THE tiny greenish flowers are spread over several thousands of acres in the deep recesses of the sprawling reserve forests that border Tamil Nadu. And are at the heart of Kerala's lucrative narcotics trade—a bulk of the 11,000 kilograms of powdered cannabis seized by India's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) last year, came from here. Generating staggering profits, the illicit cultivators of the cannabis plant elude the dragnet of police and forest departments—with a little official patronage.
Several thousand acres of clandestine fields flourish in Idukki district, in the revenue forests which are off-limits to forest officials and accessible to cannabis cultivators. It also thrives in the Periyar wildlife reserve at Thekkady, where the 770 sq km of sprawling evergreen forests offer good cover. The reserve has a 90-km border with Tamil Nadu, providing at least 20 identified illegal entry points for illicit cultivators.
The state forest department and the police have set several acres at Munnar and Periyar on fire. And between '90 and '97, over 30 acres of clandestine fields were destroyed at the heart of the sanctuary. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. For every field detected, scores go unnoticed amidst the thick jungle foliage.
The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, classifies cannabis in three forms:
Charas—the separated resin from the cannabis plant. This includes the concentrated preparation and resin known as hashish oil or liquid hashish;
Ganja—the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant (excluding the seeds and leaves when not accompanied by the tops);
Any mixture with or without any natural material of any of the above forms of cannabis or any drink prepared from this.
But, with the trade's high-profit margin, the law is flouted with impunity. A kilo of ganja fetches Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 in local markets. In towns like Kochi and Kozhikode, the price reaches Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000. And a one-kilo vial of the oil extract of the cannabis plant (hashish) costs a whopping Rs 50,000. In the field, a single mound—a one-acre field accommodates 2,500 mounds—holds three mature cannabis plants, each yielding half-a-kilo of ganja. A single harvest from an acre yields several crores—and there are two harvests a year.
The mode of farming is distinctive. A suitable location is chosen in the inaccessible and well-camouflaged interiors of the reserve forest. Deep gorges and ravines are preferred sites. The resident labour used comprises either temporary tea estate employees from Tamil Nadu or tribals settled in the vicinity. They are given Rs 2,000, food and a percentage of the produce.
The crop is then carried as headload out of the jungle where trucks waiting at the fringes pick up the load and head for destinations in Tamil Nadu, mainly Tuticorin port. From here it is sent to Sri Lanka, an international container terminal that serves as a distribution point for markets in Europe.
Gun-wielding sentries stand guard over the illicit fields at strategic hilltop look-out points that provide a sweeping view of the undulating forest terrain. They carry countrymade guns as opposed to the .303 rifles government squads are equipped with. But it is virtually impossible for the government agencies to scout the thick forest terrain and locate the fields, shielded from access by dense undergrowth. Tip-offs come from local tribals or when infighting breaks out among cannabis cultivators.
Besides, the difficult terrain, paucity of staff and inadequate equipment, authorities have to deal with corrupt officials vulnerable to the inducements of the narcotics lobby. Sometimes officials themselves, lured by the quick profits, turn cultivators while in service.
Such cultivators are occasionally nabbed and the names of financiers obtained. But political patronage and the 'absence of evidence' conspire to allow the kingpins—said to often be the politicians themselves—to plan the next crop. Thekkady Wildlife Preservation Officer O.P. Kaler has a suggestion to stem the illicit trade: legalise cannabis cultivation. "The forest will be saved and the cannabis market will crash. The plant can be grown under government supervision for medicinal purposes," he says.