2:10 pm: Civil rights group People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) unit of Tamil Nadu described the murder of 20 red sanders smugglers at the hands of Andhra Pradesh Police on Tuesday as a "massacre" and demanded trial against the officers who were part of the encounter.
"It is a massacre. It is planned murder by the Andhra Pradesh Police. They should be tried for murder," PUCL general secretary S Balamurugan told IANS.
He asked the government of both the states to initiate action against the police in order to protect the rest of the labourers hiding in the Seshachalam forest claiming that they are unaware of the consequences of the cutting down of sanders trees.
"Landless tribals from Tamil Nadu are lured by smugglers for cutting trees. The labourers are paid around Rs.300. They are not aware about the risks they have to face. The labourers are of the view that cutting trees is a petty crime," Balamurugan said.
The Andhra Pradesh Police, on Tuesday morning, killed at least 20 smugglers who allegedly worked for the red sanders mafia, in an ongoing encounter in the Chittoor district's Tirupati area. Most of the deceased and those stranded in the forest are from Tamil Nadu.
On receiving information about the gang, the Red Sanders anti-smuggling task force along with forest officials embarked on a joint operation. The smugglers attacked the personnel with stones and axes, forcing them to retaliate.
"The people (alleged smugglers) threw stones and axes at the force. In self defence the police opened fire initially as a caution but they did not stop. Some policemen have also been injured in the encounter," a police officer said, IBNLive reports.
The security forces reportedly attacked the gang of 100 members, killing at least 20. They were on the lookout for the rest who were hiding in the forest.
"There were around 100 people there. Normally what they do is throw stones and axes at the force. They do so to try and threaten them and force them retreat. If there are one or two policemen then they try to kill them. But this morning the team did not step back. They were all fully trained in operations. The people threw stones and axes at the force. In self defence the police opened fire initially as a caution but they did not stop. Some policemen have also been injured in the encounter," he said.
What is Red Sanders?
Red Sanders, also called Red Sandalwood or Saunderswood, is a tree that grows in South Indian states of Karnakata, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared this tree endangered.
It holds importance for its red colour wood which the Indians consider sacred and use it in holy rituals for havans.
A variety of the Red Sanders is also used to treat cough, vomiting, fever, hyperdipsia, helminthiasis, diseases of the blood and eye, wounds and many others. The heartwood and flowers are also used as medicines for bleeding, various skin disorders, headache and other diseases.
The importance and demand of the wood outside India, especially in China, has given birth to markets for smugglers who export the wood to China at high prices.
China pays a price as high as ₹ 10 crore for a tonne of Red Sanders, while in Indian market it costs ₹ 15-20 lakh per tonne and per kg rates vary between ₹ 1,500 and ₹ 2,000.
The Andhra Pradesh government has seized the wood worth ₹ Rs 1,000 crore over the last one year.