the cargo with red sanders on daily basis. The containers were then locked with duplicate seals carrying the same number as mentioned on genuine customs seals. Then it is taken to Mumbai for smuggling to foreign countries by ship. Sources said racketeers use SIM cards procured on fake names and it is a well-organised internationally connected racket involving a turnover of thousands of crores.
Superintendent of Pune rural police Manoj Lohiya said racketeers are suspected to be using alternative routes to avoid checkings on a particular road. Investigations have revealed that due to the frequent checks on the Pune-Mumbai highway,red sandalwood smugglers have started using the Ahmednagar-Kalyan Road. The recent seizure of red sandalwood happened at Belhe village on the Ahmednagar-Kalyan Road.
During investigation,police identified a new route used by the racketeers. Police said there are many check points on Pune-Mumbai route. So to avoid it,the racketeers bring sandalwood from Hyderabad in AP to Gulbarga in Karnataka and then to Solapur in Maharashtra. They further travel to Ahmednagar via Daund and Indapur. Then they go to Mumbai via Ahmednagar-Kalyan Road,where checking takes place only at two points,including Ale Phata.
Nexus with cops,babus
It is suspected that smugglers have developed a strong network among the police machinery,customs and forest departments. After the seizure of red sandalwood in January,an inquiry by the senior officers of Pune rural police had revealed that an inspector and his team with the Local Crime Branch (LCB) had allegedly been involved in striking a deal with smugglers for providing them safe escort so that they can skip the check points in Pune to reach Mumbai. Three constables were also suspended in this case. Besides,names of forest and customs officials have also cropped up during interrogation of suspects.
Lohiya said,Misconduct of the policemen was confirmed in the inquiry. Legal opinion is being sought for further action.
Huge money involved
Red sandalwood is a prohibited item for export and covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) list. However,it is being smuggled to foreign countries via sea through various Indian ports and also by road routes via Nepal and other places across the border. From the arrest of persons involved in smuggling,it has been revealed that China is the main buyer of the wood smuggled out of India.
Biodiversity experts said in China,red sandalwood is used for making pills like Viagra,one milligram of which costs about $25.
Investigators said the lifestyle of smugglers indicates the kind of profits they are making. Sources said suspect Zare and his aide Ajit Satam in Mumbai area were petty custom house agents a few years ago and were aware of the customs procedures. The duo earned crores of rupees after getting into red sandalwood smuggling. During investigation in 2011,DRI sleuths recovered Rs 2.58 crore in cash from Zares house in Nerul,along with Rs 13.5 crore from a Cosmos bank account. The sleuths also recovered eight expensive cars and six containers owned by Satam. Sources said Satam also had plans to invest a huge sum in a Bollywood film.