When Prema-Prayanam, a run-of-the-mill Telugu potboiler, was released in 2013 and sank without a trace, few people knew that the film was produced by alleged smuggler-friendly politician Mastan Vali, with his starlet friend, Neetu Agarwal, playing the lead.
Vali, a YSR Congress Party leader in Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool district, and Agarwal were arrested last month for their alleged links with sandalwood smugglers.
“Vali did spill some beans. He said a prominent politician — now a YSRCP legislator from the district — had taken about Rs 75 lakh from him for providing patronage,” a top police official told HT.
Kollam Gangi Reddy, a smuggler-turned-YSRCP supporter, is the most prominent face of the illegal trade in the state. Reddy is also accused of aiding Maoist extremists in the October 2013 Alipiri bomb blast that targeted TDP leader and Andhra chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu.
According to police sources, Vijayananda Reddy, who was arrested in Chittoor after Naidu came to power last year, financed about a dozen YSRCP candidates.
In some instances, there is no attempt to hide the links. YSRCP legislator Chevireddy Bhaskar Reddy openly visited the Rajahmundry jail to meet Vijayananda.
In fact, illegal felling and smuggling of red sanders sandalwood trees has been generating huge money for the past decade in Rayalaseema’s Chittoor, Kurnool and, especially, Kadapa district — the stronghold and home of YSRCP chief Jagan Mohan Reddy.
With the TDP in power, the heat is on smugglers linked to opposition parties, but police officials say some TDP men, besides some Congress leaders, are also linked to the illicit business.
In Rayalaseema, where even a small road project cannot be executed without political patronage, the YSR Congress and the TDP spent huge amounts during the 2014 Lok Sabha and state assembly elections. And a part of this funding, particularly for the YSRCP, reportedly came from the coffers of red sanders smugglers.
It was only after April 7 when 20 alleged woodcutters were killed by police in Chittoor, on the border with Tamil Nadu, that the nation started taking notice of the denuded sandalwood forests.
The smuggling proceeds changed the face of the region —from an agriculture-based feudal economy to a violent and glitzy world protected by a very powerful mafia-police-politician nexus.
Local myths that keep the get-rich-quick dream alive for the man on the street are about a coolie who became a billionaire and a small-time vendor who emerged as an underworld kingpin, apart from some men in khaki who switched sides even while in service.
But behind all that sheen seethes violence. For instance, on December 15, 2013 in Chittoor, smugglers brutally killed two forest officials by cutting off their private parts. There were 14 such incidents in 2014 and police were forced to open fire on some occasions, resulting in the death of at least nine people.
Soon after taking over as CM last June, Naidu vowed to put an end to the red sanders smuggling. One of the reasons was to block the source of money to his chief rival in Rayalaseema.
In November 2014, Naidu formed the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force, a team of 463 specialists drawn from police and forest personnel. The unit started functioning in February and has 130 personnel now. Forty members of this team were part of the April encounter.
Police action has intensified since, leading to the arrest of some people who control the deals in the international markets. “Yes, some of our men are also involved though, thankfully, most are not like that,” said a police official.
Despite the encounter and the ensuing strict vigilance, smugglers are managing to bring Tamil woodcutters into the state in big numbers. On Friday, Kadapa police arrested 71 woodcutters from Salem who were travelling in a private bus as a wedding party.
“This shows the lure of the illegal money and their disregard for their lives,” said Andhra DGP JV Ramudu.
But all eyes are now on forest department employees because only forest guards and officers have extensive knowledge of the jungles where no one is allowed in without permission.
“By leading the smugglers and woodcutters or just guiding them to the mature trees, a corrupt guard could earn lakhs of rupees,” said an official.