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Smuggling queen label on dancing star

Mohanambaal

Chennai, June 9: The folk dance form of Karakaattam is all about letting nothing spill out. The dancers, male or female, place a bronze pot filled with water on their head and do fast twirls without the pot toppling or the water splashing.

Decades of expertise in the art seems to have stood Mohanambaal, 50, well in what police claim was her latest profession.

For four years, officers say, she financed and organised the international smuggling racket in red sanders wood while continuing to perform at the occasional temple festival to keep up the appearance of being a retired folk artiste.

“She was the unchallenged queen of the illegal trade —nothing happened in it without her knowledge,” an officer said.

When the police raided her home in Vellore on May 29, they claim, they found Rs 4.3 crore in cash stuffed inside gunny bags and jewels worth Rs 60 lakh. Investigations have revealed she owns 28 houses across four Tamil Nadu districts, officers said.

A “Lady Veerappan” tag would be far-fetched — Mohana faces no charges of violent crime — but the parallels go beyond the similar-sounding names of the wood they are accused of smuggling.

If the late Veerappan ruled the sandalwood forests across the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border, Mohana’s theatre of operations has been the Seshasalam forests in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district bordering Tamil Nadu.

Officers claimed Mohana had been “exposed” by a disgruntled former partner, Mayavan, who suspected her of a role in his arrest.

“He tipped the police off about Mohana finalising a deal with a well-known smuggler from Andhra,” a source said.

By the time the police reached her home in Vellore, 190km from here and close to the Andhra border, the duo had fled along with Mohana’s nephew and alleged henchman, Sarvanan. Mohana, however, surrendered on June 9 at a magistrate’s court along with elder sister Nirmala but there was still no news about Sarvanan, Nirmala’s son.

China-bound

The red sanders tree has a pinkish bark and deep-red trunk. Its wood is smuggled mainly to Malaysia and China, in powder form, where its oil is thought to have aphrodisiac and medicinal properties.

The wood is also used for carving decorative figures that are believed to impart “positive energy” to dwellings.

Mohana allegedly entered the racket after giving refuge to a top smuggler from Andhra.

According to the police’s version of an account by Mayavan, she had dutifully returned the Rs 5 crore the smuggler had entrusted with her before his arrest. Since then, her home became the trusted venue for all negotiations in the racket.

Quickly learning the ropes, Mohana began finalising deals and assembled a workforce from nearby villages to enter the Seshasalam forests to cut the trees and ferry them to the smugglers’ trucks, an officer said.

In her heyday as a dancer before her retirement seven years ago, Mohana had been popular across north Tamil Nadu and averaged a dozen-odd shows per month at temple festivals and village fairs. She earned Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per show.

Having never married, she saved enough to start a money-lending business and accumulated sizeable property by usurping that of defaulters who pledged their houses to her.

She earned a lot from rent and ploughed much of her red sanders money into the money-lending business, the police said. She lived alone, adopting a largely middle-class lifestyle but with a weakness for jewels.

Profitable trade

Red sanders smuggling took off after the tree, already being overexploited, was put on the endangered list in the year 2000 and the Centre banned its felling, movement and sale.

“A ton of red sanders fetches up to Rs 20 lakh in India but its international landing price is above Rs 50 lakh,” a forest officer from the Vellore range said.

“It is smuggled out in ship containers or as air cargo, masquerading as foodstuff, mostly with the collusion of customs officials. Sometimes air passengers carry them as luggage, from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur or from Delhi to Beijing.”

Sources said the villagers hired to cut the trees and lug them out were paid handsomely at Rs 3,000 for a six-foot log.

The racket became a law-and-order problem when a gang of north Tamil Nadu villagers hacked two Andhra forest rangers to death in the Seshasalam forests last December.

That prompted the Andhra police to form a special task force that, in the past four months, has shot four Tamil villagers, seized over 20,000 tonnes of red sanders and arrested nearly 1,000 smugglers from Tamil Nadu.

Some Tamil Nadu politicians have tried to turn this into an inter-state issue by accusing the Andhra police of targeting innocent Tamils. But the Jayalalithaa government sees it as an illegal activity that needs to be put down to prevent the emergence of another Veerappan.

“The 2003 Maoist attack on (then Andhra chief minister) Chandrababu Naidu was financed by Gangi Reddy, a leading smuggler of red sanders,” a forest officer in Andhra said.

“He jumped bail and left the country on a fake passport early last month. With Naidu’s return as chief minister, the hunt for Reddy and the crackdown against red sanders smuggling is bound to intensify.”