Wood for scandal

  • 14/05/1999

Before bowing out of power, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre lifted a seven-year-old ban on the export of sandalwood from Tamil Nadu. The Centre's decision followed an appeal by Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on January 16. The Centre had banned the export of sandalwood in 1992, resulting in 6,000 tonnes of sandalwood being stockpiled in forest department warehouses.

While it is good of the Centre to have permitted the southern state to gainfully use its natural resources, it is time it also went in for a rethink on government controls upon trade in sandalwood.

There are valid reasons for lifting government controls on the sandalwood trade. The tree grows like a weed in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Yet, it is difficult to find a single sandalwood tree. If they spot a sandalwood sapling in their fields, landowners uproot it immediately, rather than let it grow, even though sandalwood is very expensive and can fetch good money for landholders.

Why do landowners resort to this drastic step? Because if they do not uproot the tree, they get caught in a double whammy. On one hand is the law. On the other are the outlaws who trade in sandalwood. The most dreaded of these outlaws is Veerappan, and government policy is the source of his power.

If the tree grows to maturity, the farmer is bound by law to protect it with his/her life. If an outlaw chops it down, the law will hold the landowner accountable. Landowners will require human-power and firearms to protect the tree from the outlaw, which they do not have. As a result, they will have no option but to die trying to protect the tree. The easy way out, therefore, is to uproot the sapling.

As a result, sandalwood remains in short supply. But the government's pricing mechanism does not take the law of supply and demand into consideration. The government buys sandalwood at an absurdly

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