As the nation was debating the fallout of a weak monsoon last November, farmers in Kudanali, a hilly, forested village in Orissa’s Sambalpur district, were busy watering their fields and plucking weeds.
The farmers, were, however, not cultivating the staple paddy.
They were growing ganja, or cannabis, in their backyards, near nullahs and in the forests.
“This is the crop we’ve been growing for the last 10 years. It is the source of our livelihood,” said Sambhu Majhi, 51, of Kudanali village, 350 km west of Bhubaneswar.
Cultivation of ganja is a lucrative business in Orissa and nets the 4,000-5,000 landowners involved in it more than Rs 1,000 crore every year.
The downstream trade in this narcotic product — spread across large parts of India and abroad — balloons to about Rs 15,000 crore per annum.
Though no official estimates exist, Hindustan Times arrived at these figures after speaking to excise and police officials and a cross-section of people involved in the trade.
Since the returns are higher than from paddy and vegetables, ganja cultivation has raised the living standards of marginal farmers.
Kudanali village has no electricity, but Majhi has a solar electrification system in his house and a dish antenna for his colour TV. The people involved in this trade are naturally very secretive about it.
Hindustan Times spent months tracking this trade and finally got an inside view of it in the last week of December when this correspondent managed to speak to some farmers and traders posing as an “investor”.
This is how the trade works.
Traders (mostly from Bhubaneswar and Cuttack but also from other states), called “investors” in these parts, strike deals with farmers to grow ganja on their fields and provide seeds, fertilisers and about Rs 15,000 per acre as upfront payment.
With at least 4,000-5,000 ganja plants per acre, the farmer grosses about Rs 6-8 lakh per acre. His profit: Rs 5-6 lakh per acre. Compared to this, paddy gives returns of Rs 15,000 per acre. So, the farmer’s choice of ganja over paddy is a no-brainer.
The only risk: raids by the police and the anti-drug enforcement authorities.
But the entire machinery is so well oiled that the kingpins – believed to be a cabal of senior politicians and their local representatives cutting across party lines – even set aside a few dozen acres of ganja fields that the authorities can raid and keep up appearances of fighting the drug menace.
Ganja grown in Orissa finds its way to Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala – and from there to Sri Lanka and West Asia – through a well-oiled supply chain. Its price shoots up at each stage of the supply chain, which is controlled by local criminals and politicians.
Riders make deliveries within a radius of 70 km on 150 cc motorbikes. The buyers: mostly paan shops and some dhabas in the area.
The source price of Rs 1,500-1,600 per kg rises to about Rs 8,500 per kg at this stage. But just 30 per cent of the product is consumed locally.
The rest is sent outside the state where it sells for as much as Rs 30,000 per kg.
“We conceal a quintal of ganja in trucks carrying rice or cement,” said a transporter in Rairakhol, Sambalpur.
The government says it is aware of the extent of the menace. A report of the Justice P.K. Mohanty Commission, submitted to the government in 2008, said that processed ganja is smuggled in a big way through Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh.
Officially, illegal cultivation has been reported in 13 districts. But enforcement officials say there are two major tracts of more than 6,000 acre each, which account for most of the illegal cultivation.
The first tract is in Malkangiri district, 420 km south east of Bhubaneswar and the second is spread across the Sambalpur, Deogarh and Angul districts in western Orissa.
Owing to the Naxalite menace in the state, the second tract is increasingly finding favour with the ganja trade. “We have shifted to Sambalpur from Malkangiri due to the harassment by Naxals,” said a ganja trader from Andhra Pradesh.
Some locals are now beginning to protest against this trade. Sanjukta Pradhan, 47, of Jamjuri village in Naktideul, recently led a group of 300 women to the Sambalpur collector’s office, seeking action against ganja cultivation.
“So widespread and organised is the malaise that the mafia often guides the raiding squads to the fields,” she alleged, adding that in the Jamjuri gram panchayat alone, 16 villages cultivate ganja on 1,700 acres.
The mushrooming of ganja fields has led to a shortage of water and fertilisers for paddy.
“Besides, we do not get kerosene to light our homes because ganja growers buy it in bulk in the black market to run their motorised pumps,” said Pradhan.
Ganja cultivation has also increased the exploitation of the local tribals. “In Chitrakonda, outsiders engage poor tribals as guards in exchange of rice and money,” said Malkangiri excise superintendent Loknath Mandia.
But unlike the farmers, who are all landowners, the lot of these tribals — about 50,000 of them work as labourers and guards – hasn’t changed much.
However, the drug trade in these parts is still relatively benign. Drug trade-related murders and violence are still rare.
This relative absence of violence allows the trade to remain below the radar of the authorities, despite operating right under the noses of the law enforcement agencies.
An excise official in Malkangiri said there was rampant illegal cultivation just behind the Chitrakonda police station, where security personnel engaged in anti-Maoist operations are camped.
“They do not help us when we carry out raids. Instead, they discourage us by saying that it is unsafe to raid Maoist areas,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
There appears to be mutual mistrust among the law enforcement agencies. Officials suspect each other of a nexus with the mafia, which reportedly enjoys of patronage of powerful politicians, reportedly from the ruling party.
The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) denies this. BJD general secretary Damodar Raut said, “The BJD is against such illegal activities. We do not have information about the involvement of our party men. If we get specific complaints, we will take strong action against those indulging in the trade.”
That, however, may not be enough to root out the menace from Orissa.