We were on our way back from Jana to Naggar. One of our guides pointed to a large house off the road. It was surrounded by apple trees. “My father was in talks to buy that land”, he told us. “The plan was to grow apples. 25 bighas legal, 25 illegal. But the deal fell through”.
In the November of 2020, we were traversing up and down the Kullu valley. The apple harvest had been picked and packed. Most trees had shed their leaves and the vast tracts of apple orchards covering Kullu valley had transformed into a uniform shade of brown. In the village of Naggar, which was our base, every house with a little open space around it had at least three or four apple trees.
Himachal produces roughly a third of all apples in India, second only to Jammu and Kashmir (albeit by a wide margin). As a local in Naggar explained, even in Kullu valley, the epicentre of tourism in Himachal, most of the region’s prosperity comes from apples. This might be true of Himachal in general — apple farming is estimated to be a ₹5,000-crore industry in the state.
Apple Farming Is Very, Very Lucrative
But it is also a driver of deforestation. Before apple became a major crop, a lot of Kullu valley’s farmland used to be sown with red rice. Once a staple food crop in the region, red rice is now a protected plant, rare enough to fetch ₹300 per kg in urban markets where it is celebrated as a health food. Even with that price tag, it cannot compete with apples. According to rough estimates, one acre of red rice brings in ₹1 lakh to ₹2.5 lakh; one acre of apples bring in anywhere between ₹10 lakh to ₹15 lakh. Over the decades, almost all of the valley’s erstwhile paddy fields were turned into apple orchards, and as more and more people rushed in to grab a bite of the lucrative apple market, it was the forests’ turn to make way. As Down To Earth reported, from the 1980s onwards, the felling of forests to expand or establish apple orchards gained pace in Himachal.
Until the 1990s, apple cultivation also contributed indirectly towards deforestation. A significant part of legal tree felling in Himachal was done for the purpose of making wooden crates to pack and transport the annual apple harvest.
In a public address in 2014, then Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh mentioned that the Himachal government’s decision to shift fruit packaging from wood to corrugated paper had helped save over one lakh trees. The clearing of forests, however, continued unabated.
Over the last decade, this issue may have reached a tipping point. In 2015, the Shimla High Court directed the forest department to clear approximately 54,400 hectares of apple orchards from encroached forest land. According to the state Economics and Statistics Department’s 2017-18 survey, 1,11,896 hectares of land were under apple cultivation in the entire state. This means that forests almost half the size of official estimates of the total land under apple cultivation in the entire state have been cleared illegally for apple farming, indicating the extent of deforestation caused by encroachment.
High Court, Army Stepped In
The Shimla High Court’s order to clear orchards on encroached forest was met with huge outcry and limited action. Frustrated by the slow implementation of its 2015 order, in 2018, the High Court directed the Army’s Eco-Task Force to implement its order and clear illegal orchards. Some subsequent reports suggest that the Eco-Task Force demurred, citing lack of machinery and logistical preparedness and protesting that its job was to plant trees, not to uproot them.
On the condition of anonymity, a Naggar resident said, “Apples are one of the biggest causes of deforestation here in Kullu valley. We are cutting trees that are 500-1000 years old ... In areas like Mandi, there isn’t that much encroachment because there isn’t much apple farming there. The encroachment is happening in Shimla, in Kinnaur, and on a huge scale in Kullu-Manali … Apple farming has begun in Lahaul as well, but it is not in sync with the natural conditions there. Apples require huge amounts of water and Lahaul is a desert area. With apple cultivation, they are making it a green area. That will have consequences — with greenery will come rain. At the moment that part of Himachal gets snow directly. But slowly, with increasing greenery, it will start receiving rain before snow and those mountains are loose so they will have landslides and erosion.”
As climate change forces Himachal’s apple farmers to move to higher altitudes for better yields, the high-altitude forests of Himachal are already under attack from another cash crop.
Cannabis: Mountain Magic
Every year, Neeraj takes a walk through the high-altitude forests above Naggar and surrounding villages. Every year, he sees that more of the forest has been cleared.
High up in Himachal’s mountains, forests are being razed for the cultivation of a plant that has been hailed in recent times as the ultimate eco-warrior: Cannabis. Hashish, the sticky black-brown resin extracted by rubbing the flower of the cannabis plant, is one of Himachal’s worst-kept secrets and top tourist attractions.
Before becoming an illegal drug source, however, cannabis used to be a household plant in Himachal. Local vaids (Ayurveda practitioners) made medicines using the plant, and a chutney made from ‘bhang seeds’, as the plant is locally called, was a winter speciality because of its ability to keep children and the elderly warm in freezing winter. The plant’s fibres were used to make summer slippers. Hemp fibres were also used to make rope. Until a few decades ago, these ropes were the main source of income for residents of Malana.
The Fabled ‘Malana Cream’
Today, the village is infamous for its eponymous, internationally acclaimed hashish, the ‘Malana cream’.
Malana kept largely to itself for centuries, and to this day, it has an ‘autonomous’ Parliament of its own. But the arrival of foreign tourists in the late 60s and 70s pushed it into the international limelight.
According to popular legend, European tourists taught locals how to extract hashish from the cannabis flower and due to the high oil content of its hash, Malana soon became a hotspot for backpackers and hippies from Europe and the US.
What started in Malana soon spread across Himachal. Bowing to intense American pressure, when the Indian government outlawed cannabis in 1985, the plant began to fade from the everyday lives of Himachalis, but cannabis cultivation exploded in the state, and particularly in Kullu valley, in a completely different way. From a plant grown on small patches of land in the backyard of every Himachali home, cannabis has become the basis of a massive drug trade that involves local cultivators, small drug peddlers, European and African drug mafia, and a huge market that stretches from the hippie shanty towns of Manali to the hip (and legal) head shops of Amsterdam.
Livelihood vs Ecology
Cannabis cultivation brought livelihood to remote villages too spartan and far-flung to partake in the state’s massive tourism economy. When the government outlawed cannabis, people began to clear forests in the high mountains, far away from the scrutiny and reach of the forest department. According to Neeraj, resident of Naggar and founder of Ananda Project, an NGO that fought against deforestation in Naggar and nearby villages, one bigha of land (roughly a third of an acre) can yield an annual cannabis harvest worth ₹1 lakh to ₹1.5 lakh. Consider that against the fact that in 2018, the police identified 600 acres of cannabis fields for destruction in Kullu district alone, and that this was estimated to be only a small fraction of the actual area under cultivation.
As the primary (and often sole) reason young tourists make a beeline for the state, cannabis is also closely tied with that other important source of prosperity in Himachal: tourism. At the losing end of the bargain are the local youth and Himachal’s ancient forests. Riding the coattails of cannabis, hard drugs such as heroin have entrenched themselves amongst the young population and drug abuse is now a crisis in the state. In a public address in 2018, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur noted that approximately a third of the state’s youths are addicted to drugs.
“Right now I consider cannabis a big threat to biodiversity … A hell of a lot is being destroyed in the forest because of it. Medicinal plants, plants that are about to germinate, tree species that took tens of thousands of years to grow. Without realising how precious they are, how old they are, people are just chopping them down,” says Neeraj. The result is the destruction of native species, of an entire habitat, through the introduction of an alien plant. As Neeraj explains, “Cannabis is not native to 3,800 m, it does not grow naturally at that height. We are taking it from 900 m to 3,800 m just to get good potency.”
To make matters worse, cannabis cultivators have started using chemicals to extract higher yields. Fertilisers like NPK and Urea are being introduced into the ecosystem at heights of 2800 m to 3200 m above sea level. “If tourists knew what was going into the cannabis they smoked in Himachal, they wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole,” Neeraj says.
To add insult to injury, most cannabis sold as Malana cream or some other variety of authentic Himachali ‘maal’ is actually a low-quality variant smuggled from Nepal.
Failed Strategies & The Question Of Legalisation
A common refrain amongst locals and outsiders is that the interrelated problems of drug abuse, deforestation, and drug tourism can be solved by legalising cannabis cultivation for industrial and medicinal use, which will allow people to grow it on their own land instead of destroying high-altitude forests. Once legalised, cannabis cultivation will also be open for record-keeping — the government will be able to collect data about who is growing how much cannabis, information that could go a long way in curtailing the drug economy in Himachal.
Proponents of legalisation also argue that the government stands to earn significant tax revenue on cannabis once it is legalised. Across the state border, Uttarakhand has already legalised cannabis cultivation for industrial use.
Meanwhile, the government is following a slash-and-seize strategy to curb cannabis cultivation on forest land. In the annual anti-cannabis drives that are part of this strategy, youth and women’s groups are involved to proactively identify and destroy cannabis plants and plantations in and around their villages. The Himachal police also trek up to cannabis fields with machetes in hand. Every year, several hundred acres are destroyed. In 2019, teams from the Revenue and Forest departments, the Narcotics Control Bureau and the Central Narcotics Bureau, assisted by local youth and mahila mandals, destroyed 1,235 acres of cultivated and wild cannabis.
Who Is To Blame?
Despite the determined approach, the strategy does not seem to have worked. But remarkably, the futility of this approach is acknowledged by those implementing it. Several police officers have gone on record to say that the annual destruction of cannabis fields and sporadic seizures of hash and weed will achieve nothing. In December last year, the Chief Minister announced that the state would frame an integrated drug prevention policy, but the details are not yet known.
Neeraj says the solution lies elsewhere. If poor villagers with only a few other options are growing cannabis to earn a livelihood, they are hardly to blame. The only way to curb the cultivation is to create alternative sources of income. This is what a group of NGOs set out to do when it collaborated with Biolaya Organics, a now-defunct eco-enterprise based in Deushar. Neeraj was part of this team. “We wanted that people who are destroying the forest for cannabis should get land from the government to cultivate medicinal herbs. Not on their name, not permanently, just a space to grow these plants … and then through fair trade, we will link them to various pharmaceutical companies,” he said.
But the project failed due to the combined effect of government apathy, the group's limited resources, and lukewarm local interest in medicinal plants, which can be harvested and sold only three to five years after they are planted. Similar projects in remote areas that are notorious for cannabis cultivation failed, too.
The balance between apples and forests would be a delicate one to strike as well. Ever expanding apple cultivation is eating into large tracts of Himachal’s forests. But apples have also brought the state economic prosperity and its attendant benefits.
A few days after our trip back from Jana, we were sitting in the small courtyard of a dimly lit eatery in Haripur. Inside, a group of young men was celebrating the imminent nuptials of a friend, and as the alcohol flowed, so did the singing. Balakram Thakur, an erstwhile rescue trekker and heli skier, kindly translated for us the lyrics of a local love song being sung with particular gusto. “All the young people know the local songs”, Balakramji told me. “In other districts, young people began migrating out of the state in search for work decades ago. This year, when the lockdown was announced, people began to return. In Una and Kangra, there are stories of the third generation coming back to rediscover ancestral homes their grandparents left behind. But here, in Kullu, young people do not need to leave. There is enough to keep them here — tourism and apple farming. And because they live here, they know the songs.”
(Garima Raghuvanshy is a researcher and writer interested in a range of social and cultural issues including religion, inter-community dynamics, and urbanisation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)