Illegal timber trade is threat to nation’s economics and ecology

NEW DELHI | Updated: 22 December, 2023 10:55 am IST

The recent charge sheet filed by the Uttarakhand GST department against Shahnawaz Hussain, the alleged kingpin of a massive illegal timber trade operation, has exposed the extent and gravity of this menace that plagues the nation’s economy and ecology. The charge sheet reveals how Hussain and his associates evaded crores of rupees in taxes by creating fake companies and bills and selling timber units to non-existent firms. The investigation, which spanned over a year and involved over 300 officials and advanced technologies, also uncovered the involvement of individuals from several states, indicating the multistate nature of this network.

The illegal timber trade is not only a serious crime, but also a major threat to the environment and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on forests. According to a report by the World Bank, India loses about $10 billion annually due to illegal logging and forest degradation. The illegal timber trade also contributes to deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change, soil erosion, water scarcity, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters. Moreover, the illegal timber trade undermines the legal timber industry, which employs about 35 million people and contributes about 1.7% to the GDP.

The charge sheet filed by the Uttarakhand GST department is a commendable step towards curbing the illegal timber trade and bringing the culprits to justice. However, this is not enough. The illegal timber trade is a complex and widespread problem that requires a coordinated and comprehensive response from all the state governments and the central government.

All state governments should strengthen the enforcement of the existing laws and regulations related to forest conservation, timber trade, and taxation. This includes increasing the penalties for the offenders, enhancing the capacity and accountability of the forest and tax officials, and ensuring speedy and fair trials for the accused. State governments also need to enhance the monitoring and surveillance of the forest areas and the timber markets, using modern technologies such as satellite imagery, drones, GPS, biometrics, and blockchain. This will help in detecting and preventing illegal logging, transportation, and sale of timber, and also in tracing the origin and destination of the timber products.

The state governments should promote the participation and empowerment of the local communities, especially the forest dwellers and the tribal people, in the management and protection of the forests. This will help create awareness, generate income, and foster a sense of ownership and responsibility among the people towards the forest resources. Also, encouraging the adoption of sustainable and legal practices in the timber industry, such as certification, labelling, and traceability will help in curbing the menace. This will help in creating a level playing field for the legal timber producers and traders, and also in enhancing the quality and value of the timber products.

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Raising public awareness and education about the adverse impacts of the illegal timber trade on the economy and the ecology, and the benefits of the legal and sustainable timber trade is another step that all state governments can take. This will help create a demand for legal and certified timber products and also discourage the consumption and support of illegal timber products.

The illegal timber trade is a national problem that demands a national solution. It is high time that all the state governments and the central government join hands and act decisively to end this menace that is hurting the nation’s economy and ecology. The nation cannot afford to lose its precious forest wealth and its rightful tax revenue to the greed and fraud of a few criminals.

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