The poppy charms in Manipur hills : Livelihood to narco-terror funding

Lunsieh Kipgen *

 Poppy plantation destroyed at Chandel (Machi Sita Jn, Tonghlang, Hongjang and T/Huimol)  :: 17 Feb 2015
Poppy plantation destroyed at Chandel in February 2015 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Death, ….Thou art slave to fate, ….. And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, … And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well”
– John Donne (19th Century)

The large-scale illegal poppy cultivation as a cash crop in the hills of India’s North Eastern state of Manipur owing to its multi-faceted disastrous impact has begun to attract the attention of the state and even the federal government of the country. The massive illegal cultivation of this deadly crop and the illicit lucrative trade in it’s by-product in the region has tremendous impact on the social and economic life of the people.

The reasonably high proceeds from poppy cultivation to a large extent have contributed to large-scale migration from rural to town and sharp increase in land (housing plot) price. The ecological system and environmental equilibrium is disturbed with massive deforestation associated with poppy cultivation. It also greatly resulted in society’s moral decay.

Poppy cultivators justify themselves citing livelihood issues. It has now gradually assumed a near narco-terror/militancy funding base with the direct or indirect involvement of certain armed groups in the illicit poppy cultivation, opium production and trade. Cultivation of conventional agricultural crops such as paddy and other direct consumable items have slowly been discarded as growing poppy is found to be more rewarding.

Poppy cultivation in the state is not something the people of the land have been doing through ages. It was just a decade back that massive poppy cultivation for commercial purpose was heard of in the state. Initially some areas of Ukhrul district and its adjoining Saikul area of Sadar Hills Kangpokpi district were known to have cultivated poppy. Saikul area came to be known as the hotspot of massive poppy cultivation for commercial intent.

Chandel and Churachandpur districts soon figured in the poppy growing map of the state. Koubru hill range in Sadar Hills Kangpokpi district, parts of Tamenglong and Senapati districts too soon found “plots” in the poppy map. Even Bishnupur district in the valley is not safe from poppy cultivation lure. Today, no hill district of the state is free from poppy cultivation putting the state almost at parallel with the famous (infamous) Golden Triangle or the Golden Crescent.

The state government is not a silent spectator to the poppy cultivation either. Police forces are sent to destroy the poppy plants when they are fully grown and ready for harvest. However, the percentage of poppy plants destroyed in such a strategy is insignificant and never serves as deterrence to poppy cultivators.

NGOs, civil groups, police, forest and horticulture departments as well as certain armed groups (under a peace pact with the government) have also been doing their bits to create and spread awareness about the multi adverse consequences of poppy cultivation in the land. Health experts and environmentalists have often pointed out the dangers associated with massive poppy plantation. A group of Christian believers in Churachandpur town recently even held fasting prayers to seek divine intervention to end poppy cultivation in the land.

The danger of genetic disorders that may be caused to the offspring and future generation of people engaged in poppy cultivation, opium processing and opium consumption (addiction) is a less focused area. Reports indicates that the number of opium addicts from poppy farmers have increased from one out of a fifty initially to at least 5 now. Yet, environmental degradations issues seem to be a much more emphasized aspect of discussion in awareness campaigns.

It is not that poppy growers and their financiers are unaware of the ill effects of poppy cultivation or its illegality. The question is, why and how poppy cultivation in the state is continuing with impunity and that poppy field tract is only expanding by the year in spite of reasonable level of awareness about the manifold devastation wrought.

Area of poppy plantation destroyed by the state government during 2016-19 (till March) and the approximate poppy value in terms of rupees is shown here:
SL.No. DISTRICTS YEAR 2016 2017 2018 2019 TOTAL ( in acres) APPROX VALUE (in rupees)
1. Senapati 124 - 329 37 490 343,000,000
2. Chandel 233 - 92 - 325 227,500,000
3. Ukhrul 40 103 60 - 203 142,100,000
4. Churachandpur 40 100 252 399 791 553,700,000
5. Kangpokpi - 113 721 1173 2007 1,404,900,000
6. Tengnoupal - 130 120 220 470 329,000,000
7. Kamjong - - 279 - 279 195,300,000
8. Bishnupur - - - 25 25 17,500,000
Total 437 446 1853 1854 4590 3,213,000,000
(Source: Narcotic and Border Affairs, Govt. of Manipur)

The total area of poppy fields destroyed in a given period actually would not even be one third of the total area of cultivation. The poppy fields in the foothills within easy reach from the valley could bear the brunt of destruction by the government but those located in remote mountain slopes are always safe. Natural factor like rain during harvest can of course doom a season’s output to near zero though the risk in this regard is still considered insignificant.

One of the grounds for justification of poppy cultivation in the state is the suitability of the soil and climatic condition. The truth is that poppy can be grown in most of the habitable parts of the world except the northernmost, up to at least latitude 56°. The next important justification is the livelihood issue. Poppy growers claim that they do so to feed their families and to fund their children’s studies, etc. Scriptural justifications are not missed either.

Poppy farmers argue that what they earn through toils and sweat is clean and in line with biblical scripture. An audio record released recently and made to go viral on social networking sites not only justifies earning an income through toils and sweats in poppy cultivation but also went to the extent of challenging anybody trying to stop poppy cultivation.

The speaker in this audio record also went on to say that the poppy cultivators themselves have not consumed the deadly plant in any form and whatever they do with poppy cultivation is to market the opium (extracted from poppy) only. The exclusive land ownership right and the claimed freedom to use it to produce any type of crop too is cited to justify poppy cultivation.

An acre of poppy field, as per existing market rate, yield opium worth Rs. 7,00,000/- (seven lakhs only). Average poppy farmers earn between fifteen and twenty lakhs rupees in a season (excluding production cost). This fast buck temptation has intoxicated many to undertake poppy cultivation despite awareness about its deadly side effects and long run implications. Linking talks of poverty driven or livelihood issues with poppy cultivation is bogus.

When poppy farmers send their children to good private schools and wage earners in poppy farms can afford reasonably expensive smart phones, poppy cultivation can never be poverty compulsions. Whatever the argument or justification, poppy cultivation is illegal and so the state has to use its resources to contain or prevent such illegality. Mankind the world over has survived without poppy cultivation for thousands of years.

In Manipur poppy cultivation as a thriving occupation is just a decade or a little plus old only. Agricultural communities in the hills of Manipur through ages pursued their traditional Jhum cultivation where they grow paddy and other crops and not only ensured their livelihood but also prospered even before poppy cultivation was introduced. Greed factor or the desire to get rich fast indeed has intoxicated many to take to poppy cultivation unmindful of both the immediate and long term harmful consequences.

Armed groups under Suspension of Operation (SoO) namely KNO and ZRO/ZRA every now and then would issue directives to concerned individuals to give up poppy cultivation and to the land owning village chiefs not to allow their land for the same in their respective operational areas. Certain civil groups too would come out with similar directives/appeals.

In an apparent response to such appeal/directive, certain hill based non-SoO armed groups namely KIA/KIO and UKNA came out with press statements expressing not only their open support for poppy cultivation but also threatening to confront anybody or groups that tries to obstruct poppy cultivation. Still there are allegations of armed groups both SoO and non-SoO groups collecting taxes from poppy farmers and the land owning village chiefs who enjoy opium royalty in the form of annual land rental.

There are also credible inputs that some armed groups irrespective of SoO and non-SoO groups sponsoring poppy plantations to fund their organizational requirements. This way a crude form of narco-terror funding system seems to have crept into the land. The influential church’s silence on the issue of poppy cultivation is seen as a hypocritical tacit sanction to allow its members indulge in unethical poppy cultivation so long as it (church) receives its due in the form of tithes and offering.

There can be no large scale poppy cultivation and opium production without high demand factor. The fact that poppy cultivation area is expanding by the year with price almost remaining constant is enough indicator of opium demand ever going up only. The poppy farmers are reportedly financed by moneyed class who invest capital for a fixed quantity of opium and rate. Land being limited, sedentary agriculture for poppy cultivation is now resorted to even in the mountain slopes.

This is where more capital is required as the use of chemical fertilizers and other non-environment friendly chemicals became imperative to retain the highly degraded soil fertility. Apart from chemical fertilizers, grass killer chemicals and pesticides are increasingly used. The law of diminishing return soon comes into operation as the quantity of chemical fertilizers required per unit only go up almost each year.

4X4 power fitted Shaktiman trucks and jeeps are hired to transport consignments of fertilizers to the mountain slope poppy fields. The recent (May-June 2019) detection and crackdown on opium processing factories in Thoubal district by the state government is said to have throttled the poppy plantation funding line, subsequently leading to considerable decrease in opium demand.

Certain states in the country such as Uttarakhand, UP, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are given license to grow poppy in specified areas with restricted output for medicinal purpose and to meet the pharmaceutical requirements. Non-pharmaceutical related poppy cultivation in areas not under permit is simply illegal. It is the bounden duty of the government to fight any form illegality including unauthorized poppy cultivation.

Drive against illicit poppy cultivation forms an important part of the state government’s “war against drugs”. Poppy growers always demand alternative means of livelihood or occupation. The state government recently has formed a committee to examine the type of cash crops which would be suitable as alternative to poppy and the rehabilitation of poppy farmers.

Horticulture farming, lemon grass cultivation and rubber tree plantation are always the main viable alternatives suggested since long back but no concrete step has so far been taken to affect transition in this regard. It needs to be remembered that any type of vegetable can be grown in all poppy cultivated areas. Financial incentive can be extended to those who have switched from poppy to other cash crop cultivation at least for two years.

The fact that more areas in the hills are brought under poppy cultivation each year goes to suggest that the government in a way is fighting a losing battle in its war against poppy plantation. There are allegations that government agencies on poppy destruction missions are bought off by the poppy farmers’ rag tag guilds in their respective areas. It cannot also be refuted that vast poppy fields in interior hills is always safe.

More sincere effort is required to contain poppy cultivation more effectively. Poppy fields should be identified clearly through application of modern technology including satellite mapping for effective planning towards destruction of the same.

The village chiefs whose land is identified as poppy cultivated area should be held responsible for allowing poppy tenancy cultivation in the village land and hence penalized by de-recognizing the village for subsequent forfeiture of developmental schemes for a specified period.

Armed groups patronizing poppy cultivation should be identified and dealt with accordingly. Flow of chemical fertilizers should be properly monitored to prevent them from being used in poppy fields. No mercy should be shown to poppy tenants, dealers or processing units.

* Lunsieh Kipgen IPS wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is IGP Zone-II, Manipur
This article was webcasted on October 29, 2019.

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