At one end is the woodcutter and at the other is the exporter. Between them are multiple layers of identities and intent as red sanders, the wood at the centre of an alleged encounter in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday, makes its clandestine journey out of the country.
Nadia is dressed in her wedding sari, a dash of vermilion in the parting of her hair. A thick marigold garland weighs down the frail 18-year-old as she stands at the threshold of her thatched-roof house, hours to go for her husband Rajendran’s funeral. “He left on Monday morning saying he was going to Kerala to collect some pending wages from the owner of the estate where he used to work,” whispers Nadia who, in keeping with local tradition, has to dress in her wedding finery for her husband’s funeral.
A few metres away, her brother-in-law Ramesh, 25, sits in front of Rajendran’s decaying corpse that came earlier in the day in an ambulance, two days after the 30-year-old was killed along with 19 others in an alleged encounter between the police and red-sanders ‘smugglers’ in the Seshachalam forest of Andhra Pradesh. “Look at how we live here. No road, no transportation, no school after Class V, no water… Daily-wagers get Rs 100-Rs 150 a day but even that’s rare since there is no work at all,” he says.
So when agents from Kannamangalam or Vellore, the nearest towns, trek up Jawadhu Hills to their village Jamunamaruthur, they simply say yes to any job they offer.
“The agents come here since they know how hopeless our lives are and take us to Kerala or Andhra Pradesh. They are probably the only outsiders who really understand us though I know they only have their commissions in mind,” says Ramesh who, along with his brother Rajendran, spent his early childhood as a worker on a coffee plantation in Kerala.
All the 20 woodcutters who were killed in the forests of Andhra Pradesh were from Tamil Nadu — seven from Dharmapuri district, one from Salem and 12 from Tiruvannamalai. Five of the 12 were from Jamunamaruthur. It’s a village of Malayali tribals where “mala” or hill stands for the Jawadhu Hills that frame at least seven villages in the region, including Jamunamaruthur, whose dry farmlands have small patches of tamarind, jackfruit and pomegranate cultivation. Most families have at least one member working in the coffee, teak and rubber plantations of Kerala.
Today, the village is preparing for a mass funeral. Vellamuthu, 18, was the youngest among those who died. His aunt Chinnapullai, 62, says, “The poor boy was deaf and dumb. The men in the village are willing to do any job if they are offered Rs 250-300 and go wherever they are taken. They usually don’t know the nature of their job and their destination — whether it’s Andhra or Kerala — till they get there,” she says.
Down the hill are villages in the plains of Arni, a small town known for its rice mills and silks. Seven of those who died in the Andhra ‘encounter’ are from villages here. Here too, they say they take up whatever job that comes there way.
Subramanian, an 83-year-old village elder at Anandapuram near Kannamangalam town, says his family sold five palm trees last month as there was nothing else to sell and earned Rs 1,000. “There are no jobs and with no water for farming, we sell our trees and cattle to survive,” he says, taking a break from a heated morning discussion on the Tirupati encounter at a small thatched shop in the village. “For years now, people from these villages have been getting jobs as woodcutters. These are all people who lead regular lives, with families and children. One day, they get caught somewhere in the forests of Seshachalam or Tirupati and are branded ‘smugglers’,” he says.
The discussion then veers to how agents lure villagers. “What do you do after selling your last tree and last cow? Then we accept any job that these ‘saviours’ offer,” says Subramanian as the others break into guffaws.
Jobs on offer
The ‘saviour’, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, likes to believe he is one. “Unless we provide them jobs, they will starve to death,” says Suresh (name changed) who roams around Arni and Kannamangalam towns twice or thrice a day for his “business” — real-estate and resale of used vehicles. From there, he visits the neighbouring villages and recruits people for “all kinds of jobs”.
“Most of the people who approach us for jobs are skilled workers — drivers, plumbers, carpenters and traditional weavers. Two months ago, I helped a weaver get a job in a Chennai-based college as a canteen worker,” he says, repeatedly evading questions on whether he recruits people for illegal woodcutting.
“I am not a smuggler,” he finally says and then loosens up a bit to talk about his operations which, he insists, are entirely above board.
Just last month, he says, he sent 20 people from Arni and Kannamangalam to forests in Andhra. “They went for woodcutting,” he says, without specifying what ‘wood’ they cut. “These workers are paid Rs 400-1,000 a day depending on where they are deployed. They usually don’t hesitate to come along as the money they get is far more than what they would get in the villages,” he says.
Suresh says he earns at least Rs 10,000 from “bigger agents” for recruiting about 10 people. “But I don’t get to keep all that money. I usually approach a couple of villagers and they get the others. So I have to share my commission, about Rs 2000-3,000, with these villagers who bring me more people,” he says.
By now, he is in full flow. “I do not belong to any political party. We mostly work with the ruling party. Whether it is Tiruttani, Kurnool, Renigunta or Tirupati, you ask me the name of police officers, and I will tell you… even in the media,” he says.
Besides the woodcutters who come from Tamil Nadu, forest officials in Andhra say the agents hire villagers living in the forest periphery to do the felling. The agents, who get up to Rs 1 lakh for an operation, often camp in hotels and lodges in Proddatur and Mydukur towns of Andhra’s Kadapa district. The officials say the agents use cellphones and GPS to keep track of the movement of forest vehicles and their own men and trucks. The agents are said to carry firearms and large amounts of cash to bribe forest guards to look the other way when their truck passes through checkposts. The usual modus operandi is to send a decoy on a motorcycle who — in case he is stopped by a vigilance squad or forest guard — uses his cellphone to alert the truck driver.
“I couldn’t recognise my own brother. They had attacked him so viciously,” says N Ramesh whose brother N R Sridhar, 49, a deputy range forest officer in Tirupati, was hacked to death early morning on December 15, 2013, allegedly by a gang of woodcutters in the forests of Seshachalam in southern Andhra Pradesh. “All his fingers had been chopped off. Half his left foot was gone. His head had been ripped open,” says Ramesh, a marketing manager with a polymer company in Hyderabad who shifted to Tirupati to be with his brother’s family.
Ramesh says Sridhar had survived four earlier attacks in these forests. During one one such attack, Ramesh says, his brother was shot in his chest and head and spent about six months in a hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The bullet in his chest was never taken out because the doctors deemed the surgery risky, so Sridhar lived and died with it.
The Seshachalam and Palakonda forests in Andhra’s Kadapa and Chittoor districts are home to red sanders, an endangered variety of sandalwood whose felling and export are highly regulated. That makes it extremely coveted, especially in foreign markets, and the wood is smuggled out. There are frequent skirmishes between forest officials and smugglers and it was one such attack that turned vicious in December 2013, when Sridhar and his Assistant Beat Officer David Karunakar, 40, were lynched by a gang of at least eight suspected smugglers.
It was after this incident that it became mandatory for forest officers to inform the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Special Task Force, set up in January 2014, before setting off into the forests.
Deputy Range Officer P Ramana miraculously survived the December 2013 attack. “I was a deputy forest officer then. We generally receive tip-offs from our informants and the general public about suspicious movements. These people are not naïve woodcutters. They are hardcore criminals. They can kill anyone to make good their escape. A woodcutter gets Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 a day for cutting red sanders and carrying the logs to a safe location. That’s good money so they stop at nothing,” says Ramana from his forest office in Tirupati.
That day, he says, Sridhar, Karunakar and he acted on a tip-off and entered the forests. The minute they spotted a woodcutter, he signalled to the others with high-pitched whistles and shouts and “within seconds”, he says, a mob of 150 to 200 started raining stones and sticks on them. “The attack was so ferocious that we hardly had any time to react. A stone hit me on my head and I fell unconscious. They left me for dead and dragged away Sridhar and David and lynched them. These people are dangerous. On several occasions, we have survived only because we managed to run to the jeep and drive away in the nick of time,’’ he says.
“Some of the woodcutters carry small country-made arms and they are not afraid if you aim your pistol at them. Recently, a sub-inspector flagged down a truck carrying red sanders logs. The policeman had his revolver drawn, but the driver whipped out an axe and hit him on his hand, nearly chopping off the officer’s wrist. He then sped away,’’ Ramana says.
“This is like Veerappan’s operation; only much more massive,” says a legal exporter of sandalwood who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The supply and delivery chains are the same — the woodcutters, the contractors who hire them, the transport network, the agents…” says the exporter who runs his business from Tirupati and Visakhapatnam, sending out sandalwood rosary beads to Southeast Asian countries.
“But in size and scale, this is a gigantic operation and no one can even come close to guessing the amount of money involved in this. For instance, in September 2014, the Coast Guard seized a consignment of red sanders off the Mumbai coast from a barge that was going to deliver the logs to a ship waiting in the high seas. This barge had, in fact, reached Mumbai from the Veraval fishing harbour in Gujarat. So, to hoodwink officials, the red sanders felled somewhere in Chittoor or Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh was transported to Veraval, a small harbour some 3,000 km away, and then sent by sea to Mumbai. Imagine the number of checkpoints these trucks must have passed through — of the forest department, transport, commercial tax and police. The documents and invoices of these trucks will show them to be transporting bananas or vegetables but deep under, there will be logs of red sanders,’’ he says.
In recent years, several ring leaders camping in Kadapa have been arrested under the Andhra Pradesh Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Dacoits, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders and Land Grabbers Act. Some time ago, the Kadapa district police nabbed two Nepalese nationals, Chennai-based red sanders smuggler Markandeyan Lakshmanan and two agents Andala Ramudu and Kanti Easwaraiah of Mydukur in Andhra. A Czech 7.65 mm pistol, a country-made revolver, SIM cards from Nepal, and red sanders logs were seized from them.
“But the smuggling never stops. If one batch of woodcutters is arrested, another batch is ready. If one agent is arrested, 10 others are ready to take his place,’’ says a forest official in Tirupati.