Vijayawada: Fund crunch stalls anti-red sanders smuggling fight
- Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force formed by the state govt is short of 50% staff
- The Task Force has, in fact, been almost disbanded with the job of controlling red sanders smuggling entrusted to the SEB
- Red Sanders Protection Scheme which began in 2019-20 with an estimated expenditure of Rs 485.23 cr has failed to make any impact because of meagre allocation of funds
Vijayawada: The cash-starved state government is struggling to organise means to fight red sanders smuggling, but, is seeking to make a fast buck by disposing of the already seized logs of the prized timber.
Red sanders is endemic to the forests in Kadapa and Chittoor districts in the Rayalaseema region. The timber is a premium product with "tremendous export potential" but its smuggling is too rampant, mainly to countries like China.
The recent blockbuster 'Pushpa' laid bare the red sanders smuggling mafia and the high stakes involved in it.
The Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF) constituted by the state government is under-staffed, with less than half the sanctioned strength currently on rolls.
A seven-year Red Sanders Protection Scheme, from 2019-20 to 2025-26, with an estimated expenditure of Rs 485.23 crore was drawn up but in the first three years, only a measly sum of Rs 11.171 crore has actually been spent.
Though Rs 50 crore was allocated in the first year (2019-20), not a rupee could actually be utilised as the "authorisation came late." The next year, a sum of Rs 112.98 crore was sought but only Rs 10 crore was allocated, of which only Rs 4.45 crore could be spent. In the last financial year, Rs 15 crore was allocated against the requested Rs 50 crore but the expenditure incurred was only Rs 6.72 crore.
"We require money to provide amenities at the base camps and pay remuneration to protection watchers. Improving the wireless communication network, constructing living quarters for staff, setting up a Dog Squad are some of the other important works proposed but dearth of funds is hampering the implementation of the Red Sanders Protection Scheme," a top official of the forest department said.
The latest status report on red sanders prepared by the AP forest department pointed out that even basic infrastructure is not available for the force that is expected to protect a precious timber that has fetched close to Rs 2,000 crore to the state government so far (only through sale of the seized stuff).
"There is no sufficient building to accommodate the officers, the allotted vehicles became old and required more repairs, there is no sufficient furniture, while a medical officer is urgently required to look after the health of the force," the report said.
The state government sanctioned 463 personnel for the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force, from police and forest departments, but currently only 228 posts are filled, leaving another 235 vacant.
In fact, the task force that previously used to be headed by a deputy inspector general of police-rank officer, has now been virtually disbanded, with the job of controlling red sanders smuggling entrusted to the Special Enforcement Bureau, which also is tasked with curbing illicit liquor, illegal sand mining, gambling and other things.
"This has watered down the very objective of setting up an exclusive Task Force for red sanders. Now there is no focused approach to curb the rampant smuggling activities," the forest official pointed out.
In the last 20 years, 14,882.95 tonnes of red sanders wood was seized from smugglers, mainly in the Rayalaseema region of the state.
Since 2015-16, a total of 1,852 cases were booked against the smugglers and 1,048 non-bailable arrest warrants were issued. But the Task Force could so far serve only 484 warrants on the offenders.
Of the pending 564 warrants, 436 were on alleged smugglers from Tamil Nadu, 123 from AP and five from Karnataka, according to the report.
Lack of local police support in other states, objection from villagers, lack of permission to enter other states, fake addresses of the accused and also death of some were cited as the reasons for non-execution of the non-bailable warrants.
The state government is now seeking to dispose of over 5,376 tonnes of seized red sanders through an online global auction to earn about Rs 1,500 crore.
"We hope at least 30 per cent of the sale proceeds will be ploughed back for the Red Sanders Protection Scheme so that we can effectively step up the anti-smuggling activities," the forest official said.
The state is now awaiting a call from the Centre to take up the auction.