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Poppy Fields

Police posse in freshly raided cannabis plantation (author extreme right)The Colombian government's declaration of war on the vicious cocaine cartels besieging the country has made international headlines in recent years.

Across the globe, in the South Indian State of Kerala, dense reserve forests are rapidly turning into an impenetrable haven for the cultivation of the potent drug Cannabis Satival.

Thousands of acres of cannabis nestle in the bosom of the state's sprawling reserve forests, inaccessible to law-enforcement agencies yet often flourishing with official co-operation. Illicit cultivation of the cannabis plant, the astronomical profit figures it generates and the spell it casts on errant officials is currently the biggest problem that engages the combined operation of the police, forest, revenue and excise departments. Despite the four-pronged approach, no major breakthrough has been achieved in stemming the illegal trade backed by a big money lobby operating in towns in central Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Government agencies are completely in the dark about the exact extent of cannabis cultivation in the state. The reason is apparent. The clandestine cannabis fields are normally located in the farthest reaches of the state's forest belt bordering Tamil Nadu. While the cultivation is technically within Kerala territory, it is totally beyond reach of the state's forest officials.

A conglomeration of factors ensures the safe cultivation of the illicit crop. The terrain is incredibly hostile : cannabis plots hug steep escarpments, nestle in deep ravines or flourish unobtrusively on the cluttered forest floor of the state's evergreen belt. A fern-like plant crested with greenish flowers at harvest time, it blends easily with the lush undergrowth that carpets the tree-studded hillsides. You could walk past a cannabis field in the forest and not notice it.

I accompanied an official posse which retraced the route to a two-acre plantation hidden amidst the hills around Munnar, the scenic hill resort and cannabis capital of the state. Two captured farmhands led the way to the site. The unrelenting uphill trek through dense underbrush and closely-spaced trees climaxed with the spectacular view of a manicured plot of chest-high cannabis crop set against a hillside.

The plants stood in neatly shored-up circular beds. A rubber hose, its nozzle stuck in an unseen water source further up, meandered around the plants, obviously for irrigation. In a corner of the field, towards the foot of the hill, stood a makeshift shed with utensils strewn on the mud floor. Sacks of fertilizer lay piled near the entrance. The shed served both as shelter for the resident labour and a storage depot for cultivation materials. An oasis of tranquillity, a perfect setting for undisturbed illicit farming.

Ultimately, it is sheer geography that protects the cultivators. The jungle provides the anonymity and natural camouflage, and forest paths furnish the trade routes. Neighbouring Tamil Nadu is the main outlet for cannabis. The cultivations are located within reach of border towns. In the Munnar area, cannabis fields proliferate in the harsh hilly landscape around Kadavuri, close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. The Mathikettan hills, another choice location, straddles the border between the two states.

Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu is one of the main markets to which the cannabis from Idukki district travels. A key link is the 54-km forest route that leads to Kodaikanal from Vattavada, a cannabis cultivation zone near Munnar. Workers traverse the dirt track by night with their headloads, which are picked up by jeeps at pre-arranged points. Kambakkal, located off Munnar, is a major oil extraction centre. The oil is transported to Kodaikanal through this route. Other big markets across the border that receive bulk supplies of cannabis in the form of ganja, charas and hashish oil are Mahi, Coimbatore and Amaravathy.

From Tamil Nadu, consignments of cannabis in its marketed forms are transported to Sri Lanka from where they are routed to international markets. Mumbai is also a centre from where cannabis goes out of the country, with Pakistan serving as a conduit. The Mumbai underworld is known to be actively engaged in the trade which utilises the services of foreigners as agents. Excise officials say quantities of cannabis are smuggled out of Cochin port concealed in diverse goods. Cannabis finds a ready home market as well. It is sold copiously on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam under the code name "Swamy".

The kingpins of the trade are businessmen - mainly estate owners and merchants based in the hill township of Kattappana in Idukki district - who ventured into cannabis cultivation over a decade ago, lured by the low overheads and disproportionate profits. The big-time cultivators display a penchant for acquiring bus fleets and erecting cinema houses. The lesser ones settle for jeeps, Quipped an official: "There is a local saying in Idukki that they go to the market with loads of pepper and ganja and return with jeeps."

A single cannabis plant yields between 500 grams to two kilograms of ganja. Two thousand plants, placed in 1000 pits, can be accommodated in a one-acre field. The crop is harvested twice a year. Overhead costs per acre come to around Rs.30,000 which include labour charges and cost of fertiliser and irrigation implements. A single harvest from one acre yields an estimated Rs.2 to 5 lakh for the grower.

Cultivators follow a time-worn modus operandi. Locations impossible to spot or reach are chosen in the heart of the jungle, such as gorges and ravines. The stipulated altitude for the site is at least 3000 feet.

Trees are felled to clear a plot of the required proportion. The site should be close to a natural water source for irrigation purposes, the main implement being a long meandering rubber hose. The cannabis crop requires extensive watering, though too much rainfall is not good for it.

The plants are buried in pairs in six-feet-deep pits and take six to eight months to mature. Harvesting is done at the flowering stage. Sheds are erected to house the resident labour employed on the site.

Ganja is dried, powdered and mixed with ether in aluminium cylinders to extract, after a process of condensation, the exorbitantly priced hashish oil. One kilogram of the oil costs several thousand rupees and finds its way via Sri Lanka to international markets.

Cannabis is classified under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 in three forms:
a) Charas, that is, the separated resin from the cannabis plant. This includes the concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish;
b) Ganja, that is, the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops)'
c) Any mixture, with or without any natural materials, of any of the above forms of cannabis or any drink prepared from this.

The Act is severe in dealing with the cultivation of any plant of the genus cannabis. The punishment for growing cannabis or ganja involves rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years and a fine of up to Rs 50,000.

cannbis plantWhere the offence relates to cannabis forms other than ganja, the penalty involves rigorous imprisonment for a term not less than ten years but which may extend to twenty years. The offender is also liable to pay a fine of not less than one lakh rupees and which may extend to two lakh rupees. The court, however, can for reasons stated in its judgement impose a fine exceeding two lakh rupees.

The provisions cover all dealings in cannabis which include production, manufacture, sale, purchase, transportation, import and export,  inter-state and personal use.

The punishment for exporting out of or importing into India or transshipping any narcotic drug involves rigorous imprisonment for a term from ten to twenty years and fine of a lower limit of one lakh rupees. Illegal possession of cannabis in small quantities for personal consumption invites a prison term of six months or fine or both. The quantity in this context is stipulated by the central government.

Even as a harried government chalks up its blueprint to combat the narcotics menace, several thousand acres of cannabis bloom unseen in the dense anonymity of Kerala's evergreen forests.



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