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12/07/2007 00:00:00

India: Valley of gods turns into drug haven



---
The activities and movements of foreigners visiting the picturesque
Kullu Valley are under, what the police describe as, “routine
surveillance”. That is because, apart from the breath-taking beauty of
its snow-washed mountain slopes and majestic peaks, the Kullu-Manali
region has also been dubbed as a “drug-haven” with a special attraction
to the visitors from abroad.

Against the 18.6 lakh Indian tourists to the region there were over
90,000 foreigners last year. Israelis top the number, followed by
Britons, Italians, Japanese, French, Germans, Koreans, Canadians,
Australians, etc. A sizeable number of them are reportedly drug addicts.
More alarmingly, some of them are said to be part of drug-trafficking
gangs with international links. Therefore, even the genuine tourists
drawn to the valley for trekking, river rafting, or just to enjoy the
cool solitude of the mountains have become the object of suspicion.

The local villagers and the Gurkhas take to cultivation of cannabis,
especially in the remote areas, because of the lure of easy money and
farming traditions. The remote village of Malana has now become famous
internationally for its cherished and highly priced brands like “AK-47”,
“Malana Cream”, “Malana Gold” etc.

In the last three years, more than 40 foreigners were reportedly
arrested on charges of drug smuggling. Diplomatic sensitivities compel
the police to be extra cautious in dealing with such cases. Mr GD
Bhargava, superintendent of police, Kullu district, confirmed that the
police continued to act on “prior information based on surveillance,
chance encounters, and occasionally, rivalries”. Even the embassies of
the countries concerned keep track of their citizens’ activities and
counsel them on de-addiction programmes.

The case of missing foreigners continues to be a mystery. While the
police tend to play it down, saying some might have gone back “without
bothering to inform the local authorities”, the fact that at least 16
such cases remain unsolved in their records is no small matter. Some of
course might have fallen into deep gorges or got buried under snow while
trekking in the dense, inaccessible areas - or fallen prey to wild
beasts. Many tourists prefer to trek alone or in their own groups,
ignoring the officials’ advice to take along experienced local guides.

But it is also believed that a lot of these mysterious disappearances
are linked to crime at some level - including drug-trafficking and
international group rivalries. Efforts of many foreign and Indian rescue
teams, helicopter sorties and announcements of generous rewards for
clues leading to the missing foreigners have gone in vain.

Some, it is widely believed, just disappear into the remote villages
after their visas expire.

The police have difficulty keeping track of most of these roaming guests
preferring to stay in unregistered guest-houses or in tiny hamlets as
“paying guests”. Local families, whose economies are thus boosted,
shield the guests from the eyes of the police. More so if both the
parties are associated with drug-peddling!

In fact, a number of guest-houses cold-shoulder Indian tourists. For
instance, Kasaul, a small village along the Parvati river caters almost
exclusively to Israeli tourists. Even most signboards of bars,
restaurants and guest-houses are not in Hindi or English but in Hebrew.

The Israelis, most of whom come for “chilling out” after a hard
mandatory military training, spend a long vacation here amidst the
wafting fog, alluring slopes and the dense forests. Some do yoga,
meditation - but many come for “smoking” in the “stony” silences around
Kasaul. An Indian tourist is plainly not welcome here - he is even
viewed with suspicion because of several recent drug-related arrests. So
is the case with the old Manali village.

Another significant aspect is that of foreigners marrying local boys and
girls - either because they are smitten by love or it is expedient for
staying on in the valley after their visas expire. Some tourists feeling
lonely and romantic in the enchanting environs fall easily to Cupid’s
arrows and hook up with local guides. But many such marriages could also
be linked to drug trade as well as to legitimate business opportunities.
Some foreigners are said to go back briefly to their countries, set up
links with travel outfits there, come back and look after the tourists
for a good fee. A local spouse preferably with an abode, farmland and
other facilities is mutually advantageous. Though about 86 such
marriages have been registered with the local authorities so far, only
30 have been reported to the police. Marriage allows them a further stay
of five years in the valley with annual extension of the visa.

Rules demand that a “C-Form” containing details of a foreign tourist is
to be filed with the local police. However, even the licensed hotels
either become slack or ignore it deliberately, leaving the police in the
dark about the movements of foreigners. That merely 22,630 C-Forms were
filed with the Kullu police last year speaks for itself.

The strong pipeline between foreign money and the local economy has lead
to many cultural and other adjustments in the “Valley of Gods”. Most
private houses have been either turned into guest-houses or have made
provision for paying guests. The local residents take in their stride
even the boisterous all-night “moonlight parties” of the foreigners with
dance, alcohol, drugs and whatever (no entry for Indians, please) in
congested, quaint-looking places like the Old Manali village.

Strong is the grip of tourism! So strong that the government is
generally anxious to play down the involvement of foreigners in crime.
It does not want drug-related arrests, deaths, or disappearances to
scare away foreigners planning to visit the valley.

The state’s director general of police was recently obliged to issue a
formal statement that the police had no information that “any drug mafia
or the locally married foreigners were involved in charas trade in the
Kullu belt”.

(The author is a Special Representative of The Statesman based in Shimla)

http://www.thestatesman.net/page.news.php?clid=4&theme=&usrsess=1&id=162417


Source: http://www.ukcia.org/news/shownewsarticle.php?articleid=12682
Author: The Statesman via UKCIA

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