“We can’t survive in isolation in this changing world. We need a push to come to mainstream,” said Tej Singh, 21, proud first graduate from Malana, a village in Himachal Pradesh, which is famous as one of the oldest surviving self-governed society but infamous for illicit cannabis cultivation internationally.
Singh’s father, Beli Ram was the first matriculate from Malana in Kullu district in late 70s, who is now Deputy Ranger with the forest department. It took the poor folks in the village over three-and-half decades to traverse the distance from first matriculate to first graduate.
But winds of change are now blowing. Singh is preparing for post graduation in political science and four others from Malana, including two girls, are studying in government college, Kullu.
Seemingly, this socially, culturally and topographically isolated village in the hills is struggling to break the web of conservative environs clouded by illicit drug trade.
Parts of Kullu, Mandi, Chamba and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh are known for producing cannabis and opium illegally in private as well as revenue and forest lands. Malana is on top. The village has earned bad name with lots of foreigners allegedly making their hide-outs in the area for the high quality cannabis it produces. They engage the locals process it into narcotic drugs. In some parts of Europe, Malana cream, Malana gold, hashish, AK-47 etc. (drug products from Malana) are quite familiar names.
Malana involves a tough one hour trek from the nearest road. It has an Ayurveda dispensary and a high school (upgraded some time back) in the name of health and education infrastructure.
The village houses over 360 families, who are mostly illiterate and poor farmers. It has a conservative society governed by ‘Jamlu’ deity. ‘Malanis’ (the locals) do not defy the directives of the deity, fearing wrath.
“Deity still has a say. However, earlier, the villagers would take all the disputes to deity for solution. Now, the area is exposed to outer influence so other agencies also play a role,” said Bhagi Ram, 52, of Malana.
The village elders said they never wanted the road to come to Malana, for it would dilute the self-governed society.
But there is other side to it. As majority locals are allegedly neck deep involved in illegal cannabis production for economic reasons, they wanted to stay aloof.
The state government has, however, has remained a mute spectator keeping with the vote politics.
Some seeds of change in Malana were sown by a former Narcotics Control Bureau Officer, OP Sharma early last decade. Apart from enforcement, the officer put in voluntary effort to drift Malanis away from drugs by motivating them grow alternative cash crops.
He sensitized illiterate Malanis, taking a team of experts involving the then regional representative of United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) for South Asia and former Narcotics Commissioner of India, Romesh Bhattacharji to Malana. The Police and development specialists too were mobilised.
“I tried an alternative model of development in Malana through a cooperative society Malana Vikalp some years back. It was joined by more than 250 families, who switched to cash crops like Peas, Rajmash and Apples for economy. But there was no government support, so it did not yield desired results,” Sharma said.