The very word Red sanders (yerra chandanam in Telugu), made more popular by the recent Allu Arjun blockbuster, Pushpa, traces the dubious manner in which smuggling of this precious tree species is carried out by mafia raj.
But away from the gaze of Seshachalam forests in Andhra Pradesh, many farmers in the Telugu States, who have planted Red sanders without any common registry or association, are running from pillar to post to sell their genuinely grown trees, not because of lack of market, but enabling-policy.
Matured two-decade plus old Red sanders (RS) trees grown in private agriculture orchards in some parts of north Telangana are languishing for want of the necessary permits, and the farmers, who have grown these trees, are literally staring at a bleak future.
Red sanders or Pterocarpus Santalinus, as its botanically known, is literally gold: a tree can sell for ₹30 lakh to over ₹1.5 crore, depending on its grade quantity.
The Red sanders is an Indian endemic tree unique to a distinct tract of marginal laterite soils in the Eastern Ghats. The tree matures in about 25 to 40 years. Traditionally, its use in India is limited to herbal medicines, agri-implements and figurines of deities.
Internationally, Red sanders has a high demand, particularly in China and Japan, for making vintage furniture and musical instruments; and in Europe and the US for its rich natural dye to colour food and premium alcohols.
It is illegal to cut, store, transport and sell Red sanders in any form. High demand for Red sanders in the international market is the main cause for unabated smuggling in AP and its border States, because it is not local market, the disgusted farmers succumb to the mafia offers. That too when it gets confiscated, seen as produce from forest, because no farmer dares to claim ownership.
The government has issued policy guidelines for felling of Red sanders grown in private lands and patta lands, which is not an enabling policy.
‘Trying to sell since 2018’
Coming down to the woes of such growers, Nakkala Samson of Dharmaram B village in Nizamabad district, narrates how he is struggling to sell the fully grown trees since 2018.
In 1985, he planted three Red sanders saplings at his home in Dharmaram (B), Nizamabad, and 20 in his in-law’s mango orchard at Chillaboinapalli, in Krishna district, of which eight survived. These 35-year-old trees measure one metre girth at the breast height. Now, they are awaiting permission to fell and sell them.
Similarly, Ganapuram Rajesh, a farmer from Pedda Valgote in Sirikonda mandal of Nizamabad, too planted Red sanders 17 years ago with a hope of earning a fortune.
“For the past two years, I am running around forest offices in vain to get felling permission. I have also paid ₹40,000 fee. Authorities are asking me to show proof of buyer first, buyers are asking me to show permit first,” he remarked.
According to Mr. Samson, without felling and dressing the Red sanders, real merchandise cannot be displayed to attract buyers. The government should bring out a clear policy to enable RS farmers to market their produce.
“The market is full of intermediaries, if not smugglers. I even came across some disgusted farmers who have removed Red sanders for firewood. Most of the mouth drooling Red sander stories are media promoted which works best for the Red sanders nursery growers,” says Samson.
Mudam Limbaiah, a farmer of Reddipet village in Machareddi mandal of Nizamabad district, planted 400 Red sanders spending ₹32,000, 12 years ago. He was assured by the plant supplier that the “trees would reach harvestable age after 15 years, giving huge tonnes of precious species and good returns.” “Even in Seshachalam forests, they don’t mature so fast,” he bemoaned.
Nalla Venkatarama Reddy, a farmer, and also Rythu Bandhu district coordinator from Nirmal, has 26 matured Red sanders on his property, but is unable to begin felling process, let alone selling. “When I approached the Forest Department, they asked me -- who is your buyer, where will you store the merchandise etc -- for which I have no ready answer,” he remarks.
“ Most of the mouth drooling Red sander stories are media promoted which works best for the Red sanders nursery growers.”Nakkala Samson Dharmaram B village, Nizamabad district.
The present jurisdiction of forest authority relating to Red sanders grown in private lands is limited to certificate that it is not sourced from forest and allow farmer to fell and transport it, but they don’t have further mandate of custody and marketing as they did with confiscated Red sanders.
The permit process for private Red sanders begins with taking an entitlement certificate from the tahsildar to approach the concerned Divisional Forest Officer for due verification and permit to fell and transport.
The reluctance of the forest authorities to give a felling permit, stems from the fact that even after the tree is felled, the Forest Department is burdened with unending vigilance over the felled Red sanders till its final disposal by the farmer, all the time vulnerable to departmental politics.
The way forward
The private Red sanders growers opine that the one way forward for the private marketing of Red sanders is for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana governments to mandate their authorities to act as aggregator-custodian-market facilitator. This would give the farmers an integrated window: the farmer receives a Red sanders entitlement certificate from the Revenue Department, they contend.
The farmer then presents this to the forest authority, who permit felling and dressing at farm gate, and thereafter take custody of the dressed material under proper acknowledgement.
The forest authority sorts and grades the dressed material, geotagged by farmer, and is responsible for its safe custody under 24/7 surveillance with remote access to allow the farmer keep a watch over it for himself/herself, and use this to negotiate working capital from the banks as well as display and negotiate with private buyers, till the conclusion of e-auction-cum-e-bidding.
It was pointed out that somewhat similar practice with variation of e-auction-cum-bidding is in vogue in Tamil Nadu. The TN forest authority is felling, dressing, transporting, and buying sandal wood grown in private and patta lands with inclusive of all costs and commission within 20%.
Similar approach with Red sanders would go a long way and encourage farmers in achieving the national goal of 33% forest/tree cover. “We appeal the State governments of AP and Telangana to convene consultation meetings with Red sanders farmers for a consensual policy with utmost priority,” Mr. Samson pleads.