An Encounter in the Forest: Bharath Sundaram and Nitin Rai


The labelling of the Seshachalam incident as a ‘law and order’ problem by State actors obfuscates the larger underlying problem deriving from lopsided notions of the human-environment relationship, and flies in the face of ecological concerns and social justice

The massacre of twenty people in the Seshachalam forests in a joint operation by the Red-Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF) of the Andhra Pradesh Police and the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department is reflective of the hegemonic control of natural resources by an increasingly militarised state. It is particularly shocking that such a massacre occurred just as calls are being made nationally for a democratic forest management approach that gives local people more rights and powers to manage forests.

Encounter killings in Seshachalam forests
Encounter killings in Seshachalam forests, courtesy Hindustan Times

While the state has chosen to depict the killing of 20 people in the Seshachalam forests as a response to a law and order issue, such a draconian response to the cutting of trees by peasants is indicative of a much deeper malaise in the governance of natural resources in India. On the evening or night of 6th of April, 2015, twenty people, purportedly smugglers of red sanders, were shot to death by ten officials of the RSASTF and one official from the Andhra Pradesh Forest Department. The shooting and killing (using automatic weapons) was supposedly an act of ‘self-defence’ precipitated by an attack on the officials by more than 100 people who ‘rained stones and hurled sickles’ during the raid. Three days after the incident, ‘country weapons’ and ‘firearms’ were added to the list of weapons used by the smugglers. That would work in their favor, because who better than the smugglers to know where to buy AK 47 Rifles and assault weapons.

Observer accounts mention that several of those killed were shot in the face, chest, or back. Nobody was apprehended in an injured state. Official post-mortem reports of those killed remain unavailable. No government officials were reported injured immediately after the operation, although mysteriously, all eleven officials involved were placed in isolation in the A-Class ward of a government hospital four days after the incident occurred. Human rights activists, led by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organization have labelled the incident as a staged encounter, questioned the use of brute force, and have pointed out several inconsistencies in the official version of events.

The context of this current tragedy revolves around the red sanders tree (Pterocarpus santalinus). This tree is endemic (present nowhere else in the world) to the forests of Kadapa, Chitoor, Anantapur, Kurnool, Prakasam, and Nellore districts of Andhra Pradesh. The landscape in which red sanders are found administratively include Reserved Forests, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and a National Park. Historically, these forests were ‘reserved’ for timber production and harvest by excluding local rights to forest resources, resulting in bloody conflict.  Local communities have earned little if any benefit from the commercial exploitation of timber from state owned forests. Lessons from recent work on democratising forest governance continues to be rejected by the forest department hell bent on maintaining control over forests. The distribution of red sanders in this approximately 5200 square kilometre area seems centred around the Palakonda and Seshachalam Hills. This slow-growing tree is prized internationally for its heartwood, and is used to make luxury furniture, musical instruments, and traditional medicine, mainly in Singapore, Japan, the UAE, Malaysia, and China. A tonne of red sanders fetches between 15-30 lakh rupees in the Indian black market, and two to three times this amount internationally. Attempts to domesticate this species have largely failed and forests remain the primary source of red sanders. International legislation banned trade of this species in 1995, and black market rates for red sanders have escalated thereafter, as have allied activities governing its illegal harvest, processing, and transportation from India. The Andhra Pradesh Government estimates that up to 500 tonnes of red sanders are exported illegally from India annually, and the state Environment and Forest Minister has very recently stated that this species should be removed from the protected list so that its trade can be better regulated. Contrastingly, forest Department officials have stated that red sanders is now a rapidly dwindling resource due to its slow natural regeneration and growth, and that illegal harvest is likely to wipe out this species in the near future.

The Andhra Pradesh government has been involved in a long and bloody skirmish with smugglers of red sanders. In 2013 alone, more than 3000 people, all allegedly smugglers of red sanders were arrested. On 15th December 2013, two field officers of the Forest Department were purportedly hacked to death by a mob of more than two hundred people in the Seshachalam forests. That the field officers were armed only with batons during the assault lead to demands for a better-armed cadre. In July 2014, 346 people were charged with the murder of the two field-level Forest Department staff. Between May and August 2014, eight tribal people, purportedly red sanders smugglers from the Javadhu hills of Tamil Nadu, were killed in the Seshachalam forests by the police. In August 2014, four people were killed in the Kadapa forests in an encounter with the police. The calls for an increased miltarisation of red sanders protection was answered when the RSASTF officially came into being on November 24, 2014. The RSASTF continue their actions to curb the smuggling of red sanders, including last weeks’ operation, their ‘biggest’ to date.

The numbers of the red sanders trade seem to be largely made up of people engaged as labour from districts in Tamil Nadu that border districts in Andhra Pradesh. The trope of the labourer engaged in cutting red sanders is eerily consistent across various reports. Lured by the promise of upwards of Rs. 5000 for a day’s work, and suffering a combination of agrarian distress and lack of viable livelihood opportunities in their villages, several thousand people are reportedly drawn towards the harvest of red sanders by contractors. Just as in any other informal market deemed illegal by the State, trade in red sanders is enabled by collusion between contractors, higher-order smugglers, politicians, the Forest Department, the Police, and the Customs Department. This network remains largely untouched by government action to curb the trade in red sanders, possibly due to perverse economic outcomes that assure windfall returns in exchange for little risk to life or limb for anyone in the trade who is not a labourer. While a severe clampdown has occurred on the labourers involved in the cutting and transportation of red sanders, the same cannot be said for those higher up in the pecking order

The structure within which such violence against local people is perpetrated has a long history of hierarchical and state-controlled domination of both people and nature— a domination underscored by violent actions on a powerless people. The Seshachalam massacre is but an instance of this overall pattern. Consider the illegal harvest of red sanders: the species is at risk, and has been deemed appropriate for conservation at the national and international level. Teasing apart the nuances of the red sanders trade, we see various relationships such as contractor-labourer, smuggler-politician, police-labourer, with each set of relationships being established and controlled by access to economic or political power. The entity with the least power in all these sets of relationships is clearly the labourer, and therefore bears the brunt of state action.

That the forest administration is less interested in conservation and more in exploitation is clear from their historic and contemporary interest in timber. Historically, the forest department has constantly been pushed to make theirs a profit-making entity, ignoring the fact that forests in India are peopled landscapes, and where people have social and cultural links with the forest. Revenue-surplus ratios which were low pre-independence, indicating low-profit, were reversed spectacularly by the 1980s when production forestry was at its peak—in 1980-81 for example, surplus was three times the revenue, indicating very high profit from the sales of timber and non-timber forest products. The strong motivation for profit continues to date. In December 2014, the Andhra Pradesh Government conducted an e-auction and sold almost 4000 tonnes of red sanders, earning almost 1000 crore in revenue. The entire quantity was sourced from violent raids on smugglers of red sanders. Permission for the Andhra Pradesh government to sell endangered red sanders in the open market was inexplicably provided by the centre and by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international regulatory body. Currently more than 4000 tonnes of red sanders remains as ‘stock’ to be auctioned at a later date. The irony of this situation is astounding: the forest department cannot cut or sell red sanders on a regular basis by itself, since red sanders is a protected species. Farcically, the forest department can sell the same species as long as it confiscates (and continues to confiscate) red sanders that have been illegally collected, with several labourers and field-level forest department staff falling by the wayside as collateral damage. Regulating the trade in red sanders is unlikely to alter this overall perverse arithmetic and logic, and as we have seen currently, neither will banning its trade make any difference for labourers engaged in this operation. They will continue to be brutally persecuted as ‘law-breakers’ by a socially and ecologically indifferent State. Forests, wildlife and natural resources have always been policed by the state in such violent ways with enormous human consequences. The ecological consequences of the increasing conflict is also high especially as the value of certain resources increase with globalisation. Rethinking forest governance to include local people will reduce the conflict and provide more humane approaches to conserve and manage not only species such as red sanders but also the forests in which they occur.

Bharath Sundaram is an Assistant Professor of Development in Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Nitin Rai is a Fellow, Centre for Environment and Development, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore.

One thought on “An Encounter in the Forest: Bharath Sundaram and Nitin Rai”

  1. The State and the Forest Department (as its chief acting agent on the ground) have so easily absorbed the colonial legacy of (i) continuing to make forests all about timber and (ii) exploiting and perpetuating violence on forest-dwelling indigenous communities and forest dependent communities. We have the FRA a progressive instrument meant to undo the historic injustice on these communities but one arm of the State in the form of the Forest Department continues to undermine the legislation and perpetuate violence. A real shame!


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