This blog was written by Romesh Bhattacharji, former Narcotics Commissioner of India, founding member of the Institute of Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA) and GDPO Technical Advisor
During the shooting of the film Raw Opium in March 2009 I was interviewed in a poor man’s steep and low yielding opium field in Kadong village of Anjaw district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India. The village is a good three hours uphill march from a motorable mountain road. I was overwhelmed by the unrelenting misery that I saw amongst the poor who cultivate opium mainly for their own use and barter the small surplus for essentials like utensils and kerosene oil. Faced with such abysmal poverty and the continuing brutal living conditions, I was so sad and swamped by waves of ineffective empathy that I forgot to highlight the fact that there are both rich and poor cultivators. As soon as I saw the finished film a year later I realised that I ought to have distinguished between those that farm on account of need and those that are producing poppies commercially.
Within a year of filming Raw Opium in Arunachal Pradesh, some ex-narcocrats got together to form a think tank – the Institute for Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA) – to analyse the drug laws and consequential problems in India. I helped plan a survey that would quantify as precisely as possible opium cultivation and its use in Anjaw and Lohit districts in Arunachal Pradesh, a border state in the North East of India.
The actual survey, carried out by young college students from opium cultivating families, found that a few rich farmers (less than 15%) produced the large majority of the opium. It was noted that the villages close to the road cultivated opium on a commercial scale, while those away from the road (especially in Anjaw district) did so only to provide marginal subsistence and support their addiction. The wealthier farmers have benefited the most from development programmes including financial subsidies for businesses and agriculture such as orange orchards and cardamom plantations, help with marketing their products, interest free loans, free school and college education and free electricity, as well as large-scale government investment in infrastructure projects such as dams, all weather roads, hospitals and schools, employment schemes and health care.
The rich farmers, who were once poor themselves, have properties all over the region and are now able to send their children away to be educated to become engineers, bureaucrats, businessmen, doctors, professors, politicians and so on. The poor opium cultivators now hope that one day roads will reach their villages so that they can also become rich by growing opium on a commercial scale. It should be noted however, that many villages reported that they are ready to give up opium cultivation if a viable agricultural alternative is available.
Approximately 95% of villages in Anjaw and 89% of villages in Lohit district had opium addicts: the total number of addicts was almost 11,000 in number in both the districts (largely males but also about a 1000 females). In both districts there were addicts as young as 15 years old. Very few addicts received treatment but a number of them – almost 1600 addicts – were interested in the possibility of treatment. Unfortunately most of the villages did not have any health care facilities nor were there any community efforts in this direction. It should be noted that whilst locally grown opium is sometimes used for medicinal and ritual purposes, it is increasingly used to support addiction.
A line has to be drawn between greed and need. Those in the former category are selling opium to neighbouring states, to new and old users, and for conversion to heroin. Such cultivators deserve the full brunt of efficient eradication and jail. Those that are poor often grow the opium for their own use and therefore deserve to be given access to opium via the now defunct Opium Registry. The Government of India set up the Opium Registry in 1971 whereby registered opium users received doctor-certified dosages of opium from government stores. At the beginning of the programme there were about 300,000 people enrolled on the programme. More than forty years later, less than a handful are alive to benefit from it and new users are not added to the programme. All over India there are at least 2 million opium users. They get their doses from illicit cultivation and from diversion from licit opium cultivation.
It is my belief that the Opium Registry should be revived on order to curb opium cultivation. If the opium user/cultivator is given opium by the government he or she will not need to cultivate it. Opium fields could then be eradicated without endangering any one’s health. In 1999, whilst Narcotics Commissioner, I recommended that the Government of India revive the system but the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) objected, and the idea was dropped. In 2004 the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi held a workshop where this topic was discussed further, but nothing came of it.
I have been monitoring the plight of the poor opium cultivators since my first visit to the region in January 1987. More than two score visits followed. Until 2003, as Narcotics Commissioner of India, I used to help eradicate illicit opium fields in these parts and elsewhere in India. In India it is still being done as tenderly as possible: no one is arrested and in the operations I participated in, a little would be left for personal use.
The local government administrators in the late 1980s and early 1990s thought that development and eradication would wean the cultivators away from opium cultivation. It did for a while and the opium available for sale decreased. By the end of the 1990s there were only small cultivators. There were a few large fields but these were collectively cultivated by entire villages. By the end of the 1990s opium cultivation was down to a few hectares in these two districts. However in recent years things have changed and now poppy cultivation is in the thousands of hectares.
The young were initially against opium cultivation but their elders would not listen as they required it for their own use. Development did improve the lives of some villages: electricity and computers have reached wherever the roads have gone, where people once had to walk for days to get to the district headquarters, there are now many buses and taxis and privately owned vehicles plying the roads round the clock; where earlier most people were poorly clothed, they are now dressed in jeans and warm jackets and the young now deliver opium on expensive motorbikes; previously everyone in the district lived off the land, many now have different occupations. In the past they were reluctant to leave their homes and families as they would have no news from their families for months but now they have mobile phones and computers which have helped them leave their homes for employment all over the country.
However despite these improvements in living standards for some, poverty is still rampant in the region and poppy growth is on the rise once again. As has been mentioned above, now those who have gained from the improvements in infrastructure have turned to farming opium for commercial use rather than in order to survive.