Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Sandalwood, or Srignadha in Kannada is so much associated with Karnataka the land, the culture and of course Kannada cinema. The state is also called the ‘citadel of Sandalwood’ or Gandhaga Gudi. It is something found in every Kannadiga Hindu homes as it is one of the most important ingredients in the process of pooja. I was indeed taken aback to read that Australia is currently the largest cultivator/producer of ‘Indian’ sandalwood. What a disgrace.
Historically speaking, the entire ‘spice route’ trade revolved around spices and aromatics like Sandalwood. Rich Romans coveted for exquisite Sandal fragrance along with Musk. Musk of course is long gone, we have indeed killed all the poor creatures. Musk Deers as dead as Dodo in today’s India, we who grew up post liberalisation were too late even to understand and appreciate the mention of ‘Musk’ in poems. Looks like our children will feel the same way about Sandal wood.
I remember, we had a couple of Sandalwood trees in our farm long back. One sombre night, smugglers chopped the trees away in minutes using an electric saw. The incident was rather surprising because we had never heard of an electric saw. Felling big trees like those meant a full day’s work, not something a few unemployed kids could think of doing. The trees were not mature enough to be harvested. The adults in the house kept cursing the smugglers, because the trees were at least 20 years from maturity. It would have probably served for the one of the daughters’ wedding! May be may be not.

It was then that I can came to know Sandalwood was not like any other tree. My uncle had to go to the police station to register a complaint about the tree smuggling. That is because, we had reported the existence of the tree to the forest department and technically all the sandalwood trees were owned by states, that we had to inform the state about the smuggling. Hmmm. Where did all these regulations lead us to?
There were so many restrictions on cultivating, trading Sandalwood. Individuals could not cultivate Sandalwood with the government owning all the known trees and being the sole agency to sell the harvested trees as well. So where is the incentive for people to start investing in Sandalwood cultivation? There is none. People did not even bother to replace what ever was being stolen. This is a classical case of misplaced inceptives.

Of late however things have slightly improved. The government of Karnataka has liberalised the cultivation of Sandalwood that is there is no need to procure license to cultivate Sandalwood, therefore enabling the possibility of large scale plantation of tree.
The question however is whether liberalising cultivation is just an incentive good enough to prop up production of Sandalwood even though the trade of Sandalwood has not been liberalised. It is still not convincing! Why should an enlightened democracy act like a medieval monarch demanding all the luxuries of the land unto himself? Why is that there should not be a free market for Sandalwood and it’s derivatives? If there can be a free market for Gold, Silver, Diamond why not for Sandalwood. If there is a free market, there will be certain price signals which will determine if it is worth taking the pains of growing a crop with a gestation period of 40-60 years, risking smugglers et al? If it does not look attractive, we are just good importing all of our demand from Australia, after all they still do not have smugglers and Veerappans out there. If certain investors feel they can make money in the long term and it is a good idea to be planning Sandalwood saplings, let them by all means.
If a market – a mandi for trade in Sandalwood is established, it would just be as commercial a crop as say coconut. What is required is not the absolute regulation of the sandalwood trade, but a framework where such a trade is seamless and fair, just like any other commodity market. What is the need for the special privilege even though the privilege does not seem to have worked out. It is time we act otherwise we might permanently loose out on the market to Australia.

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