Forest Dept. complicit, says MLA; seeks high-level investigation
Madikeri: Rampant illegal mining of precious stones has been reported from Pattighat Reserve Forests (Nishane Motte) near Bhagamandala of the Western Ghats under the very nose of the Forest Department and those who are duty-bound to protect it have now been accused of openly allowing plunderers to loot the forest wealth.
These smugglers are unearthing gemstones from the forests with the help of locals and selling them at a premium to luxury hotels, jewellery shops, spas and massage parlours. These virgin forests are an integral part of Kodagu and the Western Ghats and except for wild animals and Forest Department staff, no one — not even cattle — is allowed inside.
In such a forest, covered with fully grown trees, deep pits are dug and mud is lifted out and loads and loads of mud are sieved for precious stones, especially red ones, resembling rubies. Ironically, the Forest Department camp and the tents where they stay guarding the jungles are located metres away from the places that have been dug up and still, this has not come to the notice of the Department.
The Pattighat Reserve Forests begin at the very end of Thannimaani village that can be reached from the entrance gate of Bhagamandala via Karike Road. One has to trek around a six-kilometre area that is full of ravines and steep gorges to reach there. The Reserve Forest is spread across 2,200-hectare land and joins the Subramanya- Kadamakal Forests.
While Subramanya Range Forest comes under Dakshina Kannada, Koojimalai, Suttathmalai Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary and Pattighat (Nishane Motte) comes under the jurisdiction of Kodagu district. Public entry has been banned here and unfortunately, this ban is a blessing in disguise for smugglers to carry out the illegal stone mining.
When the first report of this rampant precious stone mining was reported by some local villagers of Bhagamandala a week back, teams from the Forest Department were sent to inspect the area. But strangely, the inspecting teams did not find any pits dug up deep inside the forest. They only found mounds of mud from where the pits were dug and the same was reported by the teams to their higher officers.
Even as the Department justified that there are no pits, local villagers said that a little bit of effort would have unearthed the entire racket as the pits were cleverly covered with hay stack, small wooden blocks and mud.
The pits were finally spotted on Jan. 6 by the Forest Squad personnel who were accompanied by Assistant Conservator of Forests Mohiseen and Chairman of Karnataka State Western Ghats Task Force, Shantheyanda Ravi Kushalappa.
Mining network spread out
According to people in the know of things, this mining activity has been going on in many reserve forests around Kodagu especially in the Bhagamandala region for the last 20 years. Before the Pattighat was declared as a Reserve Forest, the illegal mining was concentrated on one or two locations from where the stones were extracted. However, after the Reserve Forest restrictions came into place, mining spread out to many locations.
For instance, one deep pit that was used to excavate soil was closed in 2020 with cement. Recently, another 4-ft wide and 30-ft deep pit has been dug nearby and from there, another ‘L’ shaped pit has been dug up connecting this deep pit, shocking the Forest Squad.
Organised gangs camp in woods
So organised the gangs are that many earth-digging implements, pulleys and ropes to pull out mud, sieves, cooking vessels, fireplaces and iron rods and pipes have been recovered indicating that the smugglers camp inside the area, set up fireplaces and even prepare food. How can this be possible without the Forest Department knowing, ask local villagers. The stones earlier used to fetch a price of Rs. 500 to Rs. 700 per kg, now costs over Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 50,000 per kg, making it a lucrative deal for smugglers. The illegal trade was first reported in the 1990s at Subramanya Forest Range and Pushpagiri Ranges. Gradually, the trade spread to Madikeri and Bhagamandala ranges.
Once the stones are extracted, they are polished and marketed to massage parlours, five-star hotels and spas. Once polished, the texture and appearance of the stones change and they look similar to precious gemstones.
Jewellery shops too purchase these precious stones and they are sold with actual precious stones. The stones, in different colours, are used in ‘hot stone massage’, ‘aromatherapy’ and the quality is decided on the stones texture after polishing.
Regular affair since 2007
Illegal mining at Pattighat Reserve has been rampant since 2007 and the name of an influential person from Madikeri circling around the racket. All the investigation that has been conducted so far is just an eye-wash and only lower-rung Forest Department staff has been the targets. All the senior officers who have been in-charge of Pattighat Reserve Forests since 2007 must be investigated for the truth to come out. It is clear that the Forest Department is complicit. I will press for a detailed investigation and impress upon the Government to conduct a high-level probe. — K.G. Bopaiah, MLA Virajpet
1 guard, 2 watchers missing
Our inspection clearly establishes the involvement of Forest Department staff and without their knowledge, no one can enter the core area of the Reserve Forests. This is a classic case of the fence eating the crop. Villagers here say that some unscrupulous Forest Department officers take bribes up to Rs. 5 lakh to Rs. 10 lakh to allow mining once inside the forests. One forest guard and two watchers are missing from duty and they must be arrested. — Shantheyanda Ravi Kushalappa,
Chairman of Karnataka State Western Ghats Task Force