Sandalwood loggers risk their lives for Rs 650 per kg

  • Sudipto Mondal, Hindustan Times, Chitteri Forests (Tamil Nadu)
  • Updated: Apr 11, 2015 01:42 IST

He was not among the 20 loggers killed by Andhra Pradesh police on April 7, but his older brother was. Perumal (name changed) once risked his life in the jungles of Chittoor for Rs 16,250 and never went back.

When HT correspondent visited a logger's village in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, looking for a first-person account about the jungle raiders and a place to spend the night, Perumal — a 45-year-old man from the Malayali scheduled tribe (not to be confused with Malayalam speakers) —offered both.

About six months ago, he sneaked into the jungle around Tirupati, the same area where his brother was killed with 19 others, with a group of 40 tribesmen.

He said he kept refusing a man from his village, who had been trying to take him on a logging trip for three years. He still calls the man his “owner”. “The owner wanted me because I’m one of the strongest men in the village. But I didn’t want to end up dead or in jail.”

But Perumal finally gave in as the money was good — Rs 650 for every kg of sandalwood — while he earns around Rs 350 a day as a farm or construction labourer. And, the ‘owner’, whose job was to recruit loggers for a commission, assured him that forest and police officials had already been paid off.

The route to the jungle was tortuous. “From Dharmapuri town, we were put on a bus to Bengaluru because the Andhra police check all the buses coming from Tamil Nadu and look for people like us. We were put in an Andhra government bus in Bengaluru at night.”

He said the driver, who was paid Rs 1,000 for each of them while the normal fare was around Rs 200, was supposed to mix them up with other passengers and then drop them off at a specified time and place. The bus conductor dropped them off around 3.00am at a place which “was surely not the highway”. He pointed in a direction where four men were waiting.

Bodies of men killed in the encounter being bought to a government hospital near Tirupathy on Tuesday. (HT Photo)

The loggers were not supposed to ask the men their names. “We were asked to address them as ‘pilots’. Two of them spoke Tamil and the other two Telugu.”

The ‘pilots’ asked them to strip down to their underwear and wrap their clothes and valuables in a towel. “They explained that our skin colour was a good camouflage in the forest.” They also gave several bags of rice, spices and some vegetables to the ‘owner’.

They walked with that load, half naked in the blistering sun for two days. On the second day, they dug out a large cache of axes from a spot in the jungle.

“From here on, the pilots were more vigilant. They spread out and walked around 50 metres ahead of us. Every time one of them would turn to look at us, I thought they had spotted the police.”

Perumal said, “That evening, we arrived at the foot of a mountain. It was a busy worksite with around 50 Tamil-speaking men like us. They were chopping sandalwood trees. There were also Telugu-speaking men who were egging on the workers by abusing them.” Perumal collected about 25 kg of sandalwood and fastened it on his back for the return journey. After a day’s trek, they arrived at a highway at dawn. “A petrol tanker was waiting there and we were asked to put the logs into the tank. It zoomed off within minutes,” he said.

The bodies of suspected sandalwood smugglers, who were killed in an encounter with a joint team of special police and forest personnel, lie in the Seshachalam forest of Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh on April 7, 2015. (AFP Photo)

The ‘owner’ then broke them up into groups of two or three and asked them to find their way back home. “When we started to protest, a Telugu-speaking man threatened to call the police. The owner told us not to speak to anybody in Tamil. He said we should get into a bus or truck and pretend to be mute or drunk.” Perumal took a bus to Bengaluru and got off at a random spot in Karnataka. From there, “it took me two days to find my way home”.

A week after his return, Perumal contacted the others and went to see the ‘owner’ for their payment. But the owner refused to pay, saying the consignment had been seized by police.

“We gave him a sound thrashing after which he agreed to take us to the house of his ‘owner’ in Naripalli, also in Dharmapuri district.” At that house, they also found the two Tamil-speaking ‘pilots’. Since they, too, were demanding their share of the loot, the man finally pulled out Rs 2,00,000 and asked them to share it among themselves. “The pilots took Rs 50,000 each and gave our ‘owner’ Rs 1,00,000. Finally, I got Rs 5,000, whereas I should have got Rs 16,250.”

Perumal’s episode ends here, but the story continued until the massacre of 20 men in the sandalwood jungles of Tirupati on a hot April day.

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