A law creates an outlaw

  • 14/09/2000

Killer, brigand, elephant poacher, sandalwood smuggler, forest goon, Call him what you will but Veerappan - the grandson of a Mettur Dam oustee remains a creature of the law. The media has discussed the abduction of Kannada thespian Rajkumar by the brigand Veerappan ad nauseum but it has missed a key dimension of the problem: the role that forest laws have played in the creation of a robber like him who the state has failed to catch for more than 20 years? Sandalwood and elephant are valuable natural resources and with the state nationalising them the people have been forced to become robbers in their own land, giving Veerappan a free run. Veerappan's wild country today co-exists with India's most prominent, modern dotcom country, the irony of which has not escaped many except possibly our natural resource managers who continue to live with archaic laws.

Various figures are bandied around. But broadly speaking, Veerappan has killed over 130 people, including 32 policepersons and 10 foresters, shot some 2,000 tuskers and smuggled out up to Rs 100 crore of ivory and another Rs 100 crore of sandalwood. Veerappan has been extremely agile in changing occupations with the depredation of natural resources taking place at his own behest. Once there were very few large tuskers left in the 6,000 sq km Satyamangalam-Basrgur-Kollegal forest area of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka - one of the best conservation areas for the Asian elephant where the male-female ratio dropped from 1:5 in 1967 to 1:8 in 1995, according to the Bangalore-based Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre - Veerappan turned his attention to sandalwood. The brigand's activities encouraged such a large-scale destruction of sandalwood that not only has there been enormous genetic erosion of sandalwood species, sandalwood itself may now become a thing of the past. A small suitcase with 10 kg of sandalwood would today bring Rs 5,000-6,000. Veerappan has been joined by the local people in ransacking the tree - alienated as they are by forest laws and who do not benefit from any anti-poverty programme. Most adult trees have gone and only baby trees are left which may not be able to pollinate and develop a future forest. Just as the size of tusks now seized by government officials have fallen from 30 kg to 9.5 kg today, the size of sandalwood logs too has fallen, indicating the effect of the Veerappan phenomenon. With sandalwood resources also getting depleted, Veerappan has turned to extortion from quarry owners and has now got involved with the 'politically alienated' of Tamil Nadu.

But how and why has all this happened? Very few know that state governments have the right to nationalise specific trees. This action is undertaken to conserve forests but the trees that are nationalised are invariably high-value trees. In other words the legal brigand, namely, the government, undertakes this exercise with impunity to earn money itself rather than let the money from these trees go to the people. Usually, the law prohibits a person from felling a nationalised tree, even if it is growing on one's own land without prior permission from the government. As poor people cannot deal with the government, this legal provision leads to a rip-roaring business for touts, who neither care for the poor nor for the trees. Often more trees are felled than necessary with the connivance of government officials and yet the owner remains poor. It is this legal provision that led to the recent Bastar scam in Madhya Pradesh under which a lot of private trees owned by tribal folk, were felled unnecessarily. And the general alienation caused by the forest laws has brought large tracts of forest areas under the influence of militant groups like the People's War Group. So it is not just Veerappan who has taken advantage of the 'environmentally alienated'.

Sandalwood provisions are even worse. Even if a tree is growing in private land, it belongs to the government. A farmer has to inform the authorities but remains responsible for the care of the tree. If there is a theft or a tree dies the farmer is expected to report the matter and is usually considered the prime suspect. And when the government decides to fell it, the farmer gets 75 per cent of a price determined by the forest department which can be one-fourth of the market price and that too after a long delay. So any farmer who sees sandalwood growing on his land immediately plucks out the sapling to save himself from government harassment. As a result there are no sandalwood trees left outside forests. And, in the forests themselves, as the government does not share the proceeds of sandalwood with the people, the villagers love Veerappan who gives them the cover to sell the valuable wood. Both in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, recorded sandalwood offences have increased dramatically. Today, sandalwood, which otherwise grows wild cannot be found either in the forest or outside the forest - a wood which would provide hundreds of crore every year on a sustainable basis.

The same applied to the elephant - extremely valuable for its ivory. The animal is a real pest for farmers as it can cause immense destruction to crops apart from life and property. Unlike the governments of southern Africa, no effort has been made by our forest and wildlife administration to ensure that some economic benefits from the elephant accrues to the local people. The elephant is only a nuisance for them. Between 1989 and 1995, according to newspaper reports, some 41.6 tonnes of ivory, currently valued at about Rs 62.5 crore in the international market, was seized by Indian authorities. Just imagine if only a fraction of this money went to the local communities, how zealously they would protect the elephant, and this itself is only a fraction of the ivory that has been smuggled out of the country. The result is that the environmentally-alienated people are very happy to sup

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