It was not just another fire accident that destroyed more than 150 wooden hutments in the remote hilly terrain. Experts are pressing panic button as to whether the fire would mean resumption of large-scale cannabis cultivation.
The fire broke out late on Saturday in Malana village in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh in northern India and hundreds of the residents have been left homeless in a chilling winter. The loss due to fire is estimated to be worth Rs 20 crore, officials said.
Life has never been so harsh for over 2,500 Malana residents. The village located at an altitutde of 10,300 feet is cut off from the rest of world after it experienced more than 20 inches of snow. It is still snowing in the entire valley, reports say.
Warm clothes, blankets or quilts could not be airdropped because of snowy weather conditions.
All this is of course routine stuff. The point of interest in Malna is different. It is considered a hotspot of high-quality hashish, better known as "Malana cream." The question agitating the minds of many is whether their pastoral economy in ruins, the villagers could return to cannabis.
OP Sharma, a former superintendent of Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) of the region recalled that he had destroyed cannabis in the village four times since 2003.
Educational programmes combined with strict enforcement of the law meant almost 70 per cent of the residents could be weaned away from cannabis cultivation. But Saturday's devastating fire could set the clock back, Sharma feared.
Though he was no more in service, he got anxious and revived his old contacts. He got in touch with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to chalk out a strategy to rehabilitate the villagers, reports The Times of India.
A senior police official agreed that the biggest challenge would be to prevent people from going back to bad old ways. This was why help was pouring in for the village from the government and non-government quarters, he said. A huge rehabilitation package has been announced by the region's government.
An NGO, Sain Engineering Foundation, has sent 400 blankets, one truckload of ration and Rs 12.6 lakh cash as help. Its chief executive officer Ravi Kumar Verma said the organization would adopt the village and train the locals in growing herbs so that they would not fall back upon cannabis in a time of crisis.
According to Sharma, herbs can easily replace drugs. In 2004, villagers sold Rs 15 lakh worth of herbs to pharma companies. These herbs were collected from the jungle.
There is hope if only sustained efforts are made, Sharma says.