Narcotics link complicating Odisha's battle with the Maoists

Having come under severe criticism for the growth of Maoist problem in the state, the Odisha government has mounted a campaign that it has been successful in controlling the menace after taking some strong action. In a recent statement in the state Assembly, chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who heads the home department, went on to insist that some of the naxal hit districts had been freed of the presence of the left wing ultras.

 The government’s claim could be true to some extent. However, observers are of the view that the Maoist problem cannot be uprooted from the state completely unless the government plugged the finance route of the rebels. And to do that it needs to have control over the illegal cultivation of Cannabis, which according to intelligence sources, has become a major source of funding for the Maoists to expand and run their activities in different districts.It’s a well known fact that clandestine hemp cultivation is going on in a majority of the 30 revenue districts in the state. The cultivation is widespread particularly in eight districts: Angul, Deogarh, Sambalpur, Boudh, Kandhamal, Rayagara, Gajapati and Malkangiri.

 Significantly, six out of these eight districts barring Angul and Boudh are known as highly naxal infested districts. This gives credence to police intelligence and crime branch’s belief that illegal Cannabis cultivation is going on in these districts with full support, participation and backing of the Maoists operating in the state.

In a district like Deogarh, the cultivation is spread over 5,000 acres of land. In Sambalpur district the figure stands at more than 1,000 acres. Both Deogarh and Sambalpur are located in western Odisha, which along with south Odisha, is the operational area of the naxals. The local police and excise department have been destroying the illegal hemp cultivation in these districts from time to time. According to figures available with the home department, in 2012-13 financial year, the state agencies had destroyed Cannabis cultivation in 1,305 acres of land. Hemp cultivation in 1,575 acres were destroyed a year before that. However, these steps have not been able to control the situation. “More we destroy, more cultivation is coming up in other areas every year,” says an excise department official.

Worried over the development, the crime branch of the state police, sometime back, had convened a meeting of superintendents of police (SPs) of the eight districts, senior officials of the excise department and narcotics control bureau where a multi-disciplinary approach to contain the problem was discussed and chalked out. The meeting was held at the state police headquarters in Cuttack. It was the first time such a meeting was organised to plan a coordinated, multi-agency strategy to take on the illegal Cannabis cultivation in the state. The meeting fixed a target of destroying 3,000 acres of hemp during the current financial years with the help of special squads created for the purpose.       

Aerial spraying

It was also decided that if necessary the help of aerial spraying would be taken up to destroy the contraband grown in areas which are inaccessible. This method is yet to be put in practice, but physical destruction of hemp cultivation by the squads has already begun. Early this week 7.23 lakh hemp plants worth Rs 72.30 crore were set on fire in Kandhamal district.

Observers believe that the steps initiated by the crime branch and other government agencies are very much needed. But to deal with the problem successfully, the government needs to take the local farmers into confidence. There are instances of Maoist cadres forcing the farmers to go for hemp cultivation. However, in a majority of cases the farmers on their own wish join hands with the Maoists as Cannabis cultivation fetches more profits to them than tradition crops like paddy. Therefore, the government should step in to encourage the farmers to go in for cash crops so that they can get better returns on their investments.

 There is also a need for the government to take stringent action against local government employees and panchayat level elected representatives who help the farmers and Maoists in these illegal activities. It is widely believed that clandestine Cannabis cultivation in such a vast tracts of land is not possible without the help of local government employees and village level elected representatives. In fact, instances of direct involvement of village level leaders in illegal hemp cultivation had come to light in Sambalpur district a few years back. A naib sarpanch (deputy village head) of a local village was murdered following a dispute over sharing of the profits. The person who was arrested in the murder case turned out to be the husband of the lady sarpanch (village head) of the same village.

What is also required urgently is the strengthening of police intelligence network in the affected districts particularly after a recent report gathered by the crime branch which suggested that mafia groups from neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh have joined hands with the Maoists in the illegal hemp cultivation activities in Odisha.

The modus operandi is simple. The mafia through left wing ultras pays money to the farmers for Cannabis cultivation. Once the crops are ready they take them away after paying certain amount to both the Maoists and the farmers. A few days back a truck carrying the contraband was seized in one of the southern Odisha naxal infested districts. It was on its way to neighbouring Chhattisgarh. The police arrested the driver of the vehicle and two helpers. But neither the hemp cultivators, the Maoists nor any member of the mafia group involved in the transportation could be traced. 

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