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The Realities of Malana

I recently watched a documentary called “BOM” (link below), made by Indian filmmaker Amlan Datta during the time he spent in the secluded, almost mythical, village of Malana. He managed to place himself, camera in hand, right in the middle of a crucial moment in the village’s long history. The film essentially tackles two major issues through the localized perspective of Malana; that of legalisation of cannabis and the redundancy of an overzealous democracy.

There is a moment early in the film, in which Manisha Nanda, Chief Electoral Officer of Himachal Pradesh, explains that if, in a democracy, a group of people want something done by the government, and the government does not respond, then it is not a real democracy. The irony of this statement is made clear as the movie progresses. Another scene in a moving car has Nanda explain to us the new electoral reforms of photo IDs through an anecdote. She speaks of a man who lost his keys a distance away from a lamp post. Yet he searches for his keys under the lamp post because that is the only place which has light. She goes on to hilariously compare the electoral reforms to the light “leading us out of darkness”, even though the solution (the keys) is not going to be found under that light. Was it her intention to say that these reforms may not be the solution to some of the problems with our democracy? Or was it simply another example of grotesque confidence in her own mindless bullshitery that we’ve come to expect from the people in power in our country? We do not know. In the context of Malana, her anecdote is almost reminiscent of the British justifying colonialism as “leading them out of darkness”, except that they did not as readily concede that the solution was still not to be found under their “light”. The rest of the film hits home the point: The electoral reforms may be the only light available in this era of darkness, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily a universal solution.

During the course of the film we see how Malana, cut off from the rest of the world, has its own long-standing traditions that keeps its people happy and maintains peace. The people are extremely self-sufficient and up until fifty years ago didn’t even get clothes from outside the village, weaving their own! The main source of livelihood for the villagers was cattle rearing and indigenous hemp cultivation, the charasgrowing there having its own special place within the cannabis community of the world. They put it to multiple purposes for their own use, including making their own footwear out of hemp, making rope to tie their cattle and even making paste to eat when food was difficult to find. It was only in the last few decades during which foreigners found the place and started smuggling hashish out of the village, putting it on the world map; and thus, giving it a bad rep amongst the Indian lawmakers.

Until then Malana lay largely outside the reaches of the government, a village covered by Himalayas on three sides and inaccessible by road; the people left to fend for themselves. But as trade of the recreational drug started growing from the village with the Israeli and Italian mafia getting involved in the 90s, India had already abandonment its long historical and cultural use of cannabis and moved towards adopting a Nixon-esque war on drugs with the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS), 1985. As four-time Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Vidarbha Singh, explains it, this law fails to make a distinction between a local cultivating hemp to eat and someone creating and supplying deadly drugs like opium. Under the NDPS, and hence the eyes of the law, they are treated the same, however unfair that may seem. He goes on to say that the law needs to be reviewed, echoing the sentiments of a large group of people who would like to explore this remarkable by-product of nature, multipurpose in its use. With its uses ranging from the field of medicine, to textiles, even food, it has been dubbed the God’s Plant by some.

This film, and everything it stands for, also manages to capture beautifully the true spirit of India. An idealist’s image of India is indeed beautiful, but it is far from the real version. Datta manages to capture that contradiction beautifully; on one hand a former CM states the need to review the laws to create a distinction between harmful drug peddlers and indigenous hemp cultivators, and on the other hand Datta showcases how his godbrother’s wife, Ketki, getting sentenced to ten years of jail for possession of charaswithout being given a fair trial. On one hand a district administrator explains to us how there is a need to provide the villagers with an alternate source of livelihood to successfully take their local economy away from drug trade, and on the other hand a narcotics officer feigns to do exactly that but with dire consequences for the people he is meant to be serving. The officer in question asks the gullible and trusting people to cultivate peas instead of cannabis, telling them that, at worst, they would make Rs.30/kg instead of the Rs.40 they made otherwise, but without the risk of engaging in illegal activities. They only ended up fetching Rs.6/kg. On one hand the narcotics officer fulfilled his purpose of reducing drugs being supplied out of the village, but on the other hand the poor people were left in a helpless limbo, wondering how they would make it through the winter. It is in this vulnerable state that the common man becomes more gullible to the promises of the politicians, which are very likely to be hollow. The government and politicians only recently reached this remote corner of India to try and influence the village (the first political meeting was held here in 2002), but that only lead to the division of an otherwise united village. On one hand this film has won a national award, but on the other it has also been banned in India, presumably to protect this archaic law.

This ironic theme of hard-hitting reality continues throughout the film. Both the issues, that of a democracy failing to serve its people and its laws failing to protect its people, are merged seamlessly with the context of Malana. Another universal but sad truth highlighted by the movie is how democracy is has merely become vehicle to serve the rich while providing people with the illusion of choice. Officials were back in the village trying to get the people to sign off on a tunnel to be built for a power plant nearby. After a series of failed promises, the villagers promptly stopped the work from going forward and it was only after new demands were met was the work allowed to continue. This is a much larger problem throughout the country and indeed much of the world, again highlighted here with the hyperlocal context of the people of Malana. As another case in point, Ketki’s version of events was not even heard in court as she was made the fall guy to show that the NDPS was functioning in all its flawed glory.

Datta explains how the locals choose their own leader and their own form of justice. Flawed and barbaric, yet, in its own way extremely successful in maintaining peace and order. Whenever there was a disagreement in the village, the villagers would take two sheep to represent the two parties and poison them. Whichever sheep lasted longer was the winner, and the person whose sheep died had to accept loss without complaint. This was the form of justice followed for generations until democracy, ironically, divided the people. Voting was held in the village for the first time in 2009, as the villagers were brought into the “light” from their endless “darkness”. Men admitted to voting for their wives and wives would only make the same vote as their husband. One woman was simply elated to hear the beeping sound on the voting machine, with no care for whom she cast the vote. It makes you wonder if getting this village to vote was little more than a PR exercise for the Electoral Commission.

But as we gain perspectives on some of the seemingly needless problems that exist today, it is imperative to speak of solutions. While the movie speaks about the pitfalls of over-involvement of the government causing disruptions in local culture, it focuses advocating the need for a review of the cultivation of cannabis to benefit our nation and its people as a whole. The plant is grown abundantly in India and the criminalization of it has kept us from discovering the enormous potential it has in the fields or medicine and agriculture. Legalization would boost the economy by adding the black money from illegal trade to tax revenue for governments. The resources used for the enforcement of the NDPS on cannabis could be diverted to tackle more pressing problems. It would also be a massive boost to our struggling agriculture industry, and help transform some local economies.

It is easy to dub Malana a narcotic village and let another generation pass without making any changes to the NDPS. But maybe the more logical thing to do here would be to try and look past that label. To recognize the difference between a multipurpose plant grown in nature and a deadly, addictive drugs created artificially. Even as Nixon’s war on drugs is long gone and most American states have either decriminalized or legalized completely the use of cannabis, why do we continue to cling to obsolete laws that hold us back more than benefit us? Even though the nations we followed into darkness have chosen to step into the light, what are we waiting for? India’s history with cannabis goes way beyond American propaganda. It is intertwined with our culture, bhaang being the drink of choice during Holi and any depiction of Lord Shiva being incomplete without his chillam filled with charas.It was even mentioned as one of the five sacred plants in the Vedas, the first known records of our civilization.

Some Indian states having legalized the cultivation of industrial grade hemp but only for plants with less than 0.3% THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) is the compound in cannabis that causes a person to get “high”. But more importantly, THC also has numerous health benefits such as helping with anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia to name a few. Medical grade hemp would normally have THC more than 0.3%. Legalising this and removing it from the shackles of NDPS as Section-1 drug should be the next step in the process, helping open avenues for research and standardisation. With the upper limit for THC content kept at 0.3%, it destroys the chance of cultivating hemp grown locally as it will almost always have a higher THC count due to India’s naturally Nitrogen rich soil. One can definitely try different growing techniques to contain the THC% but that is a far-fetched goal and even if it succeeds, farmer benefits would not be realised for a very long time. To meet those requirements, we will have to import hemp seeds. Introducing foreign breeds threatens the biodiversity of an already growing plant and takes away our chance to empower local communities fully. A higher THC count needs to be allowed for cannabis to be used medically and for research of cancer. Allowing research would help us find ways to reduce the THC during the extraction process. But looking for plant genetics lower than 0.3% is not only a crime against nature but also, it will make it difficult for the farmer to have those seeds as they belong to the poor sections of the world. Overall, the impact of cannabis on our society has negative repercussions as criminalization has created social taboo and a lack of awareness of its benefits. While legalizing the cultivation of industrial grade hemp is definitely a step in the right direction, a few leaps must be taken for it to start making a more positive influence.

Today, Earth reaches a tipping point as humanity continues to exploit it. It has become even more imperative that we support biodegradable alternatives to replace traditionally mass-used toxic products. With alternatives such as bio-plastic, bio-fuels and bio-cement showing tremendous potential to replace their traditional counterparts in most of their uses, only ramping up research will help makes these environmentally friendly alternatives also cost effective. A combination of embracing our historical roots and sensible policy making would make that possible and help shift the narrative of Malana from a narcotic village to a healing village. As the benefits of cultivating cannabis are stacking up, it is becoming impossible to ignore the urgent need for a relevant amendment to the NDPS.

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