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Thieves strike UoP to saw sandalwood but authorities are busy shifting blame

Last Tuesday, a gang of 10 smugglers came sniffing for the wood on campus and chopped a tree, but fled when the varsity guards spotted them. While UoP claims it is the forest dept’s job to secure the woods, the latter says it is the  responsibility of PMC, which claims ignorance of the matter

As recently as last Tuesday, sandalwood smugglers struck yet again at the University of Pune campus, attempting to cut down and make off with a tree in front of the main building. Even as smugglers continue to decimate the sandalwood population on campus, the University persists in denying all responsibility, instead passing the buck on to the PMC and the forest department.

University of Pune
The University of Pune sits amid 411 acres of lush green, with hundreds of botanical species. File pic

Vanishing act
The University of Pune sits on 411 acres of lush green campus, with over 500 species of plants. “Once UoP had literally thousands of sandalwood trees. The figure was good even until 10 years ago. But today there are hardly any sandalwood trees remaining on campus,” said Dr S S Deokule, senior professor at UoP’s botany department.

He added, “There are 512 species in the botanical garden. The garden had at least three mature trees, until they were all stolen a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, at present not even a single full-grown sandalwood tree remains there.”

Last Tuesday, a group of 10 to 12 smugglers entered the campus to cut down a sandalwood tree with a chainsaw. The guards saw them and gave chase, but the thieves managed to get away, leaving the sawed tree behind.

While this time, the smugglers couldn’t take the wood with them, last July, another band of thieves had successfully smuggled out sandalwood. The prized wood only fetches a price for the heartwood in mature trees, and smugglers usually don’t pocket more than Rs 1,000-2,000 per tree, because these trees don’t grow very well in Maharashtra.

Even with such low incentive, smuggling carries on unchecked on the campus. It is estimated that while the sandalwood count was around 1,000 a decade ago, it has dwindled to two-digit figures. The university’s apathy is clear from the fact that it has not even conducted an official count of the trees currently standing on campus.

Officialspeak
Interestingly, UoP Registrar Dr Narendra Kadu maintains that the campus still has a large sandalwood population. Asked about the thefts, he said, “In my opinion, the area where that sandalwood tree was situated falls under the jurisdiction of the forest department. Our security personnel must have intimated them.” He added, “Even though we don’t have separate guards for the conservation of forest area, our security department tries to curb such attempts.”

On the other hand, the Deputy Conservator of Forest (Pune division) Satyajeet Gujar rejected Kadu’s claim that UoP’s green cover comes under the forest department’s jurisdiction. “Neither does the UoP area fall under our jurisdiction, nor has anyone from the varsity informed us about the theft,”he said, adding that the varsity’s woods are the Pune Municipal Corporation’s responsibility.

The in-charge of PMC’s tree authority, Mohan Dhere, however, told mid-day, “The UoP has not informed us about any such incident.” 

It is also clear that the UoP security is far from equipped to deal with forays from smugglers. Asked about Tuesday’s incident, the security department head, M S Kedari, said, “When a couple of guards posted at the main building of UoP noticed the sandalwood theft, they ran to stop it.

But one of the thieves threw some metal weapon at one of the guards, forcing them to stop the chase. By the time police arrived, the thieves had hidden in the green cover, and later they ran away.”

Precedent

In July last year, another band of thieves had successfully smuggled out sandalwood

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