Nepali Times
Going to pot

At Hetauda we looked into the regional police office. The resident chief denied there was any marijuana growing in Makwanpur. But junior constables said ganja was so widespread that there was no way they could destroy the crops with their present manpower. At the Manahari police post, Surya Prasad Upadhyaya told us: "We have information that Indian buyers provide armed protection to people transporting marijuana to the border." A local Nepali Congress leader agreed. Indian criminals protect farmers who cannot protect their own crops from police raids, he said. We asked the Chief District Officer of Parsa, Dolakh Bahadur Gurung, if all we had been told was true. He hedged the question: "We don't have a budget to destroy ganja. I have no information of Indians coming here and doing marijuana cultivation."

Local politicians will tell you privately that everyone gets a cut from this well-greased trade, and that is why it runs so smoothly. All local organs of political parties get something out of the ganja economy. Some like the UML sometimes take action-the party expelled a local cadre Triloki Chaudhary because of his involvement in the business. But other locally elected officials have actually got together to protect marijuana farmers. VDC chairman Buddhi Bahadur Lama of Ratnapuri in Bara District and another member of the Nepali Congress party have formed a "Ganja Protection Committee" to hold talks with the administration to leave ganja

farmers alone.

When a reporter comes snooping around, there is a ping pong of blame: the police say ganja growers have political protection, and politicians say the police and the district administration are colluding with Indian ganja interests. The truth is probably that they are all up to their necks in it. And why not? Some have convinced themselves that the trade is good for the country, it brings income to poor peasants who have no other income, and it spreads the wealth around.

Also, political parties have to look the other way-such is the power of the "ganja vote". Their constituents depend so heavily on the crop and its trade that any politician seen to be destroying this livelihood will not last long. In Makwanpur's Sarikhet village local farmers have begun to raise Rs 500 per kattha to pay off the district administration to leave them alone. The locals will tell you in hushed tones the names of all the ganja barons in Manahari and Hetauda. Even some pragmatic national-level politicians know which side to be on: they say use of marijuana should be banned, but not its cultivation because the people depend on it. And so, it seems, do politicians. In Parsa, Indians not only provide seeds but they lease land from farmer/politicians paying Rs 2000 per kattha and they grow the ganja themselves. Many local politicians own the land, and benefit from the lease. Deep in the jungles of the char kose jhari are marijuana plantations that can only be seen from the air, but the locals will tell you about them.

But just how much marijuana cultivation benefits villagers is an open question. Here in the dusty trails of Makwanpur district, it is difficult to see any visible sign of improved living standards after ten years of harvests. The ganja mafia has of course made money, and the middlemen and officials along the way have been paid off. But for people like Thulimaya Tamang of Kol village, it is still a hand-to-mouth existence. "I have a loan of Rs 20,000 to repay. Other crops I grow don't produce enough to feed the family, let alone pay back the loan." Ganja may not have improved the lives of farmers like Thulimaya Tamang, the middlemen may be exploiting her, but it is clear that without this cash crop their lives would be even more difficult.

A young man in Kol is also rather desperate: "I want a job, and to get a job I need to pay a bribe. How can I make enough money to bribe unless my family grows ganja? If you water vegetables, you have a meal, if you water ganja plants, you can grow money." The cash has also given the farmers of Makwanpur a new status among the moneylenders and shopkeepers in the bazaar. Once they see the cash, they will let them buy on credit.

In the tarai people plant marijuana in about five katthas and grow a row of maize or sugarcane along the side to conceal it from law enforcers. In the Parsa villages adjoining the Indian border where it is difficult for outsiders to visit, the crop is grown openly. "Indian presence is here from the very beginning," a schoolteacher and former ganja grower from Nijgadh told us. The Indians also provide crop specialists as "consultants" who can guarantee a 100 percent yield from the seedlings for a price-10 percent of the harvest. These "mistris" as they are known, also help to press the ganja into 5 kg bricks and the charas into pellets for easy transportation.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)