The opium trap
Legal poppy cultivation in India is fraught with risk but remains a legacy that farmers are unwilling to part with and a lure they find hard to resist
Mandsaur (Madhya Pradesh)/New Delhi: The building that’s now the district opium office in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, used to be a jail once. In 1922, the long barracks with their stone walls and rugged floors were converted into an afeem godaam—opium warehouse—where farmers came with legally harvested opium that was weighed and checked for quality.
Engraved in yellow stone at the entrance to the building is a slice of history: “Opium Cultivation Office, Gwalior Government, 1922”.
Close to a century later, thousands of farmers in Mandsaur district are still growing the narcotic herb under strict government supervision. And the opium office, with its mandate of enforcing stringent laws around poppy cultivation, continues to symbolize confinement for farmers like Amrit Ram Patidar, who refers to opium farming as “ghulami ki kheti” (a slave’s crop). They live with the fear that the magnificent white poppy fields that bloom every winter could result in their being marked as criminals—as Patidar learnt on the morning of 13 June.
A well-off farmer from Mandsaur, 46-year-old Patidar was attending to his shop, which sells farm inputs like seeds and fertilizers. It was just a week after five protesting farmers had been shot dead by the local police on 6 June. Mandsaur, a prosperous farming district in western Madhya Pradesh, had featured in the national news and become an embarrassment for a state government perceived as farmer-friendly. The police had brought out a list of 32 farmers who they believed had led the protests and arson in which several shops and vehicles were torched. Patidar’s name was on that list. He ran from his shop when he saw the police entering the village, and fell down and broke his leg while scaling a wall.
About two months later, on 8 August, when this writer met Patidar in Mandsaur’s Balaguda village, he was still on the run.
“Our protests had nothing to do with opium... it was to force the government to do something about falling crop prices. But they took the easy way out by saying afeem taskars (local parlance for those dealing in illegal opium) were behind the protests,” said Patidar.
His claims are not unfounded. Months after the harvesting of the winter crop, unsold spices and garlic are piled up in farmers’ houses, stored in the hope that prices may recover.
“We grow more than 40 different crops. My village supplies thousands of litres of milk every day to dairies...but when officials visit our village and see a nicely built house, they chuckle and say, your wealth is due to taskari (illegal trade),” said Patidar.
A short ride away from the district opium office, over three-quarters of the inmates lodged in Mandsaur district jail are either facing trial or have been convicted under the stringent Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. Most are poor agricultural workers and some are farmers. “If you remove convicts charged under the narcotics Act, this jail will be empty... Mandsaur is that peaceful a place,” said Sunil Sharma, the jailor.
Yogendra Yadav, a member of the Jai Kisan Andolan, a farmers’ movement, and president of political party Swaraj Abhiyan, who visited the district in July, however, has a different take. “In Mandsaur the police can step into a house at any time... and false cases are common to settle personal scores,” he said.
An exceptional display of state power was visible during the recent farmer protests, said Yadav. “Farmers who were part of that agitation were labelled smugglers. The reality is that legal cultivation of opium is forcing a vast population to live under fear and criminality...at the mercy of the local administration and police,” he added.
After months of chasing him, the police arrested Patidar on 22 August. He was released on bail three days later.
Why grow opium?
Opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum, a medicinal herb that produces a variety of alkaloids such as morphine and codeine, is best known as a pain reliever in modern medicine. It is used for a range of treatments, from post-operative pain management and palliative care for terminal cancer patients to treating accident-related trauma and chronic pain syndromes.
Opioids like morphine play a vital role in pain management and they are not expensive for patients, said Saipriya Tewari, former senior resident at Sanjay Gandhi Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Lucknow. “In my six years of service, even in government facilities, I have not faced any shortage of these drugs,” said Tewari, who specializes in pain management.
Under the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, India is among the 12 countries in the world allowed to grow opium poppy for medicinal use. However, India is the only nation allowed to extract gum opium—skilled workers extract the latex that contains 70% of the morphine synthesized by the plant by lancing its flower-bearing pod.
After workers make longitudinal incisions in the pod, the exuding latex forms a crust under the hot sun. Early the next morning, the semi-solid latex is collected by scraping with a trowel. A history of poppy cultivation in India—a section on the website of the Central Bureau of Narcotics (CBN), which oversees cultivation and trade in legal opium and comes under the finance ministry—describes the lancing as a “skill acquired by years of experience... the depth of incision (by sharp blades) an accomplished, precise art”.
A ‘law and order problem’
Art aside, the illegalities around the crop are largely due to the process of extracting opium by lancing, said Manoj Singh, superintendent of police at Mandsaur. Other countries such as Australia, France, China and Turkey, which grow legal opium, use a method known as concentrate of poppy straw process (CPS), where the entire plant is processed with its stalk to extract the drug.
Leaving the task of extracting the opium gum to farmers opens the door for illegalities, said Singh, who sees poppy farming as a “law and order” problem. “I strongly think the government should put an end to open cultivation and make way for captive farming by pharmaceutical companies,” he suggests.
In the grey market, opium is used to make heroin or smack, a highly addictive drug banned by law. According to Singh, the annual illegal trade in opium and poppy husk in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan could be worth around Rs2,000 crore.
Rajesh Puri, narcotics commissioner at the CBN headquarters in Gwalior, agrees that the Indian process for harvesting opium is an archaic one. “The government initiated a move to CPS earlier. It could not materialize. The process has started again,” he said, adding that captive farming, too, is a possibility.
If captive farming is introduced, the way India has grown poppy from the early 16th century when it was a federal monopoly under Mughal rule to when the British took over in 1773, will change.
For now, legal opium farming in India is largely concentrated in five districts spread across Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Mandsaur is home to a quarter of the 60,747 farmers who planted poppy in the 2016-17 season, most of them heirloom licence holders. Production during the year is estimated at 556 tonnes, of which farmers in Mandsaur produced 139 tonnes.
Growing poppy requires as much care as a foetus inside a woman’s womb, said Patidar. “We guard the fields at night to protect the harvest from thieves and wild animals but in return get a pittance... Even if a farmer follows all rules, there are chances of being booked under the NDPS Act or have their licence cancelled,” he said.
Over three days in the second week of August, Mint met several farmers in different villages of Mandsaur district. Most of them, while declining to be named out of fear, flagged the risks involved in poppy farming.
One major grouse is that they are paid a pittance. For the harvested opium gum the government pays around Rs1,800/kg, which is way lower than local police estimates of a grey market price ranging between Rs60,000/kg and Rs1.2 lakh/kg.
The wide difference between the prices in the illegal market and government rates, said one state police official on condition of anonymity, is what drives corruption along the chain, from farmers and agricultural labourers to police and officers in the narcotics bureau, all the way to the government opium and alkaloid factory in Neemuch district of Madhya Pradesh.
The farmers say if the government paid them a rate of Rs10,000/kg, that would end supplies to the grey market.
Opium licences usually come in plot sizes of 20 hari, or a fifth of an acre (2.5 acres equals one hectare). Every year the plot size and licence is renewed by CBN, based on the previous season’s performance and quality of gum supplied by the farmer, and after estimating domestic and international requirements. A farmer has to provide a certain quantity of gum to the government—known as the minimum qualifying yield, which is usually around 60kg/hectare—failing which the licence may not be renewed.
If production falls short either due to the weather, improper care or pests, as it may with any crop, the farmer usually purchases the shortfall, illegally, from a neighbour whose yield is higher, paying a price of at least Rs50,000/kg.
Why don’t farmers forego the licence instead? In the hope that they would get a good yield next year and make some money on the side.
The poppy sowing season starts around November and the crop is usually ready for harvest by March. “Even if the plot size is an inch more than the licensed area, we can be booked under NDPS... so we sow a few inches short of the licensed area,” said farmer Dilip Patidar from Budha village in Mandasaur. But this is the least of their problems.
Farmers complain that if a crop is damaged due to a hailstorm or a pest attack, it is their responsibility to get officials from the narcotics bureau to inspect and destroy the crop, as at a later stage if the farmer is unable to submit the opium, he could face charges.
In their hurry to get the fields emptied for the next crop, some end up paying a bribe of around Rs5,000.
After the reddish brown latex is harvested from poppy pods, farmers take it to the district opium office. Following a preliminary quality test—there are as many as 13 grades—farmers are paid 90% of the amount due to them, after which the raw opium is sent to the government opium factory in Neemuch.
Farmers say after clearing the quality test at the local opium office, at times the gum is found to be adulterated during the final test at the factory. “Factory officials siphon off the opium and say we mixed it with Bournvita (a health supplement which looks similar to raw opium when left open to moisture). Then our licence is cancelled or a penalty is imposed,” said a farmer who did not want to be named. Officials at CBN who Mint spoke to denied these allegations.
The entire system, from how farmers are paid to how the produce is graded, is a cumbersome one that has continued since the British devised it before India’s independence, a senior narcotics bureau officer said on condition of anonymity.
How does the farm-gate price (Rs1,800/kg) of raw opium compare with processed alkaloids such as morphine? Pharmaceutical companies usually pay between Rs40,000 and Rs45,000 for every kg of morphine they source from government factories. A 15mg vial of morphine used in emergency wards of hospitals costs Rs15, or a rate of Rs1 lakh/kg.
“It means drug manufacturers keep their margin (of profit)... I agree farmers deserve a better price but raising it to Rs10,000/kg will not solve the problem. Drug traffickers will then raise the price to source the raw material,” said the narcotics bureau official mentioned above.
Raw opium is not the only produce of the poppy plant. A 20 hari plot also yields nearly 200kg of poppy seeds or khus-khus, used as a spice in Indian kitchens. Farmers are free to sell this in the open market. Until two years back, khus-khus would fetch about Rs600/kg but the rates dropped to less than Rs400/kg in 2016, implying a loss of at least Rs40,000 for a farmer selling 200kg.
Until 2015 farmers were also allowed to sell poppy husk, the dried pod of the plant locally known as doda chura. The mildly narcotic husk was auctioned to licensed traders who sold it for consumption in licensed shops in Rajasthan. In 2015, after the Rajasthan high court banned the sale of poppy husk following a petition that its use was worsening the addiction problem in states like Punjab, farmers are now asked to burn the husk. For the grower this means a loss of at least Rs15,000 (150kg of poppy husk auctioned at a rate of at least Rs100/kg) per crop.
“This money was number one (legal)… it is gone now. The government did not compensate us for this loss,” said a farmer who has kept the husk from the 2017 season safe inside his house, awaiting government orders on how to dispose of it.
For a 20 hari plot, farmers say their earnings have plunged from Rs1.62 lakh to less than Rs1 lakh in two years. “When compared to the costs (about Rs50,000) and risks, growing poppy is no longer attractive,” the farmer quoted above said, declining to be named.
Despite the risks involved, farmers in Mandsaur are torn between giving up their licence and continuing with opium farming. When families decide on marriages it still counts if the groom’s family has an afeem patta (opium licence), one said. “Families have been destroyed... they have sold their land to pay bribes and to fight court cases,” said a 30-year-old farmer whose family surrendered its licence some years back.
One farmer’s two-storey brick house is a stark reminder of the reversal of fortunes in Mandsaur. As he opens room after room, the aroma of unsold stocks of cumin, coriander and carom seeds (jeera, dhania and ajwain) make for a heady mix. Inside a small locked room are bags full of poppy husk, awaiting government orders for burning. “I can sell some of the husk. But if I get caught, I will have to pay a fat bribe to the police,” he says with a smile.
The bribe could be Rs5 lakh, he says, about twice the amount some farmers spend every year to pay for the education of their children so they can become engineers and nurses in cities like Indore or Bhopal, and give up on legacy farming.
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