In Sonamura in Tripura’s Sepahijala district, farmer Khaliluddin has a new problem this year. As he waits for his paddy to ripen, marauding monkeys are raiding his field, destroying the crop. The monkeys are not a new phenomenon. But earlier they would never venture as far as his field from the nearby hills they live in; they would be turned back before that. Behind Khaliluddin’s paddy field, hidden by a thicket of rubber and sal trees, there used to be another plantation in the foothills – on which cannabis was cultivated.

“There used to be so many people there earlier, tending to the ganja and keeping the monkeys from the hills away,” the farmer said. “But this year there is no ganja, so no people there, only monkeys. And all of them have been coming to my field, wreaking havoc.”

Khaliluddin, however, insisted that the monkeys are a minor annoyance compared to the gains from the disappearance of the cannabis plantation. “When there was ganja, I would find no one to work on my field,” he pointed out. “This year there is a lot of cheap labour available.”

Midnight raids

The cannabis plantation near Khaliluddin’s paddy field is not the only one to have disappeared this year in Sepahijala, which is located right on the India-Bangladesh border. In March, days after the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party took power in Tripura, Sepahijala, particularly the sub division of Sonamura, was rocked by midnight raids at the homes of some of its wealthiest people. A joint operation by the district administration, state police, Border Security Force, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and Narcotics Control Bureau, the crackdown was directed at Sonamura’s thriving but illegal marijuana trade.

According to Saju Waheed, sub divisional magistrate of Sonamura, around 30,000 kg of cannabis, worth nearly Rs 3 crore, has been recovered and 107 people arrested in raids in the district so far.

State officials claim that the crackdown was one of the first initiatives of the new government and the orders came directly from Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s office. In his campaign rallies, Deb had indeed vociferously spoken about making the state “nasha mukta”, addiction free. The BJP’s election vision document also promised to “control the drug and alcohol menace”.

A dirt track leads to what was once a cannabis planation, hidden by a ticket of rubber trees. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia
A dirt track leads to what was once a cannabis planation, hidden by a ticket of rubber trees. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Wrecked economy

But in Sonamura, where much of the economy revolved around cannabis, the crackdown has left most people distraught and desperate. Unlike Khaliluddin, few others see any silver lining. Take the grey-haired former woodcutter who began growing cannabis a couple of years ago on his 0.5 acres of ancestral land, not far from Khaliluddin’s field. In 2017, he cultivated 500 plants, investing around Rs 50,000, most of it in fertiliser, manure and labour. Days before the new government took power, his produce was ready – around 250 kg of marijuana, worth around Rs 2 lakh by last year’s rate of Rs 800-Rs 1,200 per kg – stuffed in blue plastic containers with black lids and waiting to be purchased by “parties”, as marijuana traders are locally called.

But before the “parties” could take his produce and send it to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or across the border to Bangladesh – the main markets for Sonamura’s marijuana – the police raided the neighbourhood. As he saw the police seizing his neighbours’ cannabis reserves and arresting many of them, the farmer said he panicked and dumped all his containers into the rivulet behind his home. “What else could I do? I had to save my life, after all,” he said. “At least I am not in jail, like so many people I know. But all my money is gone.”

Sonamura is replete with such stories of lost livelihood: almost everyone had some stake in the marijuana trade. A tribal woman who worked as a daily wage labourer on local cannabis plantations said she has struggled to find steady work this year. “I used to find work at least 20 days a month,” she said. “This year it’s less than 10 days at at times.”

Most people who worked on cannabis farms have now moved to rubber plantations, where wages are said to be significantly lower. “For ganja, we got Rs 300-Rs 400 a day, for rubber it is Rs 100-Rs 150,” said a young tribal man. “Besides, when it rains rubber work stops completely.”

Cannabis recovered during one of the raids in Sonamura. Picture credit: Abhisek Saha
Cannabis recovered during one of the raids in Sonamura. Picture credit: Abhisek Saha

It is not only cannabis growers and workers who have been hit. Sonamura’s markets are conspicuously full of shuttered fertiliser shops, once highly profitable, catering to the many cannabis growers. “This business works completely on credit,” explained a fertiliser seller. “I sold stuff worth around Rs 25 lakh last year, almost all of it on credit. I would have got the money after the farmers got their payment from the parties. Now I will have to pay the company from my own pocket.”

He was echoed by another fertiliser trader. “This time any other year, I would not have had the time to talk to you, but this year I have sold almost nothing,” he said. The trader claimed to have done business worth over Rs 15 lakh last year, again almost all of it on credit.

Apart from chemical fertilisers, cannabis plantations required an abundant amount of cow dung-based organic manure. Until last year, Farooque Hussain supplied cow dung to around 500 marijuana farmers – two to tree pickup trucks each, he said. His yearly profit amounted to around Rs 1.5 lakh. “Now that money is completely gone,” he said.

Hussain’s misery does not end there. He is, by his own admission, a “source” for the local unit of the Border Security Force. He claimed he would tip off the unit about his customers planning to sneak cannabis across the border to Bangladesh, in exchange for a “commission”. “Now that there is no production, nothing is going across the border, so I get no commission,” he explained. “I have two daughters, I don’t know what I will do.”

The gloom lies thick on the area’s markets. “We are dead,” said a local shopkeeper. “There is simply no money with people this year. I wonder how we will cope with this.”

Roadmap for recovery

Sepahijala’s district administration claims it has a “well-defined plan” for Sonamura’s economic revival. For “interim relief”, Waheed said, the administration is focusing on “accelerating government poverty alleviation programmes like NRLM [National Rural Livelihood Mission], which people were not interested in when the ganja economy was strong”.

Specifically, under the Centre’s North East Rural Livelihood Project, women and youth are being given skills training, said the official. “We have organised skill melas where, so far, 350 people have registered,” he added. “It will go on for one more month.”

As for “long-term” plans, Waheed said the government is trying to find “enterprising entrepreneurs” who can help generate new employment opportunities. There is also a proposal, he added, to encourage the local population to grow spices, which are in high demand in Bangladesh.

One of the many fertiliser shops that have been forced to shut down in the wake of the crackdown. Picture credit: Arunabh Saikia
One of the many fertiliser shops that have been forced to shut down in the wake of the crackdown. Picture credit: Arunabh Saikia

Pranajit Singha Roy, the state’s agriculture minister, said the affected farmers will be offered incentives to cultivate black gram. “We have already distributed 30 metric tonnes of free seeds,” he said. “There is a huge demand for that in Delhi and Punjab, so we can start exporting it. Now there is even a direct train line to Delhi.”

Additionally, the minister said, the government is “formulating more plans” to help the affected people tide over the crisis. “Horticulture, vegetables and even mustard seeds, we will help them as much as we can,” he added.

But its critics say the government has not done enough to help those who have lost their livelihoods and criticised its relief measures. “How can black gram be a long-term replacement for a high-value cash crop like ganja?” asked Tapas Dey, a Congress leader. “Instead, the government should have regulated cannabis cultivation and signed a memorandum of understanding with a pharmaceutical company. It could have been a great source of revenue for the state.”

In India, cannabis cultivation for industrial purposes is legal, although consumption is not under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985.

Finance Minister Jishnu Devvarma maintained that “not everything can be looked through the economic prism” and the crackdown was for the “greater good”. “Yes, people are suffering,” he said, “but we are making sure we look after them.”

Roy concurred, “We cannot promote something illegal. You ask the women, they feel safer now, rapes have come down in Tripura because we have curbed nasha.” He attacked the previous communist government for “looking the other way” as the illegal cannabis trade flourished.

In Sonamura, however, few residents feel marijuana addiction was a problem among the local population. “People hardly take ganja here, it is mostly alcohol and the tribal people have their traditional brews,” a resident said. “Alcohol continues as before, so I don’t know how the government is saying the place is nasha mukta.”

Waheed agreed with the resident. “There was hardly any local consumption, it was more of a production centre,” he said.

Both the residents and local officials, however, concede that the previous government had turned a blind eye to the trade. Old residents of Sonamura and its adjoining areas say the trade had really picked up in the last 10-15 years.

Still, anger against the current dispensation continues to simmer in Sonamura. Most residents claim they have not received any help to start afresh. “You have taken our livelihoods away,” said a former cannabis planter, referring to the government. “But at least give us some alternative.”

Another person who worked on cannabis plantations added: “You want to make Tripura nasha mukta, fine. Now, bring in companies and get us the jobs that you promised.”