Police said they shot dead 20 smugglers of red sanders, a rare wood with huge demand globally, in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district on Tuesday, but a rights activist called it a massacre.The police said they opened fire after coming under attack from the smugglers in Seshachalam forest in two places within a kilometer’s radius in an area about 500 km from Hyderabad.The victims, poor tribals, hailed mainly from Tamil Nadu.
Deputy Inspector General of Police M. Kanta Rao told IANS that over 100 smugglers and labourers engaged in felling the trees attacked the police, forcing them to open fire in self defence.
“They attacked our personnel with sickles and other sharp-edged weapons,” Rao told IANS. He said the incident happened between 5 and 6 a.m.
Eleven people were killed at Pacchinodu Banda and nine near Etagunta. “We are ascertaining the number of policemen injured,” Rao said.
Classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, red sanders fetch Rs.25 lakh a tonne abroad. It is used mainly in aphrodisiac drugs and to make musical instruments and furniture.
The forests have witnessed clashes between red sander smugglers and police.
In May 2014, police killed three smugglers in Chittoor district. Over 3,000 smugglers were arrested and 2,025 tonnes of red sanders were seized in 2013.
But on Tuesday, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) alleged in Chennai that the killings by the Andhra Pradesh Police was a massacre, and said the police personnel must be tried for murder.
“It is a massacre… planned murder by the Andhra Pradesh Police. They should be tried for murder,” S. Balamurugan, general secretary of the PUCL Tamil Nadu unit, told IANS.
He urged the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments to take act fast so that around 100 people remaining in the Andhra forests were saved.
Balamurugan said that landless tribals from Tamil Nadu are lured by smugglers to cut the precious trees. The labourers got paid around Rs.300.
“They are not aware of the risks. The labourers think that cutting trees is a petty crime,” he said. “Earlier too, several people who had gone the forests to cut trees in Andhra Pradesh have vanished without any trace.”
Andhra officials said the police Task Force and forest officials continued to comb the forests for smugglers and labourers who reportedly escaped.
Police sounded an alert in adjoining districts to prevent the smugglers from escaping. The officer said they were yet to identify those killed but they were all believed to be from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Police and forest department personnel launched joint operations on Monday night following a tip that smugglers had entered the forests.
Director General of Police J.V. Ramudu met Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in Hyderabad and briefed him about the massacre.
In Andhra Pradesh, red sanders grow mainly in the Seshachalam hill ranges spread across Kadapa, Chittoor and Kurnool districts and in parts of Nellore district.
The area under red sanders is estimated to be 4.67 lakh hectares.
Red sanders helped Andhra Pradesh earn over Rs.1,000 crore from global auction last year. The government in December 2014 auctioned 4,160 tonnes of red sanders logs seized from smugglers in recent years.
Forest officials said there was a good response to the auction. They also conducted pre-bid meetings and roadshows in China and Japan where the rare wood enjoys huge demand.
The state plans to use 30 percent of the proceeds from the sales to protect the natural red sander forest. The remaining money may be used to finance the government’s scheme to waive off farm loans.