Mumbai: The fragrant Indian sandalwood is under threat of extinction because the business of extracting the sweet-scented oil can fetch huge profits, says a conservationist.

And authorities in Maharashtra have certainly played a dubious role in obliterating the forest wealth by permitting sandalwood oil extracting units in the state in violation of Bombay Forest Rules and the Supreme Court orders of 1997.

Among the violators is none other than former Forest Minister Surupsinh Naik, now serving a one-month jail term for contempt of the apex orders in allowing saw mills, for veneer and plywood, to operate within the precincts of forest areas.

Conservationist Kishor Rithe, Director, Nature Conservation Society Amravati (NCSA), has proved that there is a clear nexus between politicians, the forest department officials and owners of sandalwood oil extracting units.

His only hope is that authorities comply with the laws of the land to protect the depleting forest cover.

"Do you know, a sandalwood tree takes 60 years to grow into a mature tree? Indian sandalwood is the best and most fragrant in the world and looking at the booming illegal industry of sandalwood oil extraction, our future generations may wonder what sandalwood is all about."

That is why his organisation, the NCSA, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Mumbai High Court on February 10, 2005.

"Notices were then issued to the respondents. As per the investigations of NCSA, we found that 33 oil extraction units are operating in Maharashtra illegally even though the state has no sandalwood forest cover unlike Karnataka and Tamil Nadu."

"Initially, the state government failed to reply to the notices issued by the court but woke up to act when the court directed the Chief Secretary to pay a fine of Rs5,000," says Rithe.

The final order of the high court came on January 13, 2006 asking the government to shut down the units.

Price shoots up

The distribution of sandalwood shown by the Central Empowered Committee is: Karnataka, 5,245 sq km; Tamil Nadu, 3,040 sq km; Andhra Pradesh, 175 sq km; Kerala, 65 sq km; Madhya Pradesh, 33 sq km; Orissa, 25 sq km and Maharashtra, 1 sq km.

In 2001, the cost of sandalwood rose from about Rs500 per kg to Rs2,200 per kg. Consequently, the price of sandalwood also shot up from Rs16,000 per kg to Rs78,000 per kg.