The Foul Forest - Final part | Scent of Marayur lures in smugglers from across the borders

(This is the final part of 'The Foul Forest' series. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4)

Though most of the sandalwood smugglers operating out of the Marayur forest are Tamil Nadu natives, they are just pawns in a larger game. The masterminds of the racket can mostly be traced to northern Kerala, sources in the Forest Department said.

These rackets have set up sandalwood factories across the state borders after the Kerala government closed down private sandalwood factories in the state in 2005. The factory owners were hit by a blight that wiped off most of the sandalwood trees in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Naturally, they set their eyes on Marayur, which is famed for the largest collection of high-quality sandalwood trees. Andhra Pradesh has acres of sandalwood trees, but they belong to another species with a blood-red hue.

The Kerala Forest Department regularly busts sandalwood smuggling operations led by gangs in Kerala. Divisional Forest Officer Ranjith said that the department acted on an intelligence tipoff to intercept a band of smugglers in 2018. The officers were surprised to learn that they had stumbled on a bigger catch when they inspected the documents seized from the smugglers. The gang from the Malappuram district was also involved in gold and currency smuggling. The bank accounts seized from the gang revealed that they had transferred Rs 49,000 to a youngster in Palapetty tribal hamlet over three days.

That transaction was a red flag. Why would someone from Malappuram district send so much money to a person in a remote colony in the Idukki district? The Forest Department zeroed in on the ATM from which the money was sent but the sender’s face was not clearly visible in the surveillance footage. During the follow-up investigation, the officers realized that money was sent to the same account from the bank directly. The signature on the deposit slip revealed that the same person had an account in the bank.

The Palappetty Camp Shed, a temporary office of the Forest Department.

The department zeroed in on a 19-year-old man, the son of an infamous smuggler who had earlier been arrested for smuggling sandalwood from Andhra Pradesh. The officers monitored the suspects closely and found out that the sandalwood is being smuggled out to Andhra Pradesh. They identified a sandalwood factory in Andhra’s Chittoor district. About 20 armed forest officers reached the Vellore forest station on the Andhra-Tamil Nadu border. They were in contact with the Chittoor Divisional Forest Officer.

The Divisional Forest Officer was sympathetic to the Kerala officers camping in Vellore, yet the field officers were not ready to cooperate with them. They refused Kerala officers’ request to raid the factory the same night. The Kerala officers stood watch around the factory because they suspected that the sandalwood may be shifted from there overnight. They had credible information that the factory was housing sandalwood smuggled out of Kerala.

The next day, only one officer from the Andhra Forest Department turned up for examination. They were in for a surprise when they forced open the factory, which had stayed shut for a long time. The factory’s 2,000-kilogram boiler was huge in size compared to Marayur’s government factory which had a capacity of only 250 kilograms.

Local officers in Andhra, however, maintained that the factory was working well within legal regulations. The factory manager produced some documents but the inventory report and the actual stock did not match. The owner was found to be a Kerala native. He was absconding.

Experts can easily identify the sandalwood stock from Marayur because it is of top quality. Sandalwood timber with such density cannot be easily found anywhere else. The officers even recovered a sandalwood stub stolen from Marayur a few years earlier. That was enough to call the bluff of the Andhra forest officers.

The sandalwood depot at Marayur.

Though the Kerala team recovered the stolen consignments, they could not transport them back to the state because of stringent regulations governing the transport of sandalwood logs across state borders. The contraband has been kept for safe keep with the Andhra Forest Department. Efforts are on to get it back to Kerala.

The Kerala Forest Department takes stock of the sandalwood trees in Marayur every three years. The last census was conducted in 2019. There were 59,784 trees by the last count. Any sandalwood tree cut in Kerala, either in government land or private property, is stored at the sandalwood depot in Marayur, the only one of its kind in the state.

Sandalwood is measured by weight, unlike other timber types which are measured by volume. If a metre-long log weighs more than 5 kilograms, it is classified as first-grade, named Vilayat Buddha.

Even if the log weighs 5 kilograms, it is classified as the second-grade China Buddha if the timber has cracks or fissures in it. Logs weighing 2 kilograms are third-grade Panjam. There are 15 categories of sandalwood logs in total. Even the sandalwood bark costs Rs 205 per kilogram. The bark and the flesh cover are used by Ayurveda firms to make medicines.

There is no time limit to cutting sandalwood trees. Dried trees as well as those uprooted by the elements or wild animals end up in the sandalwood depot. The logs are classified into separate categories in the depot before cutting them up into one-metre-long pieces and polished. The job is done by skilled artisans because no part of the precious tree can be allowed to go to waste.

The top two categories of sandalwood are handled by extremely experienced artisans. Only those who have gained experience in handling lesser types of sandalwood are permitted to cut up and polish the pricier ones. The cut and polished logs are numbered and kept inside the depot, which is closely guarded. There are surveillance cameras around the brightly lit-up depot. The Forest Department auctions off the stock every year. Buyers come from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa and even West Bengal.

The largest buyer is the Mysore Sandals of Karnataka. Some of the temples in Kerala also participate in the sandalwood auction. The Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayur is supplied 5 tons of sandals every year without taking part in the auction.

The sandalwood trees of Marayur are also prized for their oil content. Every 100 kilograms of timber yield up to 8 kilograms of sandalwood oil when distilled. The yield from the same quantity of sandalwood trees that grow in Karnataka is hardly 3 kilograms. A kilogram of sandalwood oil costs about Rs 3 lakh.

Many people think that the cultivation of sandalwood trees is illegal as only the government can do so. The forest department says it is not correct and anyone is free to grow sandalwood trees on their property.

However, private persons need permission from the forest department to cut down the trees on their property. The Forest Department will go to the plot from where the tree is required to be cut. The officers will follow the procedures before cutting the tree and taking it to the depot in Marayur. The owner will be rewarded with money if their land is free of liabilities. The owner will not be paid if the land had been granted by the government. An officer not below the rank of the tehsildar has to certify that the land had not been granted to the person in question. Any deserving person will be paid a sum after deducting the transport cost and processing cost.

If any private persons cut down sandalwood trees on their property without informing the forest department, they will have to face legal proceedings. The Forest Department considers the tree as a gift for the next generation. There had been instances when someone in Marayur received Rs 98 lakh for a sandalwood tree on his property. When a senior IAS officer handed over a small sandalwood tree in her property, she received Rs 9,500.

Though the Marayur Forest Division sells sandalwood saplings, very few turn up to buy them. Most of the buyers are from outside the state. The department sold 2,500 kilograms of sandalwood saplings last year. Saplings are being planted in Marayur for two years. As many as 4,800 trees were planted last year.

The lure of the sandalwood has given Marayur an aura of mafia operations. Since we started publishing this series, the Forest Department recovered the body of a sandalwood smuggler from a gorge in the forest. He was traced back to Tamil Nadu. The department came across a second body after that – that of Madhavan, an accused in an excise case registered by the Forest Department.

(The series ends)

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