Saturday, April 9, 2011

A High Valley

A high valley

In a small houseboat on the Jehlum river in Srinagar, wafts of smoke float across a dimly lit room and Noori’s face glows brighter than the pale bulb hanging above. Her son always answers the knock on the window and Noori always sits in the same corner; the TV mumbles in the background and she always commands the visitors to turn to hers to have a better look of them.

“What do you want?” she asks in an unaffected tone, flicking the ash off her cigarette. Noori knows what brings people to her small unadorned houseboat; the sharp questioning is just part of her business.

Maal (Stuff). Tamouk (Tobacco). Phoul (Piece). The answers vary with the customers but they both know what she sells. Almost everyone around knows it too. Noori sells Charas (Hash); and for many years now, she has been in this room surrounded by polythene bags selling brown little stones in small packets.

“I don’t know you,” Noori says to a customer, opening her eyes a little wider. “Who are you?”

“I buy from you. There is nothing to worry,” the customer replies with a reassuring smile.

“Worry! What is there to worry about? I have been doing this all my life and there is nothing to worry. You shouldn’t talk like that,” Noori says, un-amused, her tone still unaffected, and her manner disconcerting.

For 300, she says. Noori doesn’t like to bargain, it irks her and also, she knows that her customers are usually desperate. Like people don’t bargain over medicine, addicts don’t bargain over their drug. They need it, it is written all over their face; and Noori with her big green eyes and 55 years behind her reads well.

Noori buys cheap in bulk. She buys for less than Rs 50 what she sells for Rs 300. The transportation is negligible and she receives about 3 customers a day. Business is good all through the year; even when protests and curfews stop life in Kashmir, she doesn’t do too badly, like pharmacists.

Untouched by the police, who sit in Kothibagh police station less than a kilometer away, Noori earns Rs 22000 a month, sitting at one place. People around Noori say that police get a cut off that money too, the price for being forgotten.

Like Noori, hundreds of charas sellers earn a quiet living in Kashmir right now and as the demand increases with more boys getting hooked on Charas, newer villages turn to these cash crops. And with an overwhelming demand for phuki from Punjab, South Kashmir, which has been home to hash and poppy cultivation in the valley, sees more people joining the trade and small dealers becoming big players. Encouraged by big money, lax police force and a negligible conviction rate under NDPS Act, more villages join the a high business blooms quietly in the valley.

In south Kashmir where Anantnag is the hub, Awantipora Tehsil is now growing as a big weed and poppy field. According to police, six villages have more than half of their population engaged in weed and poppy farming and as it reaps more profits than any other cultivation, people in the other villages are joining and the industry is getting bigger.

Kawini is a small village in Awantipora with vast empty fields and hundreds of families waiting for spring. Come spring and hundreds of thousands of weed plants will grow wild in the big fields and on the banks of several brooks of Jehlum that run through the village. And, a better quality will be grown in the gardens of the professional weed farmers as well.

“In a month from now, we will be busy harvesting Charas. Boys, men, women, all are there and we earn good money out of it. And it sells on day to day basis,” says Iqbal Yousuf, 22, a first year arts student.

Charas plants grow wild in the valley and harvesting isn’t hard. “It is a slow job in which the leaves are touched with hands and then rub together to collect the sticky dark cream on a paper. It is Attar, the best Charas, the cream.”

Attar (Scent) is soft, sticky, like a chewing gum and, it fetched Iqbal a lot of money last year. “A day’s work can fetch Rs 500. I and my brother harvested earned several thousand rupees,” he says. The other kind of charas is Garda (Dust). The fine damp powder made is placed in corn husk and then wound by a damp cloth making it look like sticks. “They are then put in the fire to prepare the Charas. It is easy,” he says.

The main income for Iqbal’s family, though, comes from poppy cultivation. His father’s poppy plants last season made more than two lakh rupees. “We don’t have much land and we would never make that much money with any other crop,” says Iqbal.

The poppy plants are like tulips, with their red and white heads waving in the spring breeze on entire strechs of land in Awantipora, Pulwama, Anantnag and other districts in South Kashmir. The plant gives both opium and phukki. With the police and Excise department in the valley talking about destruction of the poppy fields, the farmers have started to get more careful. “We now grow it in between other crops and spread it around,” says Iqbal. And also, police is just doing an eyewash, this thing wouldn’t happen unless they would let it be,” he adds.

Poppy has been grown in Kashmir for hundreds of years and used in the Unani medicine and its seed khashkhash is used in local bakery. “Permission is granted to people for growing poppy to use it for personal khashkhash use and also medicinal use but that is a small piece of land unlike what is happening,” says SP Awantipora, Irshad Ahmad.

For Iqbals family and others, it is good business also because they just have to collect the poppy heads and, the dealers take it on from there. The shadows of ‘dealers’ lingers over all these villages and as the business becomes more institutionalized, the dealers become more powerful. It is they who give the advance to the farmers and beat the gried heads into phukki and also transporting it to Punjab. The farmers last year sold a kilo of phuki for Rs 250 and the dealers for more than Rs 600.

“It is transported mostly in trucks with false roofs and false ceilings. Sometimes it gets caught, mostly it doesn’t,” says Ibrahim Ahmad, who was arrested for loading a phukki truck that was later caught on specific information. Ahmad was paid Rs 15000 for his job. “They had first put a layer of bajri (pebbles) in the truck and on that they had put several quintals of phukki and on top of that apples. All this was one to get the weight of the truck right so that no one would have any suspicion,” says Ahmad. IN the last year, Awantipora police has seized about 40 quintals of phukki and four kilos of charas. It is just the tip of the iceberg, not even the tip.

The biggest dealer in the area, the villagers say, is Feroz Ahmad Parray of Charoosa village and, here he is known as Feroz Don. Feroz has never been brought to the police station even though they know that he is the kingpin. In my four years here, there has been no FIR against him, nor has he been called here ever,” says a constable at the Awantipora police station. Feroz, in his late 40’s, has become wealthy over the years and his cousins have also joined the trade. “They have now opened a cricket bat factory as the face for their illegal money,” says Ahmad.

Police says that they can’t do much because everyone arrested under NDPS manages to get bail here. “The police is not doing enough to stop it and the judiciary is undoing whatever little the police is doing. The Excise department doesn’t do much at all,” says a police official from South Kashmir. “If we destroy 10 acres of poppy land, we leave 90 there. That is the way it is happening,” he says.

Officials from the Excise department say that police has a strong nexus with the drug dealers. “Often we are left to wait alone for many hours for the police to arrive on a raid,” says an Excise officer.

But between the blames and the silence, the dealers are becoming bigger everyday and the business is blossoming in an institutionalized manner. And far away, in Srinagar’s only drug de-addiction center, the queues are getting longer and longer for admission into the 10- bed detox center where teenage boys, middle aged men and old people try to get over their addiction. Doctors say that they begin with cannabis and reach multiple drugs. Like Asif Shafi, a 17 year old boy from Ganderbal, who was born two months before his police constable father was killed in an encounter and who smoked his first joint of weed and gobbled his first strip of sp at 12 on the same day when his mother remarried. There are many stories like Asif’s walking on streets in Kashmir and it is much easier and for the J-K police to blanket protestors and young boys in valley as addicts than close down Noori’s business or Feroz’s Don’s freedom.

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