'Nepal is turning into Afghanistan' read the headline of a magazine cover two years ago. It wasn't talking about a return to war, but the trend among farmers to grow opium poppy.
Even until a year ago, Parsa district was regarded as a centre for cannabis and opium production, which was sold across the open border in India. They were openly cultivated right next to government offices and under the very noses of the police. Many marijuana farmers had graduated to opium, and there were even heroin processing factories in the jungles of Parsa.
The local economy used to run on the drug trade, with the related rise in organised crime and addiction. Elections were financed with drug money, and Tarai militant groups bought weapons with cash from smuggling opium to India. Dowries for daughters depended on the cannabis harvest. From farmers to teachers to the police and government officials, everyone was in it. Sixty per cent of the arable land in Parsa was under cannabis and poppy.
What a difference a year makes. Travelling through Bara and Parsa last week, the poppy fields were gone. Poppies had been replaced with paddy and the marijuana with vegetables. This was a result of political will, strong and clean policing and effective coordination within government to support alternative crops.
"You will not see a single cannabis plant in Parsa now," asserts Ram Chandra Prakash Kurmi, former DDC member and himself cannabis farmer. Locals give a lot of credit to the leadership taken by former Parsa police chief, Rajendra Man Shrestha.
Back in Kathmandu, we caught up with Shrestha who has been reassigned to head the peacekeeping wing of Nepal Police. "When I started, everyone warned me that stopping cannabis cultivation in Parsa was impossible," he told Nepali Times, "They said everyone was involved and it would lead to unrest." (See box below)
It was not an empty threat. Drug cultivation enjoyed political protection and wide local support. Cannabis cultivation had always existed in Parsa and was used to generate support for the Panchayat in the 1980 referendum. When the Birgunj Sugar Mill was closed down ten years ago, farmers switched from sugarcane to cannabis and poppy. Police were attacked when they tried to destroy crops. In Bhauratar two years ago, villagers set fire to a house with policemen inside. In the ensuing violence, three people were killed as the police opened fire.
In Subarnapur, most homes still have tightly sealed plastic drums full of unsold marijuana. The price of cannabis went down sharply after the crackdown and farmers switched to vegetables. A kilogram of ganja which used to sell for Rs 900 till two years ago now fetches barely Rs 200 from Indian wholesalers.
"No one grows cannabis here anymore. But there are still stocks like this in every home," explains a Subarnapur resident, "the police have made selling almost impossible and there is more profit in vegetables anyway."
In the beginning of 2009, Shrestha launched a crackdown against cannabis farming with a carrot and stick approach. Working with the local group, Sano Paila, police showed documentaries about the dangers of drugs and also about alternative crops. After a few months, it was the farmers themselves who informed the police about cannabis fields inside the forests.
Shrestha also forged a partnership with Indian police across the border to stop drug mafia seeking sanctuary there. Recalls RK Patel, a Birgunj journalist: "As soon as the police stopped protecting the drug trade, production went down. It took just a few months of SP Shrestha being posted here that we could see dramatic changes. Indian buyers were no longer willing to risk buying Nepali drugs."
Opiate of the masses, RAMESWOR BOHARA in PARSA
The spread of opium cultivation in the Tarai is turning parts of Nepal into Afghanistan
"I was determined to do it"
Rajendra Man Shrestha
My first priority on being posted to Parsa in 2009 as SP was to control the drug trade. Police in Parsa had a bad reputation for protecting the production and smuggling of cannabis and poppy. I was determined to change this. My resolve grew when I ran across a field of white poppies inside a jungle where we had gone to intercept stolen logs. I was shocked to find that farmers there had moved on from cannabis to opium cultivation.
We started destroying cannabis and poppy grown in public land first. We had to take about 500 policemen when we went to clear fields because villagers used to chase police away to save their harvests and have their women and children as human shields.
That made us rethink our approach and we decided to start when the farmers begin to plant cannabis. In the 11 villages that we initially selected, we did not let anyone plant cannabis at all. Any police who allowed marijuana to be grown was suspended. Cultivation dropped by half. We did not let anyone go off the hook: drug peddlers or the police.
We held an all party meeting to garner political support and worked with local NGOs, community activists and government offices. The District Agriculture Office pitched in with vegetable seedlings and extension support. Often, it is the village elders and political leaders on whose patronage cannabis farming is done. The police alone couldn't stop it, we needed local support.
We argued that if cannabis farming was as lucrative as they thought it was why were Parsa farmers so poor? We told them you still live in mud houses and the middlemen and Indian businessmen have got rich.
I am glad to say that by the time I left in May, cannabis and opium cultivation had gone down by 95 percent in Parsa. If we can control cannabis and poppy cultivation for one more year, drugs will never be grown there again.
(As told to Rubeena Mahato)
The Tarai's tusker terror, KRISHNA SINJALI in JHAPA
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