Satellite mapping by the authorities forces India’s famous cannabis growers deeper into the bush.
By Shweta Desai, 10th January 2014 (Republished with permission)
Deep in India’s Himalayas, in the remote and isolated Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh, is the quiet village of Malana. When autumn arrives each year, Malana is enveloped in what was once a hopeful air brought on by the new harvest, as lanky cannabis trees bloom wild in panoramic fields and against scattered houses. Farmers and villagers begin cultivating in late September, rubbing the buds of fully bloomed plants between their palms to extract the brown hashish resin known mystically as Malana’s crème. Today this time of year carries with it the dark pall of police interference.
Malana’s crème has a notorious legacy in international stoner culture. It has won the Best Hashish title twice, in 1994 and 1996, at High Times magazine’s Cannabis Cup. Marijuanaphiles the world over have since made this region a popular weed-tourist destination, branded in travel and ganja-hunting literature as the exotic and alluring “Malana and the Magic Valley.” It was inevitable that the farmers would start to realize the global potential of their plants—and that the cops would take any and all measures to prevent these rural agriculturalists from increasing production. The most effective tool in authorities’ arsenal is satellite technology, but the farmers have found a workaround.
Malana is perched on a treacherous cliff, and until recently the only way to reach it was by foot. This helped marijuana farmers avoid the close monitoring of local and national police. But new roads connecting the village with surrounding towns and cities have resulted in a harsh reality for farmer-businessmen ambitious with their valuable crop. Because of these recently paved roads, cops are now able to respond quickly to intel provided by satellite Global Positioning Systems (GPS). They have destroyed Malana’s visible, free-range hemp crops three times in each of the last three years, prosecuting villagers—this year there have been 42 cases—who were growing crops on their private land. Repeated offenses can lead to cancellation of land ownership. This approach by the authorities has prompted citizens to cultivate cannabis in large tracts of government forest, making it difficult to prove ownership.
“The plant was here long before the police came—or the foreigners, the road, the electricity,” says 22-year-old Shanta, a grower. “Even before this bhang [cannabis] became the famous Malana crème. Why are we being made criminals?”
Perhaps the most interesting question is not why, but how.
“With the GPS system we can spot the exact locations of the crops,” says Vinod Dhawan, superintendent of police in the Kullu District. “These places are videographed and marked once the crop is destructed to ensure the villagers don’t come back for cultivation.” With Western customers, comes Western-like authoritarian overreach.
Satellite images procured by the Narcotics Control Bureau—the country’s main drug enforcing agency—have identified 52 independent regions in the districts of Kullu, Mandi, Chamba, Kangra, Sirmour and Shimla, including an estimated 2,500 villages, where cannabis cultivation is a major source of livelihood. The police can act only when they have some information, of course, but the percentage of crop destruction stands at around 40 percent of Malana’s annual take. It’s not a tenable business model for farmers with no other income, so they’ve taken their farms elsewhere.
“We go deep in the forests, where the police cannot see the farms,” says Shanta, who treks five hours each day from Malana into the forests to reach his cannabis farms.
“It takes an expertise of a mountain climber and at least eight hours for the police to climb the high peaks where these farms are,” says superintendent Dhawan. “With the production of cannabis in the valley taking place between September and November, it is practically impossible for us to eradicate cannabis 100 percent in two months time.’’ With little incentive and a tiny budget, the police are fighting an uphill battle.
High yield coupled with cheap labor makes India’s retail prices among the lowest in the world based on quality. The popularity of Malana’s hashish is now intrinsically attached to the livelihood of the villagers, with the majority of the 2,000 or so inhabitants involved in cannabis farming in one way or another. But the production and cultivation of cannabis in India was not always prohibited. Its consumption even today is widely accepted in both religious and social settings. In fact, the government used to set up weed retail shops during holidays like Holi, a festival celebrating the triumph of good over evil.
But growing international pressure in the 1960s, largely led by the United States of America’s war on drugs, led India to codify recreational drugs like weed with harder ones like cocaine and heroine under the Indian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985. Conviction under the law for cultivation or sale of any of these carries a prison term of no fewer than 10 years.
Historically, Malana’s villagers used the indigenous plant’s strong fibers to make shoes and its seeds to brew hash oil for cooking. It remains integral as a religious offering to the presiding local deity, Jamlu Devta. It is only recently that the locals have started to truly understand the financial value of their treasure. The cultivation of the crème is a full-fledged trade industry—one unlike any other the people have.
“The police say it’s a drug,” Shanta says. “That it is dangerous. But this is just a plant—a naturally grown one. We don’t know why this is dangerous.”
According to the “World Drug Report 2012″ from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, India has over the course of the last decade become one of the major global sources of hash, along with Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon. The reported cannabis cultivation in India stands at 10,539 acres, which is low in comparison with Afghanistan (59,305 acres), Mexico (40,772 acres) and Morocco (23,227 acres).
Villagers say of the 1 million pounds of cannabis and 500,000 pounds of hashish produced in India, a meager 330 pounds comes from the Malana village. The rest, they claim, is from surrounding villages, and even Nepal. Though tasked with cracking down on cannabis production and preventing its circulation in the cities, the police are aware of the sociological difficulties of playing by the book.
“Cannabis is a social and cultural issue,” says Dhawan. “We take all the possible action, but we cannot fight this menace by registering offenses against the local villagers and putting them behind bars all the time. We cannot make these people from Malana orphans.”
Filmmaker Amlan Dutta, a vocal supporter of legalization of cannabis in India, agrees with Dhavan.
“The harsh reality is that hashish has become a means of livelihood,” says Dutta. “However, cannabis farming for social and cultural reasons should not be criminalized.”
In his award-winning documentary BOM: One Day Ahead of Democracy, Dutta highlights the transition in Malana due to development and the struggle for sustenance under the growing police intimidation. Decriminalization of cannabis, he says, would relieve the drug enforcing agencies from the added burden of destroying cannabis plantation and registering criminal offenses against the villagers. It would also allow people from Malana to grow cannabis legally as in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, where the Indian government provides production licenses for medicinal and research purposes.
In the last few years, Dutta initiated the BOM BOM trust with like-minded supporters to retain Malana’s self-sufficient, weed-heavy economy. The trust offers vocational training in sheep rearing, wool production, jam making, honey collection and the creation of alternate products from cannabis like hemp oil and hemp paper. It also sponsors students from Malana for higher education in Kullu valley.
“The villagers know that their sustenance is on something which is illegal,” Dutta says. “So it has become a criminal community. If we can reduce their dependency on hashish production in any way and legalize the cannabis cultivation, we still can save Malana.”
Shweta Desai has a Masters in International Relations and has previously worked as a journalist and as a research analyst, working on resource based conflicts in Middle East and on development trends in Vietnam and Thailand.