There may be a row brewing between India and Nepal over bilateral trade, but in the vast underground Indo-Nepal ganja business things couldn't be smoother. In this narcotic free market, the prices are fixed in advance, officials are properly greased, and the only laws that apply here are the laws of supply and demand.
Intrepid Indian traders have begun to venture deep into Nepal's midhills supplying marijuana seeds on credit, providing technical know-how, and even agricultural extension to subsistence farmers to set up plantations. They come back at harvest time to pay for the ganja crop and take it away in trucks, ox-carts or porter back. Our investigation shows that Nepal is growing 3 million kg of ganja (dried marijuana plants) and charas (concentrated resin) every year with a street value of Rs 6 billion for "export" to India every year. But don't look for this data in any official bilateral trade figures because the entire industry is illegal. The cultivation and trade is going on with the full knowledge (and usually the connivance) of local government, police, and even Maoist cadre who provide protection to villagers against official harassment.
Just 20 km south of Kathmandu Valley in the neglected and roadless regions of Makwanpur District, Tamang and Chepang villagers who never grew enough food to feed their families are turning over their terraces to ganja. Even in the dry season, the well-maintained farms are lush with mature marijuana plants ready for harvest. Watchtowers provide a lookout against police patrols that sometimes carry out half-hearted raids to destroy crops. Villagers told us police only destroy the crops of those who haven't paid them off, usually the really poor peasants. But they aren't complaining, since the plants are ready to pluck anyway. As one farmer told us with a rueful smile: "The police do our work for us by cutting the ripe plants."
Another farmer is a Nepali Congress worker who grows ganja. He told us the police raids don't really affect him much: "The raids you read about in Kathmandu papers are all fake. And when there is a ganja haul, you can be sure they are smugglers who didn't pay off the right people." One police source told us traders taking ganja to India pay police posts a fixed rate of Rs 200 per sack, and there is no bargaining. A posse of 65 policemen went on a showcase ganja raid last month, but it was clear much of this was being done as a public relations exercise. Some villagers begged the police to spare them because they had nothing to eat, and it was obvious the policemen were just doing it for the cameras. Lalit Bahadur Praja was having a chat with the cops who came to his homestead. He told them: "Look, I don't have food, I survive on roots, I cannot afford rice. Even God protects the poor." The policemen spared his crop.
For subsistence farmers in Makwanpur, Bara, Parsa and Dhading, the marijuana trade is a godsend. They buy marijuana seeds from Indian suppliers at Rs 1000 per kg on credit, the Indians tell them how to nurture the plant, about weeding, irrigation and harvesting techniques. The older farmers don't need to be taught-they used to grow marijuana before the Nepal government was persuaded to ban marijuana in 1973 under pressure from the US government after US aid to Nepal was doubled to compensate for the loss of revenue.
The peasants plant the seeds and can grow up to 10 kg of ganja in one kattha
(0.3 hectares) of land. In the more suitable climate and moist sandy soils of Makwanpur and Dhading, one kattha can yield as much as 20 kg. When the Indian trader returns, he subtracts the advance he gave for the seeds and pays Rs 3000 per kg of ganja in the lean season. But the same crop sold to a Nepali middleman will not get the farmer more than Rs 1000 during harvesting. "If you can sell directly to the Indians you earn more," one farmer told us. "But I sell my crop to the village headman so I get less." Another farmer, Phulmaya Praja, says middlemen often cheat her. "They give us only 200 or 300 rupees for a 10 kg sack," she says. Farmers in Parsa get better prices: being so close to the border they are in direct touch with buyers and boast they can make as much as IRs 2000 (Rs 3,200) for a kg of ganja.
After walking five hours from Manahari, 30 km east of Hetauda, you are in the heart of Makwanpur's ganja country. At Kalikatar you can already see the green marijuana plantations on terraces across the river on the other side of the valley. Growing ganja here is as good as legal. There is no sign of any police presence since remote posts have all been closed for fear of Maoist attacks. The villagers are wary of strangers: anyone who doesn't look visibly Indian, Chepang or Tamang is regarded with suspicion. We pretended we were freelance marijuana traders, but no one believed us.
In every Village Development Committee we visited there are ripening terraces of ganja, vigilantly guarded by villagers who know what it is worth. The links with Indian buyers goes back to the 1980s, and the villagers found it much more lucrative to sell this new cash crop than to scour the surrounding forests for Himalayan herbs to sell in India. From the terraces carved out of the steep flanks of the Mahabharat hills right down to the inner tarai villages adjoining the East-West Highway, ganja plots are everywhere. In adjoining Parsa District, nearly all the village development committees have sizeable marijuana plantations.
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.