It looks straight out of a treasure-hunt movie – there is rumble in the wood, some ‘precious gem stones’, and an elusive gang.
On December 1, forest officials in Kerala were alerted to a suspected illegal gemstone mining activity, near Manachala, in the Palode forest range in Thiruvananthapuram district.
(Palode is 32km from Thiruvananthapuram Central and is on the foothills of the southern end of the Western Ghats. There are many places of attraction for tourists, trekkers, and nature-lovers in the vicinity of Palode, like Ponmudi, Mankayam, Braimore, Bonacaud, Vazhuvanthol, etc. There are roads to these places now but local trekkers and foresters know exhilarating forest trails that connect these places).
A Forest Department camp shed, the lone one inside this part of the dense forest, had been vacant for many days due to inclement weather. When officials finally arrived at the location, they found a deep trench, remains of a campfire, and empty alcohol bottles. “It was a repeat of 2014,” said a forest official, recollecting a similar attempt seven years ago when nine persons were arrested.
Now, almost a month after investigation by the police and the Forest Department, not a single arrest has been made.
Gemstone miners try their luck inside such forests, mostly on hearsay that they could hit such treasure buried in the rocks.
Accessing the camp shed is no easy task. First, there is a 3-km, off-road jeep drive from the Braimore estate. From there, it is an arduous trek up a difficult and precipitous terrain, marked by deep gorges and edges which roll out to a sheer descent.
D K Murali, MLA, who visited the location, said the investigation must find out the culprits and those extending support to the operations by sourcing explosives used in the mining. “Apart from Braimore, people could access the location from Ponmudi and Chennellimoodu. But all tracks pass near the Manachala camp shed. The site is surrounded by huge rocks on three sides. The lone entry is very steep,” he said.
Pashchimaghatta Jaiva Kalavara Paripalana Samiti chairman Nisar Muhammed Zulphi said that no one could reach the location without the support of forest employees. “In 2014, a gang tried their luck to mine gemstones from the location. It is said that they were nabbed just as they were about to lay hands on it. So, others, who know this, are persistently trying,” he said.
For a long time, there has been many stories about the presence of gemstones in the forest ranges in the region. People believe that there could be stones like cat’s eye, locally known as Vaidooryam.
In 2014, when the nine were nabbed, the Palode police also registered a case under the Explosives Act and the trial is still underway.
Officials of both the departments say there is no scientific basis to the reports on the presence of precious stones.
The police had questioned eight people and their statements were being verified. The Cyber Cell has also been roped in. The location has scant or no mobile coverage but investigators hope they could identify numbers on the peripheral towers that look suspicious. Sources said the investigation was also centered around the gang which carried out the 2014 operation.
Circle Inspector, Palode, C K Manoj said the mining was done ‘much before’ it came to the notice of officials. “From our investigation, we assume that it began over a year ago. We have questioned suspects and recorded the statements of forest officials on duty at that time. The cyber cell is reviewing the call details,” he officer said.
He said a case had been registered for the use of explosives. “They do not seem to have used any heavy machinery, as the area was difficult to access and there is no power supply. Apart from explosives, they could have used a pump set to drain water out of the pit,” he said.
Forest Minister A K Saseendran said a special investigation team of the forest department was investigating. “Currently, the investigation is centred around the 2014 gang. We will also check any links to forest officials. Strict action will be taken if we get any such evidence,” he said.
The minister said a decision on enhancing security in the region would be taken on the basis of the outcome of the investigation.
A forest official said the investigation was on track. He denied reports that the watcher at the camp shed was shifted to facilitate the illegal mining. “There were warnings of heavy rainfall. People were shifted from landslide-prone areas. We shifted our staff based on that report,” he said.
The Forest Department has registered a case under section 27 of the Kerala Forest Act (Penalties for trespass or damage in reserved forests).
(Jisha Surya is an independent journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram.)