Court order vindicates decision to close down sandalwood units

G. Prabhakaran

Factories illegally cutting down the trees from forestsTwo neighbouring States banned processing of sandal in private sectorFactory owners shifted to Goa, Pondicherry and Maharashtra

PALAKKAD: The decision of the Forest Department to close down 24 illegal sandalwood oil extraction factories in Palakkad after a campaign against it by Leader of Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan has been vindicated by the Supreme Court order for the closure of such units in the country. A three-member bench headed by the Chief Justice on February 10, 2006, ordered that ``all unlicensed sandalwood oil extraction factories, by whatever name or expression they may be, operating in any part of the country shall be closed forthwith.''

The sandalwood from the forests of Marayur in Kerala is not enough to run even one factory in a year. Thus the factories were illegally cutting down the trees from forests of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

But the two neighbouring States banned the processing of sandal in private sector. The sandalwood extracted from the forests is processed in Government run factories only.

Though the State Government had closed down illegal sandalwood oil extraction factories last year, the factory owners who mainly concentrated in Palakkad shifted to Goa, Pondicherry and Maharashtra taking advantage of various loopholes in the law. This matter was brought before the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court by P.S. Panikkar, secretary, Janajagratha.

The CEC which visited these factories and studied the problem submitted a report to the apex court on April 24, 2005, regarding regulating the work of the sandalwood oil extraction factories. One of the aspects highlighted in the report is ``the existence of a number of sandalwood oil extraction factories in States which do not produce sandalwood or have nominal sandalwood production like Goa and Pondicherry.'' The Rs.100-crore sandal oil business in Palakkad had thrown up many political, social and economic issues. The `sandal mafia' were depleting the sandal reserves of Marayur in Munnar by illegally cutting down sandal trees and extracting oil in the factories in Palakkad.

They were allegedly behind the theft of huge sandalwood and sandal oil stock from the strong room of the Forest Department at Olavakkode in Palakkad. Till now the culprits were not booked despite an inquiry being conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The `sandal mafia' had received political patronage in the State. This political connection led to the resignation of a Forest Minister last year on a reference of the Kerala High Court on the alleged nexus between the sandal factory owners and the political leadership.

As per an enumeration of sandal trees conducted in Marayur by the Forest Department between 1994 and 2000, 94,000 sandalwood trees were illegally felled. The order to close down illegal sandalwood oil extraction factories will go a long way in protecting the sandalwood wealth of the country, the environment groups who campaigned for the closure of the factories in Palakkad said.