If you can’t beat them, join them. That appears to be the logic at work in the Andhra Pradesh corridors of power. A fortnight ago, the state police controversially shot dead 20 people in a purported crackdown on illegal sandalwood smuggling. Now, a minister of the Chandrababu Naidu government has said that the government is seeking to legalise the felling and exports of the red sanders trees that yields sandalwood. 

"We have asked the Centre to remove red sanders from the endangered species list and to allow the felling and exports of red sanders," B Gopala Krishna Reddy, Andhra Pradesh Minister for Environment and Forests, told Scroll on phone on Sunday. “There is a big problem with smuggling of red sanders trees out of the country. We need to take steps to correct this."

Found mainly in the forests of Andhra Pradesh and in some patches in Tamil Nadu, red sanders is listed on schedule two of the endangered species list, a notch below the tiger, which is listed on schedule one. Felling and exports of red sanders is banned by law. But high international demand for red sanders, which is used as an ingredient in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, and coveted in China for furniture making, has created a flourishing underground market for the wood.

'No smuggling, no corruption'

"If we remove the ban on the export of red sanders, and allow for limited legal exports, smuggling will disappear," said Reddy. "If there is no smuggling, there is no corruption."

Asked whether the move would provide a legal cover to the big, influential smugglers, Reddy said the government would simultaneously introduce strict checks and balances. “There are big smugglers no doubt and they go to the extent of harassing the government,” he said. “But the government will deal with this with an iron hand. We are also bringing in a new Forest Act which will spell out rules clearly with regard to felling and export of red sanders. Specific fines will be fixed for illegal felling and government will ensure that the new Act is followed properly." 

Environmental experts have expressed outrage over the Andhra Pradesh government's move, calling it short sighted. “This logic holds good for a species that is widespread and found in extensive numbers, but red sanders has a limited geographical range and is known to be endemic to that area,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, managing trustee of Care Earth, a non-profit that works extensively with government to preserve the environment.

Declassifying red sanders would set a bad precedent, she said. "The cycas beddomei species too is endemic to the Seshachalam hills and is also being extensively looted. How many such species is the government going to declassify?” she asked.

Vencatesan likened the move to that of government saying tigers in zoos would be protected but that tigers in the wild could be hunted down. “There is still no standardisation of plantations of red sanders," she said. "We are still trying to protect the last remaining wild patches of red sanders. What needs to be done immediately is to strengthen patrolling in forests and ensure that state governments work together to protect these species from being plundered.”

Legal complications

Environmental experts also point out that India is a signatory to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international agreement between governments to ensure that trade in endangered species do not threaten their survival. Legal issues would abound if India were to declassify red sanders as an endangered species, they say.

The timing of the move is also likely to raise eyebrows. The bid to legalise the felling of red sanders comes in the wake of a political uproar over the controversial police encounter that saw the killing of 20 woodcutters hailing from Tamil Nadu in the Seshachalam forests. Multiple probes into the killing are underway. A special investigative team has been formed by the Andhra police. The Andhra Pradesh High Court as well as the National Human Rights Commission are conducting independent enquiries.

The question that is likely to be asked: Is the Andhra Pradesh government acting in collusion with the smugglers under the guise of curbing rampant smuggling?