November 10, 2021 5:32:35 pm
Dhoolpet – a densely populated locality near the Old City of Hyderabad – once notorious for illicitly distilled (ID) liquor, is back in news. The visuals of uniformed personnel in the neighbourhood checking phones of citizens for search keywords like stuff, ganja, weed and so on in recent weeks have drawn widespread criticism.
For three weeks now, a 65-year-old woman and her three grandchildren (aged 18, 17 and 11), who live in a narrow bylane of Dhoolpet, have been waiting for the return of a widow in her mid-30s. The elderly woman, requesting anonymity, said her daughter-in-law was arrested from home on suspicion of peddling marijuana and charged under the NDPS (Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act. “She was taken away late in the evening, even though no ganja was found in her possession,” the woman alleged.
The arrested woman’s husband used to sell ‘gudumba’ (a local term for ID liquor) and had tried his hands in peddling marijuana as well before passing away last year. “There was no job, no food and she had to take care of all four of us. Even if she (her daughter-in-law) sold ganja, it was only out of compulsion,” the sexagenarian added.
Another woman, Savitha Bai, who is in her 50s, used to earn between Rs 200 and Rs 500 a day by selling gudumba packets till the officers of the Prohibition and Excise Department put a stop to it four years ago. Dhoolpet was declared free of ID liquor in 2017 and according to official statistics, as many as 508 families were rehabilitated by the government. The families were told that they would be given Rs 2 lakh loan each to set up small business establishments. “I was promised a kirana (grocery) store. Officers took my details and identity cards but I have not got anything till date. I still have my sons to look after me, but there are several other women, single mothers and widows who have no sources of income. They are peddling ganja as it is a matter of day-to-day survival,” she said.
Ganja peddling: Over 150 arrested, 500-plus counselled in Dhoolpet in last few weeks
Dhoolpet is a low-income neighbourhood and has been associated with gudumba brewing since the times of the Nizam. “The rehabilitation of gudumba sellers of Dhoolpet was an eyewash,” said Goshamahal MLA T Raja Singh, who blamed the state government for the rise in marijuana peddling. “Earlier if 10-12 people used to peddle ganja here, the figure crossed 200 in the last couple of years. The excise and police officers had full knowledge of it… It has become an issue only now since the number of crimes involving people addicted to ganja is increasing,” he said.
The MLA added that areas such as Musheerabad, Chandrayangutta, Tolichowki, Golconda, Zira, Chintalmet and Mehdipatnam have become newer hubs of drug peddlers.
The Police and Excise departments have intensified the crackdown on peddlers after Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao held a meeting to address the matter on October 20. Since then, special cells have been formed and hundreds have been arrested. In Dhoolpet alone, about 150 persons have been arrested and remanded in judicial custody in the last few weeks. Notably, over 500 young marijuana addicts have been counselled by a psychologist in the presence of their parents and police after they were detained in Dhoolpet.
“The ganja menace in Dhoolpet is under control. We have 13 teams on the ground working in three shifts. The roadside pickets have been set up to deter customers. We have also counselled over 500 addicts,” K Naveen Kumar, the excise superintendent and station house officer (SHO) of Dhoolpet, said.
Advocate M Mahesh Singh, the president of Lodh Kshatriya Sadar Panchayat, listed backwardness, illiteracy and lack of livelihoods as the core issues ailing the members of his community. The Lodh community, which migrated to Hyderabad from Uttar Pradesh several centuries ago, forms the majority in Dhoolpet. Singh alleged that Dhoolpet was being singled out and targeted by the authorities. About 60% of the community, he said, was illiterate and “that is why they are being harassed”. “Over 300 people are in jail. All of them are poor people. Many of them could have peddled ganja for a meagre profit to eke out a living. But the big players, who brought wholesale quantities of ganja and lured the poor, are left scot-free,” he alleged.
A local Congress leader, Sudheer Kumar Tiwari, recalled how Dhoolpet’s gudumba became a craze among the public in the 1990s when the then chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu had announced a total prohibition on liquor sale. The schemes of rehabilitation brought out by successive governments have failed, he said in agreement with the MLA.
“We agree gudumba has been brewed and sold here for ages. But where did ganja come from? It is not grown here. How did it reach here from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra all this while? Who is responsible?” he asked. Extending full cooperation of his organization to the ongoing crackdown against marijuana peddlers, Singh added, “Now if ganja peddling is stopped without providing proper rehabilitation to the poor, it will lead to the peddling of hard drugs and graver crimes.”
An Excise official admitted that rehabilitation efforts had not succeeded to bring the desired results. On record, as many as 508 families were rehabilitated. Of them, 140 families set up grocery stores, 200 bought autorickshaws, others started saree shops, tent houses, light and sound shops and so on. “It was not fully successful because the discretion was given to the beneficiary to choose what he/she wanted to do with the Rs 2 lakh assistance. They were given material of their choice at subsidized rates. Of the 508 beneficiaries, about 20 were found to have started ganja peddling,” the official said.
The local MLA said that his repeated requests for setting up small-scale industries in the area have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from gudumba, the people of Dhoolpet are also known for their skills in making PoP idols of Ganesh, kites, Holi colours and firecrackers. “I have been asking for a special package. It would help greatly if the government could start a small-scale industry on the lines of a registered society and promote livelihoods.”
Contrary to the popular view that marijuana peddling in Dhoolpet was a socio-economic problem, SHO Naveen Kumar said that lack of employment or livelihood was no excuse for engaging in unlawful activities. “Such crimes only show a lack of respect for the law. Dhoolpet is located in the heart of the city and is surrounded by big markets. To earn a living through legal means is a choice people have to make,” he said. Kumar also justified random frisking and checking of mobile phones of passers-by.
“Only when we have a strong suspicion, do we check someone’s phone. But that is done as a last resort,” he said, adding that the officers first try to read the body language and appearance of a person to determine if they could possibly be marijuana consumers.
“A few years ago, students and professionals such as doctors and techies used to visit Dhoolpet for ganja. These days, we see more people who are into petty jobs, daily wagers and drop-outs flocking to the neighbourhood,” he said.
Allegations of profiling and infringement on privacy
A Hyderabad-based independent researcher on data and privacy, Srinivas Kodali, felt that police and excise officials are “profiling a certain section of people and vexatiously searching them without following any due process.” Pointing out that Section 19 of the Hyderabad City Police Act prohibits vexatious searches and arrests by police officers and that they may be punished with imprisonment for up to six months or a fine of Rs 500 or both, Kodali has sent a legal notice to Hyderabad Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar seeking an end to the ongoing drive. “If this is normalized here, it will be done elsewhere too.”
Responding to media persons, Anjani Kumar had clarified that it was “important to check all gadgets carried by criminals, especially drug cartels, before or after committing any offence.” He said so even as he asked people not to believe, forward, or comment on every video they come across online. “During the investigation of a grave crime, the first responsibility of the official will be to check the electronic gadgets found at the scene of the offence. It is done to identify other gang members and associates of the criminal. Digital evidence is important in any crime. We need to link it because criminals are using gadgets to communicate and the chats form part of the evidence,” he said.
While agreeing with the police commissioner, advocate Karam Komireddy said that one needed to distinguish between a scene of offence or crime and a random search. “Police cannot conduct random checks. Taking away one’s phone is an infringement on the right to privacy. So, if police want to check someone’s phone, they are well within their rights but it has to be backed by an order. That is not the case here. Although certain provisions empower police to do so, there have to be cogent reasons to do it and they cannot do it randomly,” he said.
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