Chennai: Amid the outcry over the killing of 20 woodcutters from Tamil Nadu by Andhra Pradesh Police, an Advocates Commission appointed by the Madras High Court has said a tribal community of Kalrayan Hills is lured by red sanders smugglers with huge money as they possess unique skills in cutting trees effortlessly and without noise.
Highlighting the need for upliftment of the community identified as 'Malayalis', the Commission in its 35-page report to the court has recommended a Master Plan for development of the hills covering Salem and Villupuram districts of Tamil Nadu.
After perusing the report, a bench, comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam, directed the Government Pleader to file the counter within four weeks and to show development works if any carried out in the hills.
“It is interesting to peruse the epilogue (of the report), which classifies the tribals of their special skills as soundless woodcutters, especially in cutting the red sanders. It appears that out of twenty people, who were recently shot down, twelve belong to the area.
"A suggestion was made to utilise the special skills in a development process rather than their lending hands to the red sander smugglers. There is, thus undoubtedly, the requirement of the development of social capital for them and suggestions are contained at the end of the epilogue," the Bench said.
Twenty woodcutters from the state were killed in firing by Andhra Pradesh police in Seshachalam forests in Chitoor district earlier this month, prompting widespread condemnation by political parties and rights groups in the state.
The three-member Advocate Commission was set up by the court on a PIL seeking a direction to the state and central governments to frame and implement a special scheme providing for the education, health, road transport and employment of residents of Kalrayan, Periya Kalrayan and Chinna Kalrayan hill areas.
According to petitioner K R Tamizhmani, President of Madras Bar Association, the hills are inhabited by a tribal community by name Malayalis. The lands are fertile but there was no active cultivation of any crop except in a few pockets. And 90 per cent of the population was in 'pinching poverty'.
The court had earlier directed the Advocate Commission to visit the area and submit a report.
The committee expressed satisfaction about facilities such as drinking water and electricity but underscored the requirement of public health care centres and infrastructure in schools and hostels and recommended a master plan for development in the area.
The Advocate Commissioners, who were present in the court, suggested that instead of pouring money to other things the government may develop the infrastructural facilities in the schools which are in pathetic condition even without toilets and regenerate 53,000 acres of forest land.
The panel also suggested a high-level multi-departmental committee comprising Secretaries of various departments.
The Commission in its report detailed about the skills of the tribals under a sub-heading "Expert Wood cutting Skills & Exceptional stamina to carry wood over long distances – Distinctive `Social Capital' of the Malayalis".
It said that local leaders, revenue officials, foresters and others spoke of how the Malayali tribals functioning cohesively as teams of 5-6 persons can fell a tall, full grown tree within a few hours.
The unique part of the woodcutting skills was the near soundless way in which the tribals could cut, prune, size and carry the logs over distances as long as 25-30 kms away without a break.
Forest department officials informed the Commission that major timber smuggling mafia from Andhra Pradesh were the only people who realised the unique skills of the tribals and have been systematically luring them by offering major advances and promising sums of money which they cannot normally earn.
A well-oiled system of labour contractors operates throughout the Hills and they in turn have local agents who collect a group of tribals and send them for illegal felling of red sanders.
The Commission in its report further said locals, including women, told the members about the incarceration in Andhra Pradesh jails of several hundreds of tribal labourers who were lured to illegal tree felling operations.
They spoke in anger against the labour contractors who lured their men folk with promises of high monetary returns with the assurance that the chances of getting caught were slim.
"We were orally told that each person going for tree- cutting to the AP red sanders hills for just a period of 7–10 days could earn about Rs. 25,000 to Rs 30,000," one of the advocate commissioners said.
Directing the state Chief Secretary to examine the matter of appointing a high-level multi-departmental committee comprising several departmental heads to resolve the other problems mentioned in the report and for a master plan.
The Bench posted the matter to July 28 for further hearing.