It’s not just election season that has set in on Malana village, 47 km from Kullu. From children as young as five to those in their sixties, Malana’s villagers are busy doing what they always do this time of the year: extracting charas from the seeds of cannabis plants they bring from Parvati Valley and adjoining areas. September and October are the peak season for the crop, they say.
Malana has a population of 2,450, out of whom 845 are registered as voters for November 9. It is part of Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu constituency, which has 81,000 voters this time. In 2012, 520 votes had been cast from Malana, 209 of them for eventual winner Maheshwar Singh, then with Himachal Lokhit Party and now the BJP candidate. Congress nominee Sunder Singh Thakur, who had finished third in Kullu and won 140 votes from Malana, is contesting again.
A treacherous 2-km trek today leads to Malana. Work is in progress, under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, on a 3-km road to Malana. The polling station will be set up in the village itself, in the government school that has classes up to X. “We will carry extra EVMs in case any of them develops a snag,” said Sunny Sharma, electoral registration officer for the polling station.
According to sarpanch Bhagi Ram, some villagers don’t get to vote as they are away with their flocks of goat and sheep. They did not have Aadhaar cards until last year, but now nearly 90 per cent of them do, he said.
Official sources estimate that in the entire Kullu valley, about 4,000 acres is under cannabis cultivation. “There has been no official survey; these conservative estimates are based on inputs gathered from intelligence and local people,” said a government official.
The BJP’s Maheshwar Singh said villagers have no other source of income. “When I was an MP, I raised this issue in Parliament — that an alternative source of income has to be found for the people of Malana. The Governor recently visited the village and I raised the issue with him,” Singh said. “The fibre of the cannabis crop is used in the construction of aircraft, and also to manufacture textiles, handbags and shoes. There is a need to market these products.”
“We know it is illegal, but we have no other option,” echoed villager Puran Chand. “Wheat cultivation is not profitable. We could have grown apples but the government should help us set up infrastructure.”
Kullu SP Shalini Agnihotri said police and other agencies regularly conduct drives to destroy crops, with the latest drive held last month. “The cannabis plants are uprooted manually. Cannabis grows naturally, mostly on forest and revenue department land. We cannot use herbicides as it would pose a risk of destruction of the rich biodersity.”
She agreed there was need for a government initiative to generate an alternative source of livelihood in Malana. For that, she said, departments such as forest, social security and others need to join hands.
The SP said it is peddlers who are making the real profit. “The peddlers pay a small amount to locals, just enough for sustaining them. This is evident from the lifestyle of the villagers,” said Shalini, who joined as Kullu SP about three months ago. She said peddlers supply the charas to Delhi, Goa, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Deputy commissioner Yunus Khan, however, disagreed that villagers have no other option. “Cannabis cultivation is not the livelihood of Malana’s people. They do it for easy money. They run trucks, buses and own apple orchards.” He added that the district administration, with the help of various departments, launches campaigns to destroy cannabis plants from time to time.
Sarpanch Ram, a locl BJP leader, said, “Only the government can address the problem. If I tell villagers to stop the practice, they will say that I am ending their source of livelihood. I do, however, counsel them not to indulge in this.”
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