In October 2016, the Greyhounds, the anti-naxal force of Andhra Pradesh, killed more than 30 Maoists in an exchange of fire (EoF) in Ramaguda, an interior tribal hamlet in Pedabayalu mandal of Visakah Agency, the cut-off region of Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB). A visit to the site confirmed that the bodies of the Maoists were strewn around in around two acres of ganja fields.
Prior to the incident, a high-level committee of Maoists leaders apparently held a meeting for two days in the area. And this indicates that the Maoists’ claims of not having links with ganja smuggling in Visakha Agency do not hold water.
Nine mandals of the total 11 in Visakha Agency, including those in the AOB region where the Maoists hold sway, ganja is grown rampantly. And their claim that they have no links appears to be baseless as nothing moves without their consent in those regions.
The question is whether the tribals have prospered due to the trade with an estimated turnover of a few thousand crores per annum. The answer appears to be a big ‘no’.
In Ramaguda or for that matter any interior tribal hamlets, the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) still continue to live in abject penury. Most of them still fight for one square meal a day.
Visakhapatnam Range DIG L.K.V. Ranga Rao was right to point out and ask the tribals in a recent meeting if they had prospered, going by the magnitude of ganja smuggling from the region.
“If the tribals are not gaining, then who is reaping the fortunes? It is the middlemen comprising businessmen from the districts of Visakhapatnam, East and West Godavari, Krishna and Guntur and from the States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, with the backing of the Maoists,” said Mr. Ranga Rao.
Director General of Police D. Gautam Sawang has also confirmed that the Maoists have a cut in the trade.
Ganja cultivation and its smuggling are not new to Visakha Agency. The first ganja smuggling case was booked in 1973, even before the NDPS Act, 1985 came into force. It has been over four decades and it is now that the issue has gained prominence due to the raging political debate.
The first to enter the twilight zone was the smugglers from Tamil Nadu, mainly from Salem, Dindigal and Theni districts. They brought in seeds and technology as the cool climes of Visakha Agency offered conducive environment for ganja cultivation.
“They took land of tribals on lease and made them bonded labourers on their own land and made crores by selling the contraband in upcountry markets. And this happened under the watchful eyes of the Maoists,” said a senior police official engaged in anti-Maoist operations.
Only some tribals groups, who live in the roadside villages and are a bit educated, have gained from the trade, said Mr. Ranga Rao.
They learnt the trade quickly and turned into middlemen from cultivators and joined hands with the smugglers.
The tribals in the interior parts get peanuts from the land rents, as they do not understand the value of money and are happy with what they get. This is the biggest advantage that the smugglers have, said S.V.V.N. Babji Rao, Deputy Commissioner, SEB.
The district administration has embarked on an awareness drive to prevent the tribals from undertaking ganja cultivation and have started to destroy the standing crop.
However, experts feel that mere destruction of plantations would not serve the purpose as the tribals have been growing ganja for at least three decades. “There is a need to show them lucrative alternate crops in terms of yield and revenue, they said.
“The crop pattern should be supported by a marketing network such as using the services of the Girijan Cooperative Society (GCC),” said Killo Surendra of the Adivasi Sangham.
According to the DGP, the State government’s ROFR initiative will be a game changer, as the tribals can now own their land.