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Sandalwood thefts set off alarm bells

Sandalwood thieves are striking right at the backyard of the Hazaribagh district forest department with as many as eight trees being reportedly felled in the past five months while the authorities continued to stress that losses were not huge.

The latest incident took place on the night of November 9 when eight armed criminals barged into the office of the forest department on Ranchi-Patna Highway (NH-33) near Private Bus Stand and took three unarmed guards at gunpoint before using an electronic cutter to slice off huge chunks of two trees.

The next day, an FIR was lodged against a casual employee, Subhchandra Jha, and eight persons on the basis of a complaint by divisional forest officer R. Thanga Pandey.

However, a new twist came when on November 13, a woman was nabbed at Hatia station in Ranchi with a jute bag containing sandalwood. She was later identified as one Kohina of Dindrauli village in Madhya Pradesh. There were three other women with Kohina, but they managed to flee when railway police tried to stop them. Kohina was handed over to Tupudana police.

A police officer of Sadar police station, Hazaribagh, said the sandalwood recovered from Kohina was the same that was stolen from the forest department’s office. “We will soon bring her to Hazaribagh for interrogation,” he added.

While the November 9 incident along with other such cases have sparked off fears that sandalwood smugglers had zeroed in on Hazaribagh, surprisingly, the forest department does not have information about the number of sandalwood trees present in the town area.

Conservator of forest A.K. Pandey also pleaded his inability to give a figure. In fact, he also refuted reports that eight trees were felled in the past five months.

“According to my knowledge, only five trees were cut — one from the residence of conservator of forest, one at the house of divisional forest officer and three on the NH-33 office premises,” he maintained.

But sources said the gang had targeted a total of six sandalwood trees on the premises of NH-33 office alone. However, the department had lodged FIR in five cases only.

Sources further said last year, three trees were felled at the local crematorium in Kheergaon but despite lodging an FIR, no action was taken.

A forest department official, on condition of anonymity, confirmed that an organised gang was indeed after sandalwood trees in Jharkhand.

“The unofficial figure of sandalwood thefts is more. Within a year, a tree was axed at the official residence of a forest official in Ranchi, three at Parasnath, one at the office of an NGO in Deoghar and one at Netarhat, Latehar. The department may lack information about the exact number of sandalwood trees but not this gang,” he said.

The official further said the fact that this gang could easily make off with the prized wood pointed to the involvement of insiders.

“The inner part of sandalwood logs, known as heartwood, is very expensive. But with time, the roots get developed and become costlier. One kilogram of sandalwood can fetch anything between Rs 2,000 and Rs 15,000. It is mainly used to make items needed for puja, especially incense sticks,” the official said.

Regional chief conservator of forest, Pradeep Kumar, tried to play down the incidents by saying the stolen wood was not very expensive. “The targeted trees were not very thick. So, the loss is not huge,” he added.

But according to sources, after thieves laid their hands on three trees at the Kheergaon crematorium, the local committee sold the last one at Rs 12 lakh, that too in a hurry. “The trees at the forest office are over 15 years old and hence, very costly,” a source said.

A sadar police station officer said they had begun investigations to find out whether any insider was involved.

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