The Enduring Struggle Against Opium Poppy Cultivation in Kashmir

Illegal cultivation of opium poppy in Kashmir has been on the rise despite consistent efforts by state's excise department to destroy the crops and arrest the offending farmers. Yawar Nazir/ Getty Images
12 February, 2017

Alongside Punjab’s battle against opiate consumption in the state, there is a parallel battle against opium poppy cultivators ensuing in Jammu and Kashmir. Eight kilometres from Srinagar, on the main road to Kulbug Khanshahib village in central Kashmir, on 28 April 2016, Mudasir Ahmed, an inspector in the state’s excise department, and a team of ten men were busy destroying a large patch of illegally cultivated opium poppy. The crop is a nearly three-feet-tall lean plant that has a pod with a white or pink flower on top. Most Kashmiri farmers grow it as an additional source of income, as opiate drugs have a high demand in states such as Punjab and Rajasthan. They sell their entire opium crop to middlemen even before the harvest, who use parts of it to make a powdery drug. A farmer told me that middlemen pay up to Rs 400 per kilogram for the crop. “When the same thing reaches Punjab it sells for over Rs 5,000 per kilogram,” Ahmed said.

Every year in the month of April, the state’s excise department carries out the poppy-destruction drive in Kashmir to curb the growing illegal poppy cultivated in the valley. According to figures with the excise department in Srinagar that I accessed, 2733 kanals—a kanal is approximately one-eighth of an acre—of opium poppy cultivation were destroyed in the valley in 2016. Ahmed has been supervising such drives since 2011. From 2010 to 2015, the excise department destroyed 2603, 2864, 1915, 1628, 24.03 and 83 kanals of poppy cultivation respectively. The dip in records in 2014 and 2015 was due to the floods that hit the state in 2014, Ahmed said.

Mushtaq, a 48-year-old member of the team and a clerk with the excise department, has been taking part in such drives since 2005. According to him, the poppy-growing trade has been flourishing in the valley for a decade. As Ahmed’s team went further into the vast agricultural land, even larger fields filled with the white, blooming poppy flowers became visible. While Ahmed and the team marched from one plot of land to the other—accompanied by a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) battalion and a police party, who stood and watched—farmers and villagers started to gather around. The team only had diesel-run mowers and sticks at their disposal to destroy the opium poppy. Among the poppy fields, there were young apple saplings growing. In order to save the sapling from being mowed along with the poppy, some farmers asked Ahmed to allow them to destroy their own poppy crop—a request to which he agreed.

I spoke to a 66-year-old farmer, who requested not to be identified. He confessed to me that he too was growing a small patch of poppy on his land. He insisted that he grew the crop only for its seed, locally known as kashkash, widely used as a garnish for food. He said that he did not sell it to drug dealers, and added that he was aware that several farmers in his village and other adjoining villages were growing vast amounts of opium poppy in their fields.

On another such poppy-destruction drive, in early May 2016, I went to Pulwama district in south Kashmir. A farmer there, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity as well, said that he cultivated poppy on his two-kanal land in Tahab village, before excise-department officials destroyed it the previous week. He explained that middlemen from the state and Punjab encouraged the farmers to increase their poppy growth. “They convince the farmers to grow poppy on their land and promise to buy their crop at 300 to 400 rupees per kilogram. They first convinced the women as they spend more time in the fields.” The second farmer added that most of the farmers were doing it for extra income. “They sometimes even pay advance,” he added.

When I approached a group of women to ask them why they grew poppy, without saying a word, they pointed towards a group of young men standing next to them. Among this group of men was Shahid, a 26-year-old with a long flowing beard, the son of one of the women. He nonchalantly plucked a poppy pod with a pinkish flower on top before pronouncing to his friends, “Greed is bringing a bad name to the village.” He said it was the women who first fell victim to this greed and later, men followed. According to him, women began by growing opium poppy in small quantities in their gardens, and later started growing it commercially for additional income. “They would hide from their husbands and they started growing it more. They didn’t even know why these people from outside were paying them so much.” He added, “Even my mother used to grow it but I have strictly prohibited her.”

The cultivation of opium poppy is prohibited under section 8 of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS), except “for medical or scientific purposes and in the manner and to the extent provided by the provisions of this act.” The rules prescribed under the act only allow the cultivation with a license issued by the Central Bureau of Narcotics. Section 18 of the act prescribes a punishment of up to one year of imprisonment for a contravention involving a small quantity (up to 1 kilogram), and between ten and 20 years imprisonment for a one involving a commercial quantity (up to 50 kilograms). The law appears to not have been an effective deterrent to Kashmir’s farmers.

“It’s all about the money,” Ahmed said. Over the years, he filed over 200 first information reports (FIRs) against farmers, but many of them were serial offenders and this did not prevent them from growing the crop the following year. With others, the police had trouble identifying the owner of a particular plot of land. “We have to check revenue records to book the person who owns the land,” he said, and added that these records are not updated with the current owners and cultivators of land. “They generally turn out to be older members of family.” As a result, Ahmed said, the officials are unable to arrest those who are actually growing the crop.

Ahmed told me that traditionally the farmers would grow potatoes and pulses around this time of the year, but that is not as profitable as growing opium poppy. Farmers sow the opium poppy seeds just as the winter season ends and it’s ready for harvest by the end of April. “It’s a chain reaction when one farmer starts growing poppy in the village and it brings him an unbelievable amount of money. The following year, more farmers join the business,” Ahmed added.

According to the excise department officials, cultivation of the crop is most prevalent in the Pulwama, Anantnag, Budgam and Kupwara districts in Kashmir. Ahmed noted how the opium poppy cultivation in 2016 was particularly high. “In previous years only one team from the department would take part in the drive. Now, we have five different teams operating in different districts but we still can’t claim we have cleared it all. That’s impossible.” Ahmed said. He added that reports had emerged recently that a  vast area of forestland had been cleared at various places in Kupwara district for poppy cultivation.

My conversations with Ahmed and several farmers suggested that, despite the growing opium poppy cultivation in Kashmir, there was little evidence that farmers themselves harvest the latex of the plant, which can be processed into opiate drugs such as heroin. It requires a farmer to collect the latex from the poppy pod, which contains high amounts of opiates, by slashing the pod and collecting the milky latex that seeps out from and dries out on the pod. Instead, several farmers told me, they sell the crop to the middlemen even before the harvest. The middlemen then grind the poppy husk and the pod together to form the powdery drug.

The excise-department officials said that most of the powdery drug is then smuggled to neighboring Punjab and Rajasthan—locally known as bhukkiand doda postrespectively—where it has high demand. However, some of it is also peddled locally. In the past five years, the officials told me, they seized over 800 kilograms of bhukki from 2009 to 2015 from various districts in Kashmir during their yearly routine drive.

Bhukki or doda post has been consumed traditionally in Punjab and Rajasthan for rituals,for instance during wedding ceremonies, especially by the farming community. In fact, until April 2016, government-licensed doda outlets in Rajasthan were a legal source of the drug for large swathes of the rural population in the two states. In September 2015, the Rajasthan High Court passed an order directing the state government to shut down all 264 outlets, or thekas, selling doda post. The order was effective from 1 April 2016. In Punjab, an amendment to the NDPS Act was passed in 2001, banning bhukki. The thekas in Rajasthan were able to continue operating despite the amendment because they were licensed by the government to sell the drug as provided under the act. The effect of both these moves was to increase the price and demand for the drug in the black market.

Dr Muzaffar Khan, who heads the drug de-addiction centre at the police control room in Srinagar, discussed the prevalence of bhukki within the state among Kashmiri truckers and its high demand outside the state. “It is a common drug abused by truck drivers, especially in Punjab and Rajasthan, and that’s what is fuelling the trade here,” he said. A trucker in Srinagar, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that most truckers consume bhukki themselves and sometimes carry it back to Punjab for sale. He added that the bhukki from Kashmir was far more potent than the type locally available in Punjab and Rajasthan.

The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB)—the central drug-control agency of India— has only one office in the state, which is located in the Jammu region. In the absence of its NCB officials on the ground in Kashmir, Ahmed told me, the task to destroy poppy fields across Kashmir fell to the excise department. “Last year [in 2015], NCB officials helped us by providing satellite images of where poppy was growing. But mostly over the years we have had to rely on own intel and look for more areas while we are on the drive, which is a very slow process. By the time we get information on new areas, it’s already harvested,” Ahmed added.

Imran Farooq, a former deputy superintendent of police of the crime-investigation department of the Jammu and Kashmir state police, said that in 2015, the police arrested a large number of peddlers from across the state under Public Safety Act, but that it was a “losing battle.” “Our force is stretched to the limit. We have to deal with militancy-related issue and public disorder and provide security cover to VVIP’s on daily basis. So catching a drug peddler is not always the priority,” Farooq said. A senior police official, on the condition of anonymity said, “We have checkpoints everywhere from Srinagar to Lakhanpur border”—the border between Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab—“so it’s quite possible that some officials have turned a blind eye to this.”

By the end of the day, at around 5 pm, Ahmed and his team had cleared over 100 kanals of poppy in Kulbug village. But many more poppy fields remained. They told me that they would return to continue the drive the next day.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the poppy-destruction drive in Pulwana district took place in March 2016. This has been corrected to May 2016. It was also incorrectly stated that harvesting the opium poppy plant requires a farmer to collect the dried latex, or opium husk, after the milky latex is extracted. This has been corrected to reflect that a farmer is required to collect the milky latex, which dries out on the pod of the plant. The Caravan regrets the errors.