The Village on a Highhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/the-village-on-a-high/

The Village on a High

How hashish trade thrives in Malana,a hamlet in Himachal Pradesh.

How hashish trade thrives in Malana,a hamlet in Himachal Pradesh.

A day in the life of Malana,a quiet Himalayan village,located 45 kilometres from Kullu in Himachal Pradesh,begins with dawn breaking over the mountains,the sound of jazz and party music coming from its wooden houses,the unmistakable smell of joints being rolled,and the rubbery smell of its prize hashish,Malana cream,filling the air.

In September this year,a team of the Himachal Pradesh police and the Narcotics Control Bureau swooped on Malana and destroyed cannabis crops over 600 bighas of land,“a massive crackdown”,according to the villagers. Over the last three years,the cops have been driving up to the village from Kullu or Manali in order to rein in cannabis cultivation in the village. Malana is famed for its Malana cream,a “top-quality” charas,which is sold to tourists,both foreign and domestic,and smuggled to other parts of the country. All the 220 houesholds in the village are engaged in cannabis cultivation as their primary occupation. Families claim they earn Rs 5-6 lakh per “season”.

Despite the annual crackdowns,the villagers seem unfazed. As the men take their sheep and goats to graze in the hills,the women prepare the seeds from the cannabis plants at their homes. “After the snowfall,we are confined to our homes for nearly three months,while the men are busy in the hills,” says Shama Devi,a villager. In March,once the snow recedes,they will sow the seeds,which will grow into mature cannabis plants by September — that’s when the authorities swoop on the harvest.

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Charas sales peak in September and October,when the harvest is fresh,and snow is still some time away. Tourists who visit Himachal Pradesh in summer stay on till October,so that they can trek up to the village to purchase “stuff” from the locals. “I first came here five years ago. My friends recommended this place to me. Since then,I spend three to four months here every year. I love the Malana cream. Also,the hilltop is quite peaceful,” says Merci,a Polish tourist. It’s not uncommon to see Malana youth greeting tourists with “Would you like to have some cream?”

Even children are part of the charas economy. Boys as young as five years old can be seen rubbing cannabis leaves. It takes them seven to eight hours to extract 15-20 grams of charas; this way,they earn Rs 2,000-3,000 a day. There are no official figures for the annual production of charas in Malana,but it is believed about 4-5 quintals of Malana cream is smuggled out of the village every season.

The villagers have been growing cannabis since time immemorial for making medicines,ropes and shoes. They learnt about its recreational use only in the 1970s,when they saw foreign tourists rubbing cannabis leaves to produce charas. “The foreigners made us realise the value of our crop. We learnt that charas could be sold in the international market at a very high price,” says Shiv Ram,a 45-year-old villager.

Malana’s charas trade has never looked back since that time. It went on unchecked till 2006,when a foreign news channel did a programme on the village’s drug economy. The government then swung into action,and destroyed the harvest. But that didn’t deter the villagers. They began growing the crop at higher altitudes,away from the reach of the authorities,and continue to move up each time there is a crackdown. “Though we camp in the village for weeks and destroy the crop,they have now started growing cannabis on the hilltops and in the forest areas,where it’s difficult to reach,” says Dharam Singh,assistant sub-inspector at the nearest police station,in nearby Jari village. Some villagers,though,have switched to growing kidney beans,potatoes and cabbage. But investigating agencies claim that’s only to “camouflage” the cannabis cultivation.

The under-construction Malana power project has made smuggling of charas easier. “A road has been constructed for the project. First,the villagers had to trek for around six to eight hours to reach the main road. Now,it takes them only an hour,” says Singh.

Rajesh Kanwar,deputy commissioner,Kullu district,admits “failure” in controlling the illegal trade. “The district administration and NGOs have made several efforts,including holding awareness camps,but we have failed. Villagers are not ready to leave cannabis cultivation,since they believe that is the only way they can earn easy money,” he says.

Education has not helped either. The two government schools in the village have only 200 students enrolled,and poor attendance. “A five-year-old starts earning Rs 1,500-2,000 daily by rubbing cannabis leaves. So,his parents are not interested in sending him to school. They don’t encourage girls’ education either,” says 30-year-old Balak Ram,who runs a few guesthouses in the village. His 65-year-old mother Magho Devi,the village sarpanch,thinks the government’s intervention is futile. “Our previous generations have been growing cannabis. What is wrong with that? It is not that only charas is grown here,the cannabis plant also has a medicinal value,” she says. Villagers believe they are “born” to cultivate cannabis. “This is our home and these are our fields. It is god’s gift to us,” says 55-year-old Puran Chand.

The trade has uplifted the living standards of villagers. Wooden homes are giving way to concrete structures,and high-end smartphones are being flashed by the ­village youth.

Modernity is present only in such symbols in Malana,which otherwise is steeped in tradition. Located 3,029 metres above sea level,it has a unique culture. The village’s supreme head is Surjan,known as “Pujari” who heads the “religious and judicial system” in Malana. Nobody is allowed to touch him or even cross his path. Locals here have never filed a police complaint or FIR. They settle disputes among themselves. Eight panchayat members hold a “high court” in front of the entire village. Not satisfied with the verdict,one can approach the “supreme court”,headed by the Pujari and another respectable elder. Two goats,each belonging to either disputing party,are poisoned before the entire village. The party whose goat dies first is pronounced guilty.

There is no marriageable age,and marriage outside the village is prohibited. There is no tradition of holding a wedding ceremony either.

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Villagers claim themselves to be the ancestors of Alexander. “The Greeks,under Alexander,had come to this village and a few of them stayed back. They married the locals and established this village. We have our own culture,laws,language and religion. We do not require any outside interference,” says Surjan.

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