In one of the biggest sandalwood smuggling busts in Kerala's history, 853 kg of sandalwood worth over Rs 2 crore was seized from Kasaragod district on Tuesday. The sandalwood was seized from vehicles that were parked at a house close to the District Collector’s and the Police Commissioner’s residences in Naimarmoola.
Early that morning, around 4.30 am, the Collector’s driver and gunman heard some noises from the neighbouring house. When they checked, they saw a number of sacks had been loaded into a secret chamber of the truck. The Collector was informed, following which forest officials and police raided the house and found the sandalwood in a truck and three cars. The District Forest Officer and Collector also visited the scene.
The owner of the house, Abdul Khader, is absconding. Three others, who were seen loading the sacks, also ran away after seeing officials.
"This may be the biggest bust in Kerala. So far we haven't gotten such a huge quantity from the district. We have earlier seized 100 to 200 kg of sandalwood," DFO Anoopkumar told TNM, noting that the sandalwood was worth over Rs 2 crore.
He added that in many cases, only the driver of the vehicle or the last person in the smuggling chain would be caught. "We may not know to whom the wood was being handed over and who all are involved," he said. Police will also inquire whether others were involved in the case.
Kasaragod District Collector D Saith Babu told the media, “We found that there were 29 sacks of sandalwood in a secret chamber in the truck. The DFO has informed us that of the 10 classifications of sandalwood, the seized products belongs to the top class.”
Fatima, a 60-year-old who lives in Vidyanagar, close to the Collectorate, was surprised when a sandalwood tree in her compound disappeared one morning a few years ago. "It was a young tree and still somebody took it away. Forest officials came here and asked, but I had no clue," she says.
Many with sandalwood trees in their compounds had similar experiences. "In our housing colony, everyone had a tree in their compound. We also had government land with more than five trees in it. In the last 20 years, they disappeared one by one. Now, not even one tree in the colony remains," a school teacher from the district said.
The Forest department may not even be aware of some disappearances as people don’t always report cases.
"Many people here have sandalwood factories in Goa, Karnataka and in some parts of Maharashtra. Earlier, a major portion of material in those factories was smuggled sandalwood. But now it has reduced. Earlier we would find sandalwood trees everywhere in the district but now it's extremely difficult to find them," a local political leader told TNM.
A forest officer, who sought anonymity, told TNM that people even cut a young tree for its roots to sell at a lower cost.
"Young trees are not worth it and they won't get much money. But there are cases where people cut young trees for just Rs 5,000. Many times, we are surprised at the disappearance of very small sandalwood trees. We have a feeling that whoever does this may not be a smuggler, but they merely cut and sell whenever they see a sandalwood tree. There are many incidents in the district. Sometimes we cannot even take cases," the officer added.
Agreeing with the officer, Mammu*, a daily wage worker who lives in Vidyanagar, said that he had sold two sandalwood trees.
"I once cut a tree from the colony I lived in. It was a young tree and it was easy to cut. It was many years ago and I got around Rs 10,000 then. Young trees are cut because it is easy to handle, and nobody will find out. Another tree, two friends and I stole from government land a few years ago. For that, we got a good amount," he said.
Another person, who is a middleman in sandalwood smuggling, told TNM that in many dealings, there are many people involved, and that it works like a chain.
"There will be people who spot the tree and cut them. There are others who buy and resell them. It works as a chain. In any way for the buyer, smuggled wood will be profitable. We also get a good quantity of wood from other districts too. From Marayur, also we bring a large quantity of wood to our factories outside the state. If you take up the smuggling cases many of them, you will have an accused from Kasaragod," he said.
* Name changed