From once a notorious cannabis cultivating village to major vegetable producer, Mohanviji in Pulwama district has come a long way. Mir Farhat talks to Riyaz Ahmad Dar, the man who quit cannabis cultivation to set the wheels of change in motion transforming his and others lives for good
A decade and a half ago Mohanviji, a village in Pulwama district located on the eastern side of Kakapora, was hounded by police to crackdown on its residents for cultivating cannabis.
The village was a source of cannabis for the whole district and beyond. Almost every smallholder in the village cultivated the narcotic drug and was on the radar of police.
Nestled in willow and poplar trees, Mohanviji is populated by around 800 residents who live in about 200 houses, Mohammad Akbar Wani, an elderly resident, informs.
Almost all the villagers practice farming, with a countable number of government employees and the younger generation, of late, turning towards education.
Frequent police raids and arrests of the men accused of selling Charas had given a bad name to the village. Its residents were socially ostracised in the whole area.
But not after the spring of 2000 when a young man, Riyaz Ahmad Dar, brought a new idea in the village: of converting the cannabis land into cash crop fields.
Dar and his family began cultivating the vegetables in their land, falling along the Romshi stream embankments that skirt the village.
“Because of cannabis cultivation, our village was scornfully looked at by everyone in the district. Although people earned money but the bad name across the district was emotionally painful for us,” says 36-year-old Dar.
Son of an unlettered farmer, Dar had given up his education after class 12th and was in search of earning money to assist his family financially.
“My father had no source of income so I could not continue my studies. Besides, I wanted to support my father and my family. Other youth in my village were facing similar situation,” says Dar.
This desperation turned Dar and other youth of his village to cannabis cultivation for easy money. “After few years of cultivating cannabis and selling it, I realized that it had only disgraced us in the society,” feels Dar. Besides, the continuing police raids were making the villagers restless.
Almost every day, the villagers were summoned to the police station in Pulwama and those who were caught had to spend days and nights inside police lockup. Across the district, Dar said, they were looked down upon as “criminals”.
In addition to the social stigma, religion also became a force for the villagers, particularly for Dar, to give up the forbidden way of raising money.
Dar says that cultivating cannabis didn’t fetch them much money. “I also thought that when my parents could not raise their economic standard after cultivating cannabis for years how could I and other youth like me do it,” says Dar.
In the first year of the vegetable cultivation, Dar’s idea was only received by his close uncles. Rest of the farmers were largely not attracted to it.
But as the hard work of Dar’s family began to yield for them, gradually the other villagers came in. And in a few years, the Charas fields had disappeared and were replaced by a “green gold”.
The idea of turning the cannabis lands into vegetable farms dawned on the young man during a visit to his relatives in Bugam village in Budgam district in the harvest season of 2000. Bugam has become one of the major producers of vegetables in the Valley.
“When I saw the huge green vegetable fields in Bugam I was awed by it. Men and women, all were busy in harvesting vegetables. I thought, though our practice is same, that of working in the fields; but people in Bugam were proud of their work unlike ours as we felt shameful because of the cannabis tag,” Dar says.
“Then and there, I told my friend that we will start the practice next season. I discussed with him the whole farming methods and the money they earned from it,” he says. “So my visit to my friend was the turning point.”
From cultivating 25 kanals of their land in the first few years by the Dar family, the whole village got involved in the vegetable farming and soon after thousands of acres of land turned greener.
The village became the only major producer of cauliflower, carrot, cabbage, turnips, collard green, brinjal, tomato and chillies in the district. And the produce began reaching to Fruit mandi in Parimpora and later to the winter capital, Jammu.
“Suddenly, the police parties also stopped coming to our village and our fortune started turning around,” says Ajaz Ahmad, a 30-year-old man, who also with his family took to vegetable farming.
Not only did the farming erase the bad name that the village had got labelled with, it also opened up labour avenues for its youth, who would otherwise give up studies immediately after 8th standard and dive into cannabis production.
After over a decade of hard labuor into his fields, Dar has turned up his fortunes. Today, he owns a ply-board factory and about 100 sheep.
“Whatever business I have today is only because of vegetable farming. In the first five years I raised sufficient money to establish my own sheep farm. And from earning money from sheep farm, I bought a ply-board factory,” Dar says.
In the factory in Ookho village on Kakapora-Pampore road, Dar has employed about 20 young men to run his factory, and five others who rear his sheep.
Abdul Salam Wani, aged 52, says that the concept of vegetable farming came as a panacea for their long time bad practice of growing cannabis.
“We, as parents, were very upset with the future of our children, who left their studies halfway. With the availability of cannabis, it was easy for them to consume it and get addicted,” Wani says, “but the farming helped us to get rid of the cannabis plants and with them the anxiety about our children.”
Like Dar, Wani’s son, Feroz Ahmad, has also risen from working in his vegetable farm to become a trader. In partnership with another youth, Ahmad buys vegetables from the farmers of other villages and then sells them in fruit markets in Jammu and Srinagar.
The new practice proved fruitful for the whole village as “halal money” began flowing into it.
In the years that followed the village gave a new look as new, concrete houses replaced the old mud houses. The children and youth began joining schools and colleges which increased the literacy.
“Hardly there were any graduates in our village. Our children would drop out from high school. But today there are scores of post graduates who have studied in as good cities as in Banaglore,” says Wani. He adds that the period of “darkness and bad days” are over.
The police raids too have stopped long back. Superintendent of Police, Pulwama, Tejinder Singh, said his police teams no longer raid the Mohanviji as the villagers have given up cannabis cultivation long ago.
“We are living a respectable life after we became olericulturists,” says a proud looking Dar.