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.