Sureshji Patil, a farmer from Sindhudurg district in Maharasthra, looks cautious while talking about the rubber plantation near his village. “No one can go there,” Patil warns the correspondent. “They have their own vehicles to bring in the workers and take them back. They have dangerous dogs, too, which guard the plantation so that no outsider can roam around.” The plantation is 7 km from Patil’s village Phansawade in Sawantwadi taluk. The villager was right. The correspondent is indeed shooed away by the guards around 3 km from the site.
The residents of Phansawade and neighbouring villages do not know who owns the plantation but they are sure about one thing: the owner is from Kerala. “There may be hundreds of rubber plantations in Sawantwadi and Dodamarg, and most of them are owned by people from Kerala,” says Raghuji Bhagwan Sawant of the adjoining Kesari village.
The Sawantwadi-Dodamarg corridor is a part of the Konkan (coastal) belt — a strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats that run parallel to the coastline. The region is known for its biodiversity. There are over 367 species of marine flora and fauna reported from Sindhudurg. The region is also rich with endangered wildlife species ranging from the striped tiger to Asiatic elephants, bison, sloth bear and toddy cat.
This biodiversity is now under threat as Sindhudurg is slowly being taken over by rubber plantations. It almost seems that rule of law does not apply to the plantations — most of them illegal— that operate right under the nose of district administration, posing a serious threat to wildlife.
The majority of the plantations, as the locals point out, are owned by people from Kerala, including businessmen and Malayali actors, perhaps because rubber plantation is quite prominent in the southern state. It is estimated that Kerala accounts for more than 90 percent of rubber production in the country. The rubber traders from there may have shifted to Sindhudurg in a bid to expand their business.
Rubber plantation started in Sindhudurg around eight years ago with people from Kerala buying land cheap from the villagers. Initially, the business went unnoticed when the traders were buying thousands of acres. It is estimated that the investors bought the land at Rs 2,000-Rs 10,000 per acre and easily made around Rs 4-Rs 5 lakh an acre from rubber plantation. With more investors coming in, it caught the attention of environmental activists, leading to protests.
An Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer who was in- charge of Sindhudurg district in 2009 was the first person to blow the lid off the rubber plantation mafia. “I confiscated 2,000 hectares of land along with machinery from the plantation sites around Tilary Dam in Dodamarg. The rubber plantation had destroyed all the herbs and shrubs of the area,” recalls the ifs officer requesting anonymity. As a result of his action, he was transferred out of Sindhudurg.
“When I asked for action against officials in the district administration, my seniors mentally harassed me because they were hand-in-glove with the rubber mafia. There were also plans to implicate me in false cases, but they knew I was clean and so I was only transferred,” he reveals.
The land that the locals sell to the investors for rubber plantation are mostly private forest not suitable for agriculture. This is despite the Bombay High Court’s 10 April 2012 order banning the felling of trees in the Sawantwadi-Dodamarg belt. “The authorities of the Forest Department as well as concerned Collectors must ensure that nobody should be permitted to cut the trees in the area,” read the order. The court directive, clearly, has failed to stop deforestation in the region.
The plantation sites are also a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Stalin Dayanand, director of projects at environmental ngo Vanshakti, wrote several letters to the district authorities against rubber plantation but in vain. “Rubber plantation was stopped in Kerala when dengue and malaria peaked about four years ago,” he tells Tehelka. “Moreover, the wildlife area cannot be tampered with. There is a court order banning tree-felling in the region but nobody is implementing it. It seems that you can cut as many trees as you want in the state. The government officers, too, try to run away from their responsibilities. I wrote a letter to the Chief Conservator of Forest, Kolhapur, against felling of trees and he replied that the forest I mentioned was a private forest that was under the purview of the Collector.”