Red Sandalwood smuggling: Millions spent on security and safety but of no use

Mismanagement in the safekeeping of 200000 kilograms Red Sandalwoods; 19,000 kilograms disappeared.

Gajendra Basnet

June 13, 2019


Red Sandalwood smuggling: Millions spent on security and safety but of no use

KATHMANDU: Red sandalwood, considered sacred by Hindus, is kept with great reverence by pious ones in their place of worship. In almost every Nepalese house, one spots the presence of the red sandalwood cozily placed next to the images of Hindu deities particularly Lord Shiva. It is shocking that red sandalwood has now attracted the smugglers’ attention and they see a prospect of making a huge amount of illegal money.

Such is the attraction of ill-gotten money extracted from the smuggling of red sandalwood that smugglers have dented the ‘security system’  often with the complicity of security personnel by apportioning ‘some commissions’ paid to them and this is how smugglers are on the loose bleeding both the sandal trees as well as Government treasury.

Nepalese people could not have thought even in their dream that the sandalwood, so sacred for their ritualistic observance in their day to day life since time immemorial, has fallen into the hands of greedy smugglers taking the scented logs to different locations inside and outside Nepal for fraudulent business practices.

Such a huge scale of smuggling racket could not have been possible without the involvement of Nepalese politicians to get their ‘cut’ of promised ‘commission’ illegally procured from the whole process of dubious activities. It is a matter of in-depth investigation as to how a small piece of scented sandalwood has now fallen into the net of a criminal nexus of politicians, criminals, and businesspersons from its deservedly sacred place of worship of pious devotees’ houses.

Smuggling of red sandalwoods has been in news for the last 12 years in Nepal since 2064 BS. In the last 5-6 years, this smuggling got all the more media coverage. Based on the media report, Nepal police also came into action and confiscated the bundles of red sandalwoods in a series of raids.

Police raids on red sandalwood smugglers

–  Nepal police confiscated smuggled red sandalwood carrying in two vans fake diplomatic registered number 11 CD 38 and 11 CD 26, heading towards Khasa from Sindupalchowk on 13 November 2007

– Nepal Police arrested 5 people with 883 kg of red sandalwood on 20 September 2007 from Bhilai, Kapilbastu.

– Nepal Police confiscated smuggled red sandalwood from NA 2 Kha 2634 on 19 April 2007 from Chehere, Sindhupalchowk.

– Nepal Police confiscated red sandalwood secretly placed at 2 go-down at Birgunj borderline on 19 April 2007.

Nepal police arrested a person with 83 slots of red sandalwood from Balaju Bypass on 29 November 2007.

– Nepal police confiscated 600 kg of red sandalwood from Ladap, Gorkha on 19 August 2009.

– Nepal police confiscated 2000 kg of red sandalwood from Bhaktapur on 13 September 2009.

– Police confiscated 1453 kg of red sandalwood from Tatopani, Sindhupalchowk on 1 June 2011.

– Police confiscated 1400 kg of red sandalwood from Kodari, Sindhupalchowk on 1 July 2011.

-Police confiscated 600 kg of red sandalwood from Panchkhal, Kavrepalanchowk on 2 September 2011.

-Police confiscated 128 kg of red sandalwood from Tatopani custom office, Sindhupalchowk on 10 September 2011

Last year too, Nepal police confiscated the smuggled red sandalwood, though small in quantity. According to Ministry of Forest Conservation, one haul of smuggled red sandalwood that was confiscated in a raid was moving from Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to China covering different points in Nepal. Nepal signed an international treaty called CITES on June 18, 1975, to protect the endangered species of wild animals and rare plants. CITES is a multilateral treaty — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This treaty is also called the Washington Convention. Red sandalwood is listed in schedule-2 of CITES as rare flora to be protected. A haul of illegally traded and smuggled sandalwood is definitely a proof of the fact that how criminal nexus is acting against the spirit of the above treaty.

Nepal police has a limited role of confiscating the smuggled red sandalwood by conducting raids and then hauls of raids are handed over to Forest Department of Nepal for further legal and procedural processing of the matter, says Bishwaraj Pokhrel, Nepal Police spokesperson. Only once the haul of smuggled sandalwood has been given to India and remaining hauls are piling in stacks. It is a huge stack of 200000 kilograms of red sandalwood currently lying with Nepal collected through a series of raids in a period of about 12 years. This has become a huge problem for Nepal now as security lapses in safeguarding hauled up red sandalwood allowing smugglers and dishonest politicians to move the part of the stored sandalwood for illegal sale and make a filthy profit by taking it both for short and long haul.

International treaty obligations make it imperative for Nepal to hand over the smuggled sandalwood to a country of origin, in this case to India. Both the council of ministers and Supreme Court of Nepal have given clear instructions to the Forest Department for dispatching the stacks of red sandalwood to India.

Suman Subedi, deputy secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Forest says that India has not responded to Nepal’s request to take back the stocks of confiscated red sandalwood and there is nothing ‘we can do more except to store these sandalwoods in the compound of Forest Department’.

Millions spent on the security of hauled-up piles of red sandalwoods

As the data reveals, the government is spending millions and millions of rupees on the safety and security of confiscated red sandalwoods stored in Nepal. At least 12 security personnel of the Armed Police Force (APF) and one forest guard have been on guard to watch over the piles of red sandalwood stacked in the compound of the Forest Department for the last 12 years. This personnel is paid extra stipends for that.

Four containers, one truck and one Tata mobile loaded with red sandalwoods have been stationing in the Forest Department compound for years. Such has been the long wait for these loaded vehicles and containers that they have recently started to show marks of rusting and signs of weathering. It is not that only Forest Department of Nepal is bearing the brunt of safeguarding the illegal haul of red sandalwood, there are a dozen more districts of Nepal who are in financial duress for the upkeep of places storing the piles.

19,324 kilograms of sandalwood missing from the storage

An estimate of 11,243 kilograms of stacked up sandalwoods in the District Forest Department, Lalitpur has gone missing suddenly on November 12, 2007. After the theft of sandalwood has come into the light, a criminal investigation has led to the arrest of a security guard, a driver and an official working in the forest department. This is just a tip of total untraceable theft. If data of confiscated sandalwood is taken into account, about 20,000 kilograms of red sandalwood is missing without having any official account (or record) of it.

At this moment, piles of 190,796 kilograms of confiscated sandalwoods are lying with Forest Department of Nepal. Dr. Ram Prasad Lamsal, Director of Forest Department says, “We have, as of now, confiscated a total of 247,048 kilograms of red sandalwood. Out of these, India has taken back 36928 kilograms and remaining say 19324 kilograms are missing.”

How to manage it?

The Office of the Auditor General in its reports have suggested managing the piled up hauls of red sandalwood by bringing new laws if not amendments. An Act to Regulate and Control International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora gives 90 days under which confiscated fauna or flora are to be returned once decisions to return the same are taken by the concerned authority. Failing to abide by the said provisions stated in the law, confiscating country has a right to manage the same as per its own internal laws of the land. In the present case, after India has not taken the haul of red sandalwoods, Nepal is within its own rights to either destroy it or manage the same in any other manner the country deems fit.

Former AIG of Nepal Police Nabaraj Dhakal says, if repeated correspondence with India on this matter fails to yield result, it is now time for Nepal to internally manage the haul. Otherwise, Nepal has to bear extra costs for upkeep of the smuggled red sandalwoods and that will amount to mismanaging our own public finance.

Suman Subedi, Deputy Secretary of Ministry of Forest and Environment, assures the Khabarhub of likely management of smuggled red sandalwoods in coming days as the process to this effect is already on.

Dr. Ram Prasad Lamsal, Director of Forest Department says that Nepal being the signatory to CITES and having framed the new law on the matter is going to manage the smuggled red sandalwoods stored here with us.

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