Barring the scale, the encounter killing of 20 red sanders “smugglers” in Andhra Pradesh has not come as a surprise to those watching the illegal industry. Since 2011, such encounters and operations have killed 11 and led to the detention of more than 2,000 — all tribal woodcutters hired by mafia agents from Tamil Nadu.
The timing of the operations reveals a pattern. In 2014, a multi-organisation team led by National Campaign for Denotified Tribes Human Rights (NCDNTHR) probed such killings and detentions and observed:
* If arrested, the local rich in the smuggling racket are sent to the Rajahmundry central prison, so that they could get bail easily, while the majority of the poor tribal woodcutters are booked under the charges of murder or attempted murder.
* Fortune of rival smuggling groups depends on changing political equations, and targeted killings of tribal labourers of a rival smuggling group through the STF by the dominant group are meant to destroy the opponent’s supply base among Tamil tribals who are hired for felling and carrying red sanders.
“Most of those killed are Vanniyars, a denotified tribe at the bottom of the social hierarchy, while the majority of those detained belong to other tribes. About 300 of them are still in jail since last April,” said Hyderabad-based M Subba Rao, NCDNTHR national convener.
In the name of cracking down on smugglers, say insiders, the politically powerful gangs of the day have taken out members, usually tribal recruits at the lowest rung, of the rival groups. Indeed, red sanders encounters do seem to have been timed with shifts in the state’s political equations since 2011. Consider these:
* A Tamil labourer, named Varadi, was killed in an allegedly fake encounter during the tenure of forest minister Peddireddy Rama Chandra Reddy in 2011.
* After the resignation of Peddireddy in November 2012, another labourer from Tamil Nadu, Murugan, was killed in December 2012.
* Another, named Sambarian Mani, was killed in January 2014, weeks before Kiran Kumar Reddy resigned as chief minister.
* Days before Chandrababu Naidu became chief minister, Vijaykanth, Venkatesh and Siva — all below 25, belonging to denotified tribes and neighbours in an interior village near Javadi hills of Tamil Nadu — were killed in May 2014.
* Another five were killed in the forests of Chittoor and Kadapa districts between June 21 and August 6, 2014.
* Subsequently about 2,000 Tamils were arrested from railway stations and bus stands — rather than crime spots — and branded smugglers and kept in various jails in Nellore, Chittoor and Kadapa districts. Two of them died.
* Last year, the Nellore district jail had about 440 booked in the red sanders case, and of them 236 were booked on the charges of murder and the remaining for attempted murder.
“These tribal woodcutters from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai, Salem, Dharamapuri and Villupuram districts traditionally worked in coffee estates and also in sugarcane fields before they were lured by red sander smugglers and their agents. We need independent inquiries into these killings,” said S Anna Durai, Tamil Nadu convener of NCDNTHR.
According to the 2014 report, red sanders smuggling involves four layers of operation. Tribal woodcutters and local carriers/loaders belong to the first rung. At the second stage, transporters operate in connivance with the forest and police departments. Next are the exporters who take it out of the country. At the fourth level are the managers who oversee everything from recruitment to negotiation and report to the political kingpin.
While the woodcutters rarely make more than Rs 10,000 per tree (average 200 kg), the booty fetches between Rs 40-60 lakh per tonne abroad. Last November, the state government earned Rs 1,000 crore by auctioning a huge cache of confiscated red sanders.
A second auction of 3,500 tonnes will be notified soon.
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