The Marayoor forest near the hill station of Munnar in Kerala is that rare thing: a sandalwood reserve. It is the only one in the state, and is home to as many as 58,000 sandalwood trees. Once upon a time, these 'liquid gold' -giving trees weren't hard to spot in the state; they filled the slopes of the Western Ghats in areas such as Attapaddi in Palakkad district, but rapid deforestation has left Kerala with only this sandalwood forest at Marayoor.

In recent times, even this area has come under tremendous pressure. Rampant illegal felling of trees, often with tacit backing from politicians and administrators, has destroyed this delicate and fragrant environment. While the death of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan provided a much-needed reprieve for the forests in neighbouring Tamilnadu and Karnataka, Marayoor faced more axes in the months that followed. Sandalwood factories in the border town of Palakkad which had been operational thanks to the regular supply from the dreaded brigand turned their attention to Kerala's lone sandalwood forest after their supplier was gunned down.

Statistics underline the graveness of the current situation. According to a recent report prepared by a Supreme Court Empowerment Committee (a panel that looks into complaints pertaining to forests, whose recommendations are presented before the apex court) that studied the sandalwood issue, the number of illegally felled trees in Marayoor increased well over 30 times during a period of six years. Thirty-seven trees were illegally cut down in 1997, while the number went up to 49 in 1998, 69 in 1999 and 97 in 2000. In 2001, 352 trees were felled, while in 2002, 1,732 were cut. In 2003, 1,804 trees were chopped down.

The report itself lists the many reasons for these shocking numbers. The sandalwood industry lacks the legal resources necessary to support it - Kerala has 24 sandalwood-oil manufacturing units though it has absolutely no source for the raw material. Many illegal factories, therefore, continue to operate "... with the support of powerful and influential persons of the state", says the report. Just how powerful the nexus between politicians and sandalwood smugglers is can be gauged from a Kerala High Court judgement in February 2005 that indicted the then Kerala forest minister K.P. Vishwanathan. The sandalwood mafia had "direct access" to the minister, the court said, following which he was forced to resign. He has approached the Supreme Court for expunging the remarks, but the shadow cast by that ruling is unlikely to lift anytime soon.

Smugglers and politicians: The unholy nexus

Palakkad has many sandalwood factories, which are often run without the requisite permission. Sandalwood factories are to be set up only after getting a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the forest department, a necessary document for obtaining a license to run the factory. But conducting raids on illegal units has never been a simple affair.

A forest department official, who requested anonymity, remembers an instance two years ago when a raid was conducted on a factory that did not have a valid license. "The minute we reached there, we started getting calls from the forest minister. This was a factory we had sealed earlier, which was still being used to distill sandalwood oil. But we were told not to take any action," he says. Such calls, directing officials not to seal a factory or seize machinery, are commonplace, according to sources in the department. Transfers serve as a powerful weapon to silence officers who don't toe the line, and also serve to sabotage any cleaning-up operation that they had started.

In a famous case, the Palakkad Conservator of Forests Amarnath Shetty was transferred soon after he raided and sealed many factories that were running without valid licenses. He approached the Central Administrative Tribunal and got a stay. It was a case centred on his raids that prompted the harsh judgement about the minister from the High Court. In October 2004, Shetty's team raided and sealed a private factory called the Valayar Rural Industries in Palakkad as illegal sandalwood was found in its premises. Though a couple of guards and watchers were supposed to man the factory, they were apparently bribed and the factory continued to function. In January, a man was nabbed in Idukki carrying illegal sandalwood meant for the factory.

The money tree

The Marayoor reserve forest, which is under the direct control of the government, sprawls across 15 square kilometres, with 58,000 trees. Many acres of private land, on which sandalwood trees grow, surround it. Today, not many trees are to be found in private property. Rules stipulate that trees in private land can be cut down only if the tree is dead or decayed, and that too only with the permission of the forest department. According to forest officials, the department cuts the tree and sells the wood at a public auction and 70 percent of the proceeds are given to the owner. However, as the entire procedure is long-winded - it could take between six to eight months - many prefer to approach sandalwood smugglers, officials add. As a result, the private land is today mostly devoid of sandalwood trees, and the maximum number is to be found in the reserve forest, where illegal felling has been concentrated.

Sandalwood is an expensive commodity and the Marayoor sandalwood more so, as it's rich in oil and thought to have a special fragrance. One kilogramme of sandalwood oil costs about Rs.76,000 at the government market; it takes about 100 kilos of sandalwood to get four kilos of oil.

Sandalwood sells at about Rs.2,000 per kilo at government auctions, though the smuggled variety is sold at around Rs 1,000. It is the relatively simple process of making oil that makes smuggling such an attractive if illegal proposition for factory owners: in less than seven days, sandalwood can be distilled and converted into oil. In the black market, a kilo of oil fetches around Rs.50,000. Compared to the.Rs 5-8 lakh spend in setting up a sandalwood factory, the profits are immense.

The factory manager sent a telegram to the then forest minister to intervene in the case, alleging malpractice by the forest department. The then District Forest Officer of Munnar, Rajan Sehgal, under whom the accused was nabbed, claimed to mediapersons that he received 16 phone calls on his mobile phone from the minister's office while he was interrogating the accused. (Sehgal has since been transferred to a research-based forest department post in Thrissur.)

The accused filed for an anticipatory bail application. While rejecting it, Justice K Padmanabhan Nair said in his judgement, "... the accused have direct access to the minister and they are capable of getting any orders from the government for the mere asking. According to me, that alone is sufficient to refuse the relief of pre-arrest bail to the accused involved… in case anticipatory bail is granted, they will use their political connection to harass the forest officials in whatever manner possible."

P.S. Panicker, who runs Janajagritha, a Palakkad-based non-government organisation that takes up environment and human rights issues, points out that many in the powerful sandalwood mafia finance political parties. Therefore, "The voices against it (the mafia) are feeble," he explains.

Anything but a level playing field

Forest department officials face many obstacles while dealing with sandalwood cases, including those created by their own colleagues. Like the watchers and guards at the Palakkad factory, who willingly shifted allegiance to the mafia for a wad of notes, the few honest officers in the department have to constantly deal with corruption within their own fraternity, as well as people who have no empathy for the very environment they are supposed to protect.

Moreover, the forest department at all times faces a staff shortage, considerably hampering forest security and investigations. Not only has the original sanctioned strength for field staff not been increased since the times the British ruled the country, even this meagre quota is not filled. For instance, 50 percent of the posts in the forest department are lying vacant in the Palakkad sector. Recruitments are usually taken up through the Public Service Commission, which starts the hiring process only after vacancies are reported. As a result, when a position becomes vacant, there is a three-to-four year gap before a replacement is hired.

K Jayakumar, secretary of the Kerala Forest Protective Staff Association secretary, says the forest department is top-heavy, with many forest conservators, but very few people on the field. "There was one chief conservator earlier, but now there are 22. On the other hand, the number of guards hasn't been increased," he says.

The long hand of the mafia

As if a staff shortage wasn't enough of a problem, the sandalwood mafia has time and again proved to have the upper hand when dealing with the forest department. The money involved in smuggling is humungous - Panicker estimates Rs 60 crore of sandalwood is smuggled out of Marayoor every year - and the mafia has few difficulties in hiring people from the local community. In a place where finding jobs is a problem, smuggling offers an illegal alternative; the mafia pays between Rs 500 to Rs 2,500 for tasks such as carrying pieces of sandalwood and cutting trees, or simply to be silent witnesses to the destruction.

In Marayoor, forest guards have been repeatedly attacked at the behest of sandalwood smugglers with an impunity that suggests public support. Two attacks in early February this year were even carried out on the same day: six forest guards were attacked in the morning, while in the evening, a group of people gathered outside the forest department check-post on the Marayoor-Munnar route. The guards who went to check the situation were ruthlessly attacked with weapons.

A similar instance occurred in January this year, when forest guards went to the house of an accused in the Marayoor sandalwood case, in Mannarkad in Palakkad, to arrest him. About 200 people assembled around his house in a matter of minutes and attacked the 14 guards present. While the accused managed to escape with his family, the guards had to be admitted to the hospital.

No backing from the law

In general, the sandalwood mafia seems to have it easy. The penalty for offences related to sandalwood smuggling is minor and does not function as a deterrent. As Shetty says, "The punishment for being caught with ordinary wood from the forests and sandalwood is the same. Both the offences carry an identical fine of Rs 50 to 500."

The risks involved in smuggling sandalwood are less too. The wood is cut into small pieces and carried in bags by people, from the forest areas to the factories. Unless there is a tip-off, it would be impossible to find out who is carrying sandalwood in a regular travel bag. Besides, the onus of proving that the sandalwood came from the forest lies with the department. "One may catch someone in Palakkad, with wood from Marayoor, but the sandalwood may by then be in a different form - it may have been cut, it may be a chip," says Shetty. All this has made collecting evidence a difficult process, he adds.

Even when evidence has been found, the sandalwood mafia has found ways of getting around it. Panicker discloses that exhibits to be presented in the court, kept in a room in the forest department in Olavakkode in Palakkad district, were stolen in 2002. This included sandalwood worth Rs 2 crore.

It was precisely to deal with such problems that the Kerala Forest (Amendment) Ordinance was drafted in 1999. Among other things, the ordinance says the private sector cannot run sandalwood factories and that the possession of more than two kilos of sandalwood is an offence. The latter provision eliminates the need for the forest department to prove that the sandalwood was illegally obtained from a forest, making conviction an easier process. It also recommends more rigorous punishment, making offenders liable to a minimum of three years imprisonment if found guilty.

Unfortunately, the ordinance is still in the draft stage. A cabinet sub-committee sat on it for three years, and though politicians make the right noises about the ordinance frequently, no step has been taken to make it law. "If the ordinance is passed, it will reduce the illegal felling of sandalwood trees," says Shetty.

A case for shutting shop

It's unlikely that sandalwood smuggling will stop completely if the ordinance is passed. This is because the mafia has a network that transcends boundaries, and the same groups runs sandalwood factories in various parts of the country. If a factory is shut down in Kerala, then the work is immediately passed on to another factory, say in Pondicherry or Goa. In fact, when the Marayoor sandalwood case was being investigated, a forest department team checked sandalwood factories in Pondicherry. Based on their probe, three units were shut down as their functioning was found to be irregular.

The fact that most of the factories are to be found in border areas such as Palakkad is also not a coincidence, say forest officials. It's a carefully planned strategy to ship sandalwood with minimum fuss. This is why Panicker advocates a "national policy on sandalwood", so that such creases can be ironed out.

As a forest conservator, who did not want to be named, says, "The primary problem is the fact that the state is supporting an industry for which there is no raw material within the state. Legally, there is just no sandalwood available." Earlier, distillation of oil didn't depend only on Kerala forests, as raw materials were sourced from public auctions. Later, as factories became desperate, it came from the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. "As pressure mounted on the bandit, with the police chasing him in the Satyamangalam belt in Tamilnadu, the sandalwood cutting there was reduced. From there, attention was diverted to Marayoor," he says. To stop illegal felling of trees, the setting up of sandalwood factories has to be regulated according to the amount of wood available, he adds.

The Supreme Court Empowerment Committee echoes this line of thought. Its report says that while the establishment of private factories is discouraged in Tamilnadu and Karnataka, ironically "states which do not produce sandalwood have oil units". Goa has seven units, Pondicherry four (one being functional after the other three were shut) and Andhra Pradesh five functional units. The report, therefore, recommends, "Sandalwood oil factories in non-sandalwood producing states and Union Territories should be immediately shut down ... as far as possible, sandalwood oil extraction facilities should be run through central or state undertakings."

The committee has also examined the fact that the forest department has the least say in the licensing process of these factories; apart from an NOC from the forest department, all other documentation is obtained under the Factories Act from panchayats, and from the Factories and Boilers Department for allowing distillation. The panel report concludes that the factories should actually work under the "strict control and supervision of the forest department".

Most importantly, the report suggests that sandalwood factories for which sufficient raw material is not available from "legal sources" should be closed down and the machinery "dismantled". If put into practice, this would go a long way in stopping the distilling of illegal sandalwood, says a forest official, who requested his name not be used. "As of now, even when we seal a factory, distilling continues behind closed doors in one way or the other. If we dismantle the machinery, then there is no way it can be continued," he adds.

The implementation of the committee's suggestions and the passing of the Forest (Amendment) Ordinance seem to be the only hope for Kerala's sandalwood forests. Unless this is done soon, the heady fragrance of a treasured cluster of trees may become only a memory.