Indra betrays no sign of her disturbing past. The 39-year-old indigenous woman who lives in the tribal colony of Palapetty inside the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary had been involved with sandalwood smuggling on two occasions.
She has put the past behind her but she would never reveal the names of the people she had worked for. In Marayur’s sandalwood shades, breach of trust can be fatal. It’s classic mafia.
Indra used to work as a carrier for the smugglers. She would carry the logs on her head through kilometres of forest paths in the middle of the night for a paltry reward of Rs 200. The load she carried would fetch her employers lakhs of rupees.
Indra said that she was driven to the dangerous vocation by extreme poverty. There was no means of livelihood in the tribal hamlet tucked inside the forest. The only source of work was provided by the middlemen who eyed the sandalwood trees encircling the settlement.
Indra said that many other members of her community were also involved in smuggling when she was active in the trade. There was a time when some women in the colony tied up a forest guard who tried to thwart smuggling. They even threatened him at knifepoint.
Indra eventually distanced herself from the illegal trade. Her older son, Karthik, however, fell prey to the racket. He committed suicide after he was taken into custody in connection with a smuggling case.
Karthik was hired by the Forest Department as a temporary watcher as part of a programme to wean tribal youth away from smuggling by giving them jobs. He served the department well and earned a reputation for being a loyal worker. A few years later, however, he was lured back into the world of smuggling.
Karthik was recruited by Binu Kumar aka ‘Mini Veerappan’, the local kingpin of sandal smuggling. The plan was to sneak out 400 kilograms of sandalwood from Marayur. Karthik agreed to help Binu Kumar for Rs 3,000. The gang cut down the trees and stored the logs in a farm land.
The Forest Department eventually got on the trail. Karthik was exposed as an accomplice. He was arrested and fired from the job. Six months later, he committed suicide.
Indra sent her younger son away from Marayur. “I want to give him an education as far as I can. I do not want to see anyone else enter this trade,” she said.
Indra nowadays ekes out a living through the government employment guarantee scheme. Forest dwellers like her turn to smuggling for want of education and employment. They are vulnerable to the ploys of middlemen. They can expect to be paid a meagre amount if they provided ground support to the poachers. Sometimes, all they get is an old mobile phone or a motorcycle.
The exploitation of the indigenous tribe by ruthless smugglers prompted the Forest Department to have a rethink of their strategies to counter smuggling.
The establishment of the Marayur Sandal Division by the Forest Department in 2005 was a game changer. The division is split into two ranges – Marayur and Kanthallur. Four forest stations – Nachivel, Marayur, Kanthallur and Vannanthura – were formed under the ranges. The presence of a larger contingent of forest officers made things more difficult for the loggers.
The Forest Department also offered employment opportunities to the forest dwellers to discourage them from falling for the promises of the loggers. The Forest Department employed forest dwellers as temporary watchers in a bid to prevent their drifting to low-paying crime. The colony residents found a lifeline in the job offers. If they work for a full month, they are paid Rs 18,000 to Rs 19,000, divisional forest officer Ranjith said. The others are paid in accordance with the hours they put in. The officer said that no other forest range could match the wages offered by Marayur. There are 40 watchers from the 64 families in the Palapetty colony.
Many of the watchers guarding the sandalwood trees near the Vannanthura forest station are residents of the tribal colony. They have put up makeshift sheds in all areas with sandalwood concentration. They have prepared facilities for extended stays, including sheds to cook food.
Two of them man each of the sheds. They are responsible for an area that corresponds to roughly 200 sandalwood trees. They roam from one outpost to another throughout the night, making sure that no one touches the precious trees. They never take an off day, even walking around from 6pm to 6am on rainy nights.
The beat officers of the Forest Department have a hard job to do. They have to trek 5 kilometres through the forest to go from Vannanthura to Palapetty. They are armed only with their batons when they are required to stand up to gun-toting poachers.
They work without an off day. They have to handle any type of crisis situation, including wildfires. There may be situations when they have just managed a situation and called into to contain the next.
The Forest Department has a small building near the Palapetty colony, where five officers guard the surroundings. A batch of five officers spend a week in the forest outpost. They are relieved when the next batch takes over. They are stuck in this wilderness for a week, with patchy mobile phone coverage.
Even the permanent officers do not carry firearms for fear of a Maoist raid. They are only armed with their confidence and courage. Their efforts have paid off. Only 13 sandalwood theft cases have been reported last year from an area which lost more than 2,000 trees in 2005. They, however, know very well that there is no room for complacency. Smugglers are keeping a close watch for any weakness on the part of the officers.
Marayur is hardly a favourite place for officers to work, even though an assignment to this difficult terrain comes with a 10 percent allowance. Even though field officers can be transferred after a year, very few of them opt for Marayur.
Beat forest officers are recruited at the district level. Even though they are Idukki natives, some of them have never worked in Marayur. The Forest Department relies on the commitment of young officers who volunteer to work in Marayur. That workforce includes women officers too.
(To be continued…)