The Rediff Special

Veerappan can be nabbed if you have the
support of locals

Read the earlier part of this series.

The challenge is not just in eliminating Veerappan.

It is in ensuring that another Veerappan does not emerge.

The social climate in the forest belts of Satyamangalam, Bandipur, Kollegal, Mudumalai and Wynad is fertile for the rise of such brigands.

Many years ago, then Karnataka chief conservator of forests, S Parameshwarappa, had warned that bandit kings would emerge. Nobody listened to him.

Forests have always been a part of life of the villagers who live in or around it. They lived off the forest and, in turn, protected it from destruction. They understood its importance.

But forest policy concentrated on driving them away, penalising them even for collecting twigs.

Veerappan would never have grown so big had the administration won the trust of the villagers. When Deputy Conservator of Forests P Srinivas came up with programmes for the welfare of villagers, they all rallied around him. People need to be assured of returns to pick up stakes.

In fact, when Veerappan asked some villagers to mine a road to blow up Srinivas, they refused.

A typical village in Veerappan area Over the years, an uncaring administrative and forest bureaucracy alienated the villagers. They were harassed. Victimised. Terrorised. Villagers who would otherwise have kept the bandits away in their own interests of peace and security chose otherwise. Veerappan grew taller and taller.

The concept of joint forest management, which called for the villagers to protect the forests, failed to take off. Madhav Gadgil of the Indian Institute of Science, who has done pioneering work in the area of conservation and forest use, says it all:

"If the bureaucratic machinery has failed to nab Veerappan it is because it has no support of the locals in the area. How can locals be supportive when they see that the government only wants to benefit from the forests without sharing it?"

Gadgil points out that joint forest management has been implemented only in degraded areas where the poor villagers have nothing to gain. In wealthy forests, the government wants to have total control. Over the years, villagers have subliminally told themselves that the forests are not theirs.

When forests are handed over to village communities or local bodies, there is accountability. "Only a people-friendly, accountable machinery where there is greater sharing of responsibility and power will help protect forests," asserts Gadgil.

Then, there was the flawed sandalwood policy. While the villager has no responsibility for a sandalwood tree in the forest, he is fully responsible for it if it is on his land. This actually discouraged people from growing the tree, as they did not want to get into any trouble.

That is not all. If you have a sandalwood tree in your backyard, you cannot cut it. The forest department will issue a license for getting it cut. They will determine its value and pay just 75 per cent of it. And that value would be much lower than the market rate. The forest department fixes the rate at around Rs 144,000 a tonne. Whereas the market rate can be anything between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1million.

Villagers asked themselves if it was worth the trouble. No prize for guessing why one cannot find sandalwood trees.

One way out was to allow the cutting and transporting of timber grown on private land. It would encourage tree cultivation. Then, illegal tree felling would not have seemed so attractive due to the risks involved.

Veerappan with journalist R Gopal and gang members As Veerappan cut down trees by the hundreds, illegal sandalwood oil distilleries sprung up. They offered good prices, much higher than the government rates. Smugglers who wanted to take the finished product out of the country mainly sponsored these factories. Many of them operated out of Kerala.

There were too many controls as far as sandalwood was concerned. Consequently, too many rules were defied. Sandalwood smuggling took various forms, making the villagers rich. Veerappan paid well for every tree cut. If he was not around, there were other operators who were ready to pay.

When you make sandalwood the exclusive property of the forest department, villagers will not care to protect it.

India has spent millions of rupees trying to track down Veerappan. Had that money been used to improve the life of the villagers in the forest areas, a petty forest thief and murderer like him would not have been able to shame the country thus.

Photographs: Ramesh Menon, Shiva Subramaniyam


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

The abduction of Rajakumar