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Teak Smuggling | Rumble in the Jungle

It is a weekday, but the forest department’s range office in Lateri, a town in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district, bears a deserted look. Almost 20 days after the department’s staff were booked for murder over the death of a youth, things seem to have changed forever. In a mix of low morale and fear—both of the government whose forests they are to protect, and members of the Bhil tribal community to which the deceased youth belonged—the staff members at the range have stopped wearing their uniforms. They have also surrendered their official guns, refusing to carry them until the government guarantees them some legal protection.

Lateri is one of the biggest timber smuggling hotspots in MP. Vidisha district, which was in pre-Independence times part of Scindia territory, had some of the best, predominantly teak, forests in the state. Not anymore. Rampant felling, fuelled by greed and demand for timber in and outside the state, has decimated the forests over the years. Clearly driven by political motives, both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress don’t seem to be pressing for strong action against timber smugglers—rather, they are baying for the blood of the agencies entrusted to protect the forests.

On August 9, around 9 pm, Lateri South Range Officer (RO) Vinod Singh received a tip-off about timber smugglers being active in Khattyapura village, some 15 km from the range headquarters. Singh, after calling for backup from Abhijeet Swami, the RO of the neighbouring jurisdiction, left for the spot with two vehicles and five other staffers, one of whom was carrying a government-issued Mossberg tactical pump-action shotgun loaded with No. 1 shot pellets. At Khattyapura, the team intercepted the timber smugglers, in a convoy of 10 motorcycles, who had loaded logs of teakwood. While the forest department claims they were pelted with rocks and hence had to fire in self-defence, the smugglers allege that they were ambushed and fired on. Chain Singh, 32, one of the smugglers, died on the spot, and five others, three of them his brothers and two cousins, were injured.

Unaware of the death, the forest department team returned to Lateri later at night. Around 12 am, the injured arrived at the police station with Chain’s body and filed a complaint.

All hell broke loose when the accused were found to be members of the Bhil community. A case of murder was registered against Nirmal Ahirwar, the deputy ranger of the Kotra chowki under whose jurisdiction Khattyapura falls, besides other unknown persons. All six personnel who were there that night, including Vinod Singh, are absconding while Ahirwar, denied bail by the sessions court, is in jail. The next day, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, even before announcing a probe, ordered a compensation of Rs 25 lakh for the deceased and Rs 5 lakh each for the three injured brothers. After the murder case was filed against Ahirwar, the police registered a case under the relatively weak Section 353 of the IPC against the timber smugglers. The forest department also filed a POR or preliminary offence report—their equivalent of an FIR—against unknown smugglers.

Clearly, the BJP, which has been pursuing a ‘tribal agenda’ nationally, was on the defensive, especially since the opposition Congress accused the ruling party of being anti-tribal after the firing. The divisional forest officer has been transferred and the government has ordered a probe by a single-member commission of a retired high court judge. While politics took over the incident, the core issue—timber smuggling—has been brushed aside both by the BJP and the Congress.

MP has some of the best teak in the world, which continue to be sought-after in the furniture industry. The government controls all trade in the precious wood since it is a nationalised commodity. Officially priced at Rs 45,000 per cubic metre, it is sold for as little as Rs 5,000 by smugglers. While the state has been grappling with the issue of illegal felling for years, western MP is worst affected. Large areas have been wiped clean of teak trees in the districts of Jhabua, Alirajpur, Khandwa and even Betul and Hoshangabad. Felling is a major concern in the central districts of Sehore and Raisen too. Of late, Vidisha district and in particular its four forest ranges—Lateri South, Lateri North, Shamshabad and Sironj—have been badly hit. Around 20 per cent of MP’s total forest area is covered by teak trees while roughly 45 per cent of the forests in Vidisha district have these trees.

A total of 829 cases of illegal felling were registered in Vidisha in 2020, followed by 638 in 2021, and 217 cases till July this year in which timber worth lakhs of rupees has been seized. The district has lost nearly 30 per cent of its forest area to encroachment and illegal felling. Trees are seen only on the hills with the flat lands being under cultivation.

The punishment for illegal felling and transportation is also not a deterrent. The accused are usually booked under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which attracts a maximum sentence of six months and is easily bailable. However, the state government, through an amendment, has raised the fine from Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000. The alleged timber smuggler who was killed on August 9 had a previous case of felling against him. The answer perhaps lies in the more stringent laws such as the Wild Life (Protection) Act and the Biological Diversity Act. Relevant sections under both the acts are non-bailable.

The Modus Operandi

Timber smuggling has taken the form of organised crime in MP, operating through inter-state gangs. An intricate network of tree cutters, transporters, vehicle lifters and consumers work in conjunction. The gang members, around 50-70 on 25-40 motorcycles, identify a forest. They return to the site around 2 pm, carrying axes, petrol-powered and electric saws and weapons such as country-made pistols. After cutting and shaping the timber in planks called sillis, they move out after dark, delivering the goods across the state border.

There are two main locations where the illegally cut teak is sold—Manohar Thana in Jhalawar, Rajasthan, and Suthaliya in the Rajgarh district of MP. The latter has a number of furniture makers, while at the former, traders are said to assemble to buy timber, which is then supplied elsewhere. Timber is smuggled into Rajasthan on bikes, with the pillion riders at times holding three to four planks over distances ranging from 100 to 120 km.

Stolen motorcycles are an integral part of the racket. “Bikes lifted from urban areas such as Indore and Bhopal are sold for as little as Rs 5,000 in villages. Registration and chassis numbers are deleted and even when impounded the bikes are a dead end to find the culprits because there are no records,” says Lateri North RO Swami. The Lateri police had busted a gang recently and arrested Nirbhay, a local supplier of stolen bikes. “We recovered 14 planks of teak and one bike from the spot where the alleged shooting took place. The bike has no details on it and cannot be traced to anyone,” says Lateri police station in-charge Kashiram Kushwaha.

The other ‘development’ that is aiding the racket is the network of village roads that has come up under the PM Gram Sadak Yojana. These roads help the criminals avoid taking the highways where police presence is higher.

Protectors cornered

With morale hitting rock bottom, forest department staffers lament their helplessness. “We have stopped wearing uniforms and have surrendered weapons. We are scared to venture into the forests. How do we fight to protect the forests when the government files cases against us even though they are the ones who gave us the guns?” asks a deputy ranger in Vidisha requesting anonymity.

Ajay Pandey, the conservator of forests, Vidisha, toured the affected areas after the incident and wrote back to his superiors flagging the low morale. He has also sought better coordination among the police, revenue and forest officials, besides asking for two battalions of the state special armed force (SAF) in Vidisha. Pandey may be hoping for too much—the existing company of SAF deployed in the neighbouring Raisen district is about to be withdrawn by the police. Due to the reluctance of local forest officials to venture out, the staff from the neighbouring forest divisions are sent for patrolling in Lateri. Pandey says they have been speaking to the neighbouring villagers. “They have assured us help to end illegal felling as forests are a heritage that belongs to them too,” he adds.

Legal Issues over Firearms

Can the forest department staff use firearms? A letter from the state’s home department in 2011 to all police units states that they can use government-provided weapons in self-defence under Section 197(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Further, it states that no case will be registered against the forest department staff when they fire a weapon unless a magisterial probe finds them guilty of unwarranted firing. In the Lateri incident, the police filed a murder case even before an enquiry was announced—in violation of the government orders. Earlier too, forest personnel have been booked for firing their weapons.

Shotguns surrendered by forest department personnel stocked at the Lateri Range Office; (Photo: Mujeeb Faruqui)

The forest officials compare the Lateri incident to the one that took place in the neighbouring Guna district in May when the police shot dead three poachers following an earlier encounter that had claimed the lives of three policemen. While one of the poachers died at the time of the firefight, two others were killed days later in another incident, with the police claiming that they fired in self-defence. This led to a fake encounter petition in the court. However, the state stood by the police officials. “Our staff also fired in self-defence when pelted with rocks, but they are not being protected,” says a Lateri South Range official. In his application to the police, RO Vinod Singh before absconding had mentioned that his patrolling party was pelted with stones, given death threats and was fired on too.

“What happened in Lateri is unfortunate. A forest department staffer dying in the line of duty gets Rs 10 lakh as compensation. Getting that amount too requires a massive effort. I am not saying anything against the government that employs me but if the government had given us protection under the CrPC, the deputy ranger should not have been arrested. We only demand that the government stand by its own order issued for protecting us,” says Shishupal Ahirwar, president of the MP Rangers Association. He adds that so long as the government fails to protect them, the staff will not carry weapons. Is illegal felling on such a massive scale possible without the forest department’s complicity? “If the department was involved, nothing would have been left,” Ahirwar replies.

An associated issue is the lack of weapons training for the forest staff. Of the 19 pump-action shotguns at the Lateri range, only one is functional. The state-of-the-art tactical shotguns are bundled together in the store room, some of them broken and others rusted beyond recognition. The staff has never received the promised firearms practice. The forest department application to the police argues that the injuries sustained by the timber smugglers suggest that a forest staffer fired in the air, misjudging the lethal extent of the spread of the pellets. “We were told that we would be getting firing practice, but it has not taken place. We wanted to get the guns repaired but don’t know of a gunsmith who can do so,” says a forest official.

Ramesh Gupta , the principal Chief conservator of forests, MP, says the issue needs to be resolved. “I have written to the DGP and the government to clarify why a case has been registered when the government had, through circulars, said that protection to forest staff would be accorded under Section 197 of the CrPC,” he adds.

Back in Raipura village, where the family of the alleged timber smuggler lives, there is grief. Chain Singh has left behind four minor children. “We had gone to the forest to fetch wood for the boundary of our cornfields when we were surrounded by forest department staff and fired on. I was riding pillion with Chain who died on the spot,” says Mahendra, one of Chain’s brothers who sustained pellet injuries. He has returned home from Bhopal after treatment. The family has around four acres of land, but they have not received a patta under the Forest Rights Act. “I don’t know what really happened that night, but four kids have lost a father and a woman her husband,” says Naran, brother-in-law of the deceased. For the moment, though, the impasse will have a bearing on how MP’s forests should be guarded.