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India is used to violent interactions between its authorities and suspected criminals, so much so that we have a word for it: encounters. But even with this familiarity with encounters, the news on Tuesday was startling. Special Task Forces in Andhra Pradesh shot dead 20 woodcutters allegedly hired by smugglers of red sandalwood, the highest toll in a single encounter in the history of red sandalwood smuggling.
The news, which has shocked the region and created political waves across two states, is a reminder of an illicit high-stakes trade plaguing the forests of Andhra Pradesh with an impact that is felt on the other side of the world, in Japan and China.
Early on Tuesday morning, special forces from Andhra Pradesh tasked with cracking down on the woodcutting trade were carrying out combing operations in the Sheshachalam forest area after getting a tip-off about smugglers in the region.
“As soon as they saw police, at least 150 to 200 labourers hired by the smugglers rained stones, shot arrows and threw sticks and iron roads,” Task Force Director Inspector General M Kanta Rao told the Indian Express. “They hid behind boulders and attacked. At least eight of our forest officials were injured and the Task Force opened fire in self defence and at least 20 were killed. They are all hired daily wagers from Tamil Nadu. They were camping here since yesterday evening, we believe.”
The woodcutters were allegedly in the pay of smugglers looking to illegally sell red sandalwood, often referred to as red sanders, one of the “most valuable tree species in Indian forestry.” Red sanders has been endangered species since being put on the list in 2000, after which the government banned the cutting, movement, sale or exports of the wood. There is, however, little actual domestic demand for red sanders. Almost all the smuggled red sanders that is intercepted by authorities is headed outside the country.
“The species has negligible utilisation within the country mainly in Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia and some times for making small toys,” the Environment Ministry says. “The species has virtually no domestic demand for constructional or furniture use… The extent of the range of end uses for the timber is not fully clear and hence it is difficult to determine as to which sector of demand is fuelling the illegal trade.”
But the government, and other researchers have a few ideas about where the wood might be going, chief among them being the Far East. “In the 1930s, Japan commenced to import Indian Red Sanders for the manufacture of the traditional ‘Shamishen’ musical instrument and this market remains important today at a level of several hundred tonnes per annum,” writes S Vedavathy, a researcher studying the value of tribal medicinal plants. “Demand by Japan for wavy grain quality timber resulted in significant illegal destructive exploitation of the wild resources in 1950s and 1960s.”
Besides Japan, China as well as a number of other countries in the East are known to import red sanders, for use in woodcraft as well as for medicinal purposes. There have even been rumours that the wood is useful to contain radiation in nuclear reactors. All of these uses mean the prices of red sanders on the international market can run into huge numbers, upto Rs 50 lakh-Rs 80 lakh per tonne.
And this leads to trouble at home, in India. For one, it means smugglers are willing to go to dangerous lengths to get the material out of the country. In 2013, two Andhra Pradesh forest rangers were killed by smugglers in the same area as Tuesday’s encounter, which led to the creation of the special task force to fight this smuggling. Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is said to believe that a Naxal attack that targeted him in 2009 was allegedly funded by red sanders smuggling. As a result, he has attempted to crack down on the illegal trade in a big way.
Since the incident in 2013, the new task force has arrested 1,000s of people, seized tens of thousands of the smuggled wood, and has frequently been involved in violent incidents.
But this adds a further complication to the issue. Most of those actually doing the cutting come from across the border in Tamil Nadu because of the lack of employment opportunities there. The smugglers themselves, as well as the people tasked with taking the wood across the border are often from various parts of the country, but those right on the forefront – like the woodcutters who were killed on Tuesday – end up being poor Tamilian labourers.
“This is a problem of forest management, coupled with smuggling mafia taking over the supply of wood, so that, a national resource becoming a source of making billions by a few upper caste and high profile criminals, controlling the political situation,” wrote an organisation devoted to denotified tribes, in Tamil Nadu. “Poor and hapless Tamil DNT tree cutters becoming scapegoats in the whole process,accused as smugglers by the media, killed in fake encounters and detained in the jails over the last six months, for settling scores between the ruling and opposition.”
As a result, events like Tuesday’s encounter inevitably turn into political footballs, with Andhra Pradesh simply claiming that it is cracking down on crime, while Tamil Nadu insists that the Andhra authorities are needlessly shooting Tamilians. “Big smuggling sharks escape and it is the poor who have been killed,” said Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief Vaiko, demanding action be taken against Andhra Pradesh authorities for having killed the alleged woodcutters.
The result is further tensions along the Tamil-Andhra border, lessening the likelihood of the Task Forces efforts actually being successful. The police on the Tamil side are said to be involved with the smugglers, even as Andhra attempts to crack down on the highly lucrative dangerous trade.
Above all of this, there is also the question of ecological damage being done by smugglers to an endangered species that only grows in a certain part of the country, and the way this has affected the lives of those living alongside. Tuesday’s encounter may have been particularly brutal, but, considering the impact the red sanders trade has had on all those in the region, it certainly wasn’t an outlier.