Ground report: Why Andhra cops are destroying the ganja crops they ignored for years

TNM travelled to the tribal areas of Andhra where the ganja crops are cultivated. Here’s why the police are suddenly going after the ‘open secret’ in the state.
The Police teams heading to the ganja fields in Chintapalli
The Police teams heading to the ganja fields in Chintapalli
Written by:

Tonnes of ganja crops are piled high as plumes of smoke rise in the air. Workers add in more crops to the burning heap as a police officer shoots the video. Other visuals show acres of ganja crops captured on drone cameras, images of ‘reformed’ stakeholders holding banners against the use of narcotics, and of policemen posing for pictures with seized bundles of marijuana. The Andhra Pradesh police’s Twitter account over the last month is all about Operation Parivarthana, as they set fire to the drugs at their source even as a political fire rages against Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy and his government. Several states have claimed that Andhra Pradesh is the capital of ganja cultivation in the country, and an embattled state government wants to be seen as taking action. 

A view of the mountain ranges in Chintapalli

But away from the media glare, as we travel into the tribal forested regions of Visakhapatnam, the residents of these ‘agency areas’ are baffled. Mahesh (name changed), a 23-year-old, wears a grim face as we stop him on his way to a town from his hamlet. “The police have just destroyed all the crops that my family has cultivated over the last six months,” he says. “They did the same thing back in 2017, but we decided to cultivate again because they didn’t follow up. We thought they were ignoring us again. But we can’t bear the loss anymore,” the young man says, as he vows they will never cultivate ganja again. 

With the police barging into their plots and asking them to either destroy their crops themselves, or watch them being destroyed by the police and have action taken against them, the tribal residents of these regions wonder why, suddenly, there’s so much noise around the cultivation they’ve been going on with for decades. Why do the police suddenly want ‘parivarthana’ — a transformation — around ganja cultivation, when the force has for long been believed to be a part of the ganja nexus in the state? “Letting people in these areas cultivate ganja was in fact a part of their anti-Maoist strategy,” a local journalist tells TNM. 

TNM travelled to the tribal areas of Andhra where the ganja crops are cultivated, spoke to the people who grow ganja, and witnessed how the Andhra police’s Operation Parivarthana actually works on the ground. And the one question that many stakeholders had about this operation is, why now? Why did they ignore this issue for so long, and have suddenly started cracking down on what’s been an open secret in the region?

When the police jeeps pull in

The people of Chintapalli town in Visakhapatnam’s ‘agency area’, a term often used to represent tribal habitation located on the foothills of the Eastern Ghats, were shocked the first day they witnessed 11 jeeps zoom into the only petrol bunk in the centre of the town. Each jeep had six local workers. While a driver drove the jeep, a police officer in civil uniform sat in the front holding a walkie talkie. Bush cutters were loaded on top of the vehicles, and one of the jeeps had armed personnel from the greyhounds team — trained specially to fight the Maoists.

The jeeps lined up for refuelling outside the petrol bunk in Chintapalli town

We, too, witness the jeeps as they pull into a petrol bunk. On enquiry, we are told they were teams deployed as part of Andhra Pradesh police’s Operation Parivarthana. These jeeps would refuel every morning, and then head to the interior regions of the ‘agency region’, a word often used to represent the tribal belt. Their mission: to crack down on ganja cultivation.

Over the weeks, the sight of the jeeps has become a daily affair for the local residents. Similar enforcement drives are being carried out in other mandals in the agency area too.

As the jeeps proceed towards their locations, we try to ask the local residents seated in the jeep where they are headed. “We have no idea,” says John (name changed). “They don’t inform us in advance. We are hired for Rs 300 per day. They give us bush cutters. We are taken to the plots where ganja is cultivated and there we have to get off the jeep and trek to the plot and then cut the plants,” he says. 

We decide to follow the jeeps to see how Operation Parivarthana is carried out.

A ‘strategy’ gone sour with politics

Though ganja cultivation has been happening for over four decades in the agency region, it is only over the last 15 years that the cultivation has become so widespread. And according to local journalists, this is because the police at one point decided, strategically, to avoid cracking down on ganja cultivation in order to stay in the good books of tribal residents. “This was a strategy to keep Maoists away,” says journalist R Nageswar. “They thought the tribals wouldn't entertain Maoists if they were allowed to engage in some economic activity. It was a socio-economic strategy. The police also wanted information about the Maoists from the tribal residents, so they wanted to keep them happy.”

But Noel Swaranjit Sen, former DGP of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh said that while there is no evidence to prove this allegation, this cannot be ruled out either. “I go by evidence and there has been no evidence that the police encouraged ganja cultivation but that cannot be ruled out either. For reasons that it may be convenient for those involved — the Maoists, the police, the politicians and the locals. This nexus has different shades and different times depending on how strong the leadership is and how much they care for the politicians.”

Former central committee member of the outlawed CPI (Maoist) Ginugu Narsimha Reddy who is known popularly by his alias Jampanna, says, “The forests and the hilly terrain and its accessibility make it favourable for Maoist activity. The people living in these areas are often in support of Maoists and their efforts because of the anti-government feeling that they have. They feel their issues and interests are discussed and fought by the Maoists,” shares Jampanna. 

Jampanna who has been active in Odisha as well as in the Telangana region in the past says Maoists have no need for money from the ganja nexus. “The Maoists have never been actively involved in the ganja nexus because they don’t need the money that comes from Ganja. We often convey to the people that cultivating ganja isn’t the solution to their problems and people are asked to fight against the government for their rights, and for better support to cultivate other crops. Despite this, often farmers go ahead and cultivate ganja because they know it’s a way for easy money,” he says. 

“Police officials and local politicians on the other hand have always encouraged ganja cultivation,” he alleges. “They, too, benefit from the business. Across the hierarchy they make a lot of money. The agents grease their palms to ensure the wheels of the nexus function smoothly. When the agents don’t pay them enough, they are raided and booked for their activities. The farmers also don’t mind sharing a part of their profits, because they, too, are making money through the cultivation. This is how the nexus functions. The fuel for the nexus is the government. It is a complex nexus. What comes to light is only the surface that is skimmed. The seizures have always been to show that they are active in enforcement,” Jampanna says.

The police however maintain that Maoists support ganja cultivation. A press release by the Maoists on November 4, 2021 denied allegations by the police that Maoists had links with ganja smuggling. The release also urged the tribals to resist efforts by the police, SEB and the excise department to destroy the ganja plants.   

Swaranjit Sen says that the lack of clarity about where the Maoists get their finances from makes everyone believe ganja cultivation can be one of their sources. “Maoists survive from the land, on the land and off the land. They are more effective where ganja is grown. Anyone who grows ganja would be scared of them. If the police feel the Maoists are making money out of the ganja trade, I think they aren’t very much wrong. But this cannot be concluded until it has been established by the police. Unless some of the Maoists are nabbed and this is established, all I can say is that this is a wise calculation about how Maoists collect their money.”

The former DGP who has headed several anti-naxal operations says he wouldn’t disagree with the Maoists claim that there is a big nexus between the politicians, the police and those in the ganja trade. “But that said, it is like the kettle calling the pot black. There is a nexus but how strongly, I will not be able to comment. Time to time, depending on the police leadership, the police get into this kind of nexus. This happens when the police leadership is weak,” he says. 

However, with the current discourse around narcotics and marijuana use in the country, the police have been forced to adopt a counter-strategy to deal with what they have covertly encouraged over the years

Fingers pointing at Andhra

On August 28, 2020, the Bengaluru Commissioner of Police Kamal Pant held a press meet announcing that the force had seized 141 kg of ganja. On 16th October 2021, Hyderabad Commissioner of Police Anjani Kumar said his force had seized 300 kg of ganja and later on September 20, the joint commissioner of Delhi police (crime), said they seized 358 kg ganja. All these big seizures cutting across states had one similar thread — the ganja had originated from Andhra Pradesh. As more seizures happened across the country — in Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and more — the heat was on Andhra Pradesh. Opposition parties took to the streets calling Andhra Pradesh the drug capital even as the state’s Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy denied the allegation.

On October 17, Telangana police from Nalgonda district opened fire on two villagers in Andhra Pradesh, who the police claimed were ganja smugglers. The police alleged that they shot in self-defence when they were attacked by a group of locals. The Nalgonda police were in Chintapalli mandal of Visakhapatnam district to arrest the accused in a ganja smuggling case that was registered in Telangana. The incident made it to the headlines because the Telangana police were in the Andhra police’s jurisdiction to investigate a ganja case.

The two tribal men who were shot at by the Nalgonda Police who claimed they were ganja smugglers

Until this point, the Andhra police and the government were denying allegations of the state becoming a drug hub in the country. They even served legal notices to TDP Chief Chandrababu Naidu and some opposition leaders for what the police termed as defamatory claims. The police also demanded evidence for these allegations. 

However, with the Telangana police cracking down on drugs inside Andhra police’s jurisdiction, things suddenly changed for the state police. They were in the spotlight, and they had to be seen doing something. And then, Operation Parivarthana was born. 

Operation Parivarthana, from close quarters

Back in Chintapalli. While the jeeps effortlessly make their way through steep slopes and huge potholes on the narrow lanes in the interiors, our vehicle struggles to keep pace. Finally, we reach a location in Kondapalli, where we find the jeeps parked.

A local carrying a bush cutter and heading towards the parked jeeps

The police have set up drones with cameras to assess the extent of ganja cultivation in the area. The armed personnel meanwhile keep a close watch on the surroundings, just in case there’s a Maoist attack. The entire area is a Maoist hub and it is rare for police personnel to venture this far into the forests. 

We are asked by the local residents to keep a safe distance from the police teams, just in case there’s an attack. 

The police teams include two personnel specifically trained to operate drones. The first part of the operation is to identify the extent of cultivation and trace the exact location of the ganja cultivation. The drones sweep effortlessly around the hilly terrain while the operator takes notes of the coordinates of the areas where ganja is cultivated. 

The drone camera taking off to identify locations that have ganja plantations 

As soon as the operator spots a stream, he concentrates on both banks because ganja — a plant that requires abundant water — is usually grown near streams. Within minutes, the drones cover a radius of around 5 km, and are back to the same spot from where they took off. 

A drone image shared by police of ganja plantations at one of the locations in the tribal belt

Now begins the deployment. While the greyhounds personnel stand guard with guns, the inspector divides the locally hired men into teams and directs them to different locations. The workers are used to the terrain, and effortlessly hike through the slopes towards the ganja plots. Once they reach the location, they turn on their bush cutters and chop down each of the ganja plants in the location. 

The armed personnel in mufti keeping a close watch on Maoist activity  

Within five minutes, the ganja plants that would have been ready for harvest within a few weeks, are chopped off and left on the ground. Neither the owner of the plot nor local residents are anywhere in the vicinity. “They don’t question or oppose us, because they too know what they are growing is illegal,” says police inspector Avulaiah who is leading the operation.     

The goal

Operation Parivarthana has three main goals — ganja crop destruction, awareness camps, and enforcement on smugglers and drug peddlers. The operation is being carried out under the supervision of the Director General of Police Gautam Sawang and Special Enforcement Bureau Commissioner Vineet Brijlal. The operation that began on October 30, has so far destroyed more than 6,000 acres of ganja crops in the agency region. The estimated value of the ganja plantations destroyed so far stands at more than Rs 1500 crore.

The local men perched on the jeep are those who have been hired as part of Operation Parivarthana to chop down the ganja crops

Crops in around 250 tribal hamlets have been destroyed. In the joint operation by the state police and the Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB), around 300 teams of 50 personnel each apart from security personnel have been deployed. In its drive against smugglers and peddlers, in the last one month, the police and SEB have booked 214 cases and detained 546 people in Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) cases. More than 100 vehicles have been seized for being involved in smuggling of drugs. 

The police have been putting out videos of the operation on social media and have also been incessantly trying to convey that Operation Parivartana is part of the police’s effort to ensure the end of the ganja mafia in Andhra Pradesh. The SEB says they will not stop until every ganja crop is destroyed in the agency region. 

In 2017-2018 the excise department had cracked down on ganja cultivation in the area. According to data from the police, around 3000 acres of ganja cultivation was struck down in the operation in 2017. “It is important to follow up every year. Doing an operation once and forgetting about it will not ensure a wipe-out of the problem. We plan to not stop until the entire ganja is destroyed and we will also follow it up in the coming years,” says a senior official from the police on the condition of anonymity.   

But as the police push on with ‘Parivarthana’, the residents whose livelihood is being destroyed ask why they didn’t do this earlier. “The crops are sown around June and July and then harvested six months later, between November and January. We take care of these crops like our children. How can they come and cut it all off without giving us any warning?” asks Krishna (name changed), a member of a Primitive Tribe Group hamlet in Kondapally.

Loading content, please wait...

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute