Reaping The Harvest

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Cannabis cultivation was a parallel economy in pockets of south Kashmir that sustained many livelihoods. As the police successfully cracked down on the cultivators and drug peddlers, the fortunes of those dependent on the crop went into a swirling fall and are now finding it hard to afford the luxuries they once cherished, Suhail A Shah reports.

Sitting with hands folded over his chest behind a large plywood counter that divides his rather outsized readymade garments showroom into two, Hamid occasionally stares at some invisible entity in the space, almost mechanically, he stands up and mops off the imaginary dust from the counter that has settled down.

“I am going to wind this damn thing up and look for a government job. I will rather be a peon somewhere,” says Hamid, without losing sight of his fictional point in the space in a tone that suggests a lack of determination. Hamid curses the police for cracking down on the Cannabis cultivators and almost everybody associated with the trade.

Along with many other smaller factors of Hamid’s downfall, the most prominent and the back-breaking one has been the fact that the authorities have taken the people associated with Cannabis trade to task in the last couple of years and the market has ever since remained devoid of the huge money inflow generated by the trade.

The peripheries of Bijbehara town in south Kashmir’s Islamabad district, like the villages in Dachnipora, Sangam, Charsoo, Kanelwan and many other smaller villages, have since long been the hotbed of Cannabis cultivation in which a good number of locals are engaged.

Local businessmen say the money generated out of the trade is huge and, over the years, the people associated with the trade have developed a spending culture, unheard of in the recent past. “A big chunk of my customers were either cultivators or peddlers, and for them, money had never been an issue. My business thrived like anything,” says Hamid.

At this point in time, not only has Hamid witnessed a collapse in his business but there are also people who owe him money and are not able to pay back, “I sit here only with the hope that I can somehow recover the losses I incurred,” rues Hamid.

Hamid, however, is not alone to face the consequences of changing times. A number of shopkeepers based across Bijbehara town and its peripheries, particularly the ones who started half a decade back, have seen a steep downfall in their once-thriving businesses.

Khursheed, a car dealer in the town says that with ‘Charas Money’ almost out of the equation, his business too has suffered a great deal, “I sell used cars and the risk factor is high because of the bank loans involved. The people with ‘Charas Money’ either cleared the whole bank loan in a single go or kept the bank transactions up to date,”

But now, Khursheed says, their spending power has gone down considerably and the businessmen are back to square one, “It was a bubble that has burst and has left many gaping hard.” The banks in the area have seen some loss of business in the last couple of years; the bank officials obviously deny anything like that, but sources within the bank do acknowledge this fact.

“It may not be and it is not a factor in the overall performance of the banks but on a very miniscule level, it does matter with no fixed deposits or insurance policies from these people,” says a 42-year-old bank employee, who has been working with a bank since the last 17 years.

For the last two to three years, the state administration has been coming down hard upon the cultivators as well as the peddlers. The police have been very active in destroying the Cannabis cultivations worth crores of rupees across south Kashmir and Bijbehara belt has fallen in this cleaning drive.

This not only has proven detrimental for the families involved in the trade but scores of other people across the spectrum. As Manzoor Ahmad, an elderly mason from the area puts it, “It was hard to find a labourer in August and September months – the season of Cannabis cultivation,”

The labourers were taken to process raw Cannabis leaves by softly rubbing them on their hands which takes out oil from the leaves. The oil accumulates as films of layers on the hands which is then rubbed off and put together to create a soft, black material. The cultivators paid these labourers Rs 500 per day along with food, which is more than double the money they got elsewhere.

“Even school children were lured into the lucrative deal. You could easily spot school boys, wearing uniforms, in apple orchards processing the Cannabis,” said a school teacher from Dachnipora area of Bijbehara.

The economic losses to the business and the labour class apart, the worst affected have been the families associated with the Cannabis trade. Not only have they been hit economically but the social losses are way more than anybody can comprehend. The overnight fall from riches to rags has devastated the very foundation of these families.

A youth procesing cannabis from raw leaves at a compound on the outskirts of Bijbehara -- Photo: Riyaz Ahmad

A youth processing cannabis from raw leaves at a compound on the outskirts of Bijbehara — Photo: Riyaz Ahmad

After getting arrested with a package of the drug, 35-year-old Nazir Ahmad served more than two years in jail. However, things started to worsen once he was released. Knowing nothing better to do other than drug peddling, Nazir tried his hand at many things, but he failed miserably. He subsequently started taking the drug.

“My wife has gone to her parents place and I am on the verge of a divorce. I regret whatever I did but I really don’t see a way towards mending things,” Nazir told Kashmir Life. Most people arrested for drug peddling or the ones whose Cannabis crops were destroyed face similar, if not the same, problems in their lives. While a few have been able to get back on the track, the majority get drawn towards using drugs, adding to the already overwhelming brigade of the drug addicts in the valley. Estimates by various NGOs peg the number of drug addicts in Kashmir between 70,000 to 200,000 people, but many experts feel that the number are much higher. Most of the addicts fall in the age group of 15-35

Recently, Ghulam Muhammad, a 63-year-old drug trafficker, had to sell his house to pay off the debts, forcing the family of seven to move into a rented accommodation. Moreover, financial and social instability is taking a toll on the children in such families, disturbing them mentally and, in some cases, forcing the kids to drop out of schools.

“After my father was arrested, somebody had to take care of the household and it had to be me. Fortunately, I have not fallen to taking drugs or peddling them but there are many kids who cannot withstand the pressure and are drawn to whatever had been the nemesis of their families,” said 14-year-old Asif from Kanelwan area in Bijbehara.

The ordeal for the families does not end with the economic and social downfall. The court cases against the accused linger on for years which puts extra burden on whatever little is left economically with these families. “They cannot be tried in a regular court. Either there ought to be a special court or the Sessions Judge holds the powers to take undertake such trials,” says Advocate Iqbal Jan Bader. “They are supposed to be reformed in the jails,” adds Bader, while arguing that given the condition of prisons in our state, getting reformed in jails is a far cry.

While the majority of the people call it Karma or nature’s way to teach these people a lesson, some sections in the society remain concerned about the plight of these yesteryears’ peddlers and cultivators. “The responsibility of the government does not end with the so-called crackdown on these people,” says advocate Peerzada Khursheed, a member of civil society in Bijbehara.

Stressing on the need for a comprehensive rehabilitation policy for these people, especially the ones who serve jail for a long period of time, Peerzada adds: “This is not the question of a single individual. The futures of whole families remain at stake and we cannot shrug off the responsibility simply by referring the miseries as supernatural intervention.”

Playing a pivotal role in putting curbs on the cultivation as well as peddling of Cannabis, the police officials in the area seem to be at a loss when asked about the rehabilitation or reformation of the perpetrators. “For such things, there needs to be a government policy in place, so that we can act accordingly,” says a senior police official in the district, maintaining that their role ends with arresting the wrongdoers.

All names, barring that of the advocate and the civil society member, have been changed.

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