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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The timber scam by communist government in Kerala needs to be investigated thoroughly

The Wayanad Muttil timber felling and smuggling controversy emerged from Wayanad earlier this year, where hundreds of centuries-old trees were ruthlessly cut down for commercial gains. In September 2020, a circular was issued by the Revenue Minister of Kerala that allowed the felling of all trees except sandalwood on revenue land allotted to ‘farmers’. Even though several cases were pending before the High Court in this regard, it was implemented hurriedly in October 2020. 

The new circular specifically mentioned that any government or private interference while cutting or transporting endangered trees would be punishable! It also smartly removed trees like teak, rosewood etc from the banned list! This meant that no permission was needed to cut them and strict action would be taken against anyone who objected to the cutting of these trees. 

The current crop of “farmers” are descendants of land encroachers who were given forest land under the guise of land reforms in the 1960s. They were not allowed to sell or pledge such lands for 25 years. The time limit was later diluted to 12. The timber mafia soon zeroed in on them.

The current order vaguely says that trees that were either planted by the farmer or the ones that were born on their own can now be felled in all such revenue lands. This was done to avoid any liability on the part of the lawmakers and instead blame the officials and implementation as and when this issue snowballs into a controversy.

For commercial purposes, a teak wood tree should be at least 150 years old to make it worthwhile. This also means that those that were felled were born several generations before ours and there is no way they were planted after 1960 when the laws were introduced. This puts the onus of the crimes on the actual farmers who own the land from where it was cut.

Strict customs vigil meant that the bulk smuggling of gold using diplomatic channels had all but dried up and local body/ assembly polls were both scheduled within 6 months. Anywhere around the world, such election times are when security is at its lowest and are good times for smugglers and the mafia. 

We now know that some officials, a few select citizens, and the mafia illegally used this government order as cover, felled 2400 huge centuries-old timber trees in 9 out of the 14 districts. Though such trees are the monopoly of the government, there are laws to protect them and there are forest conservators appointed to prevent exactly these kinds of exploitations. It was felled mainly in Wayanad and Idukki. 

Kerala has a long and horrible history of invaders reaching its shores in search of teak wood that was then ripped out of the land and exported to many parts of the world for use in shipbuilding. In the current context, this was happening in the ecologically fragile jungles of a state ravaged by floods due to soil erosion from felling exactly these types of trees.

We also know that the forest department too was involved and probably the entire cabinet of ministers since checks and balances in place make such decision-making a sole act, difficult. By January of this year around 100 days after the actual ‘implementation’ of this order, media reports started to emerge of rampant cutting and smuggling of trees. Promptly ‘recovery’ began and the ‘order’ was abruptly withdrawn on February 2nd. 

The same bureaucracy confirmed that they were able to detect only 20% of the loot and estimated losses to the government of 15 crores. When one considers that only around 10% of such legally cut wood goes to the exchequer the monetary losses add up to 150 crores of timber. The logic behind the low tax is that it is for the farmer’s personal use and is also the reason why smuggling continues unabated. The government does not mind since it brings in very little to the exchequer. 

Under the guise of this order, protected rosewood and teak trees were cut and transported when the state was in lockdown. Most of it ended up in Perumbavur and Kannur, the main centres of the local unregulated plywood industry. Lumber is labour intense but when we have enough illegal immigrants working (hidden far away from public view) even a pandemic just does not matter.

The government has to answer a conspiracy angle too. Lockdown around the world produced a labour crisis that led to dwindling timber stocks. Actual stocks around the world started running thin which started affecting their price. What had remained fairly stable over the past few decades started to rise and went from 250 dollars per 1000 board feet in April 2020 to 1000 dollars by September 2020. 

Did the rising price prompt such a decision is anybody’s guess. Astonishingly, it went on to hit 1700 dollars by May this year. There is also speculation that local timber was exported on the sly in containers that usually arrive but go back empty. This would make it an enormous money laundering opportunity, which was allegedly well utilized. This is also why there is a public cry that the Enforcement Directorate should investigate the money trail.

The way in which it was done and the way investigation is now being opposed by the communist cadre is in itself atrocious. A new set of ministers have now taken charge and the sheer volume of new controversies means that huge scandal has been brushed neatly into a corner. Interestingly both the Forest and the Revenue Ministry, back in September last year were being handled by the Communist Party of India (CPI) and not the Communist Party Marxist (CPM). 

Officials who took part in this ‘scheme’ are being treated royally and promoted by their political masters while the ones who opposed are being transferred to other departments like education. When the order was issued, an Additional Secretary in the revenue dept wanting more clarity noted exactly how such an order can be misused. She asked what made prior orders suddenly illegal and pointed out the impossibility of finding whether the trees that were then being planned to be cut were ones existing before 1960 or not. 

Last August she had sent a letter to the Advocate General asking for legal advice. Many such notes were disregarded by the minister involved and suspiciously he did not wait for expert advice. Such officers are now being shifted out of revenue and the above-mentioned lady was transferred to the higher education ministry, last week.

Meanwhile, the divisional forest officer who unearthed the large-scale tree felling incidents in Wayanad was transferred to another forest division. The main witness and a local lumberjack who revealed crucial information now fears for his life.

Cases are also being registered against 500 ‘farmers’, the actual caretakers of those trees, something that should have been a long time ago. District Forest Officers had to remind the government thrice before this was implemented and even now doubts remain. Other than a few middlemen, no one has been arrested. By protecting such criminals we were sending out the wrong signals to the public and our children about environmental issues. It is also amusing to note that cadres of these communist parties often oppose genuine developmental works elsewhere in the country, in the name of saving trees. Their hypocritical silence at this scandal tell a lot about their moral fibre. 

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