On May 25, 2022, suggestion was made for using drones to spray contact herbicides like paraquat to kill poppy plants grown in the interior parts of the hill areas in Manipur. The suggestion was made after due consideration of the effect of spraying herbicides on the environment, as many environmentalists have raised concern about it.
Now, the state government had recently experimented on the use of drones for spraying herbicides at Mongjang village in Saikul Sub-Division under Kangpokpi district. But unfortunately, the details of the herbicide used are not as yet available in the public domain.
Use of herbicides has an adverse impact on the environment but the impact can be lessened by the choice of the herbicides.
The worst case scenario is the spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, with serious impact, including 14 diseases on humans.
In the case of poppy plantations in Manipur, glyphosate was used heavily in the pre-planting operation to kill the weeds and even a little bit of common salt was scattered with the intent to control the weeds.
Micro doses of sodium chloride at about 5mM help in the uptake of some nutrients like copper, zinc, and improving carbon and sulphur assimilation thereby stimulating plant growth. However, a little more causes a decrease in plant biomass and as everyone knows most plants cannot grow in saline condition.
Since glyphosate was already in use on the land where poppy is grown, further spraying of herbicides will not lead to additional serious damage to the environment.
Against coca plantations in Latin America aerial spraying of glyphosate was resorted to, as contact herbicide cannot kill the plant which are perennial in nature.
As poppy is an annual, contact herbicide could do the job though USA seriously considered using glyphosate against poppy plantation in Afghanistan in 2007 but due to internal conflict within the US administration it was dropped.
Spraying herbicides can lead to drift of the aerosol or droplets which can kill the plants growing nearby. 2,4-D was suggested by some experts but as its ester form though more effective are volatile it can affect plants growing even in a distance. The amine form is, however, non volatile and the impact will be from the drift only. Glyphosate was also suggested as it is effective and non volatile.
The only consideration is that the Union Government had restricted the use of glyphosate by an order on 21st October, 2022.
Paraquat, a contact herbicide, is non volatile and a mixture with diquat is reported to be the best herbicide for established poppy plants. By now most poppy plants are established and in fact many have already got the opium harvested.
The preparation seems to be a bit delayed for this season but still efforts to curtail it need to continue. Next year with the use of real time satellite imagery, spraying of herbicides can start from October onwards when the plants are young and if control measures are taken timely, the Government can eradicate the menace in the state.
If serious control measures are taken up for two or three consecutive years, the investors will not be willing to invest in this highly risky business and the plantation will dry up automatically. The locals without the support of the moneyed people just cannot sustain growing poppy on their own though but as in the 1980s a few places may continue to grow for local supply for use of the opium by the addicts.
In an article published on 24th April, 2022, this writer gave an example of the deleterious effect of herbicides, especially glyphosate where from Tengnoupal District about 6/7 villagers from Khunbi and Langol villages were admitted to the Hospital and were diagnosed to be suffering from neuropathy. This disease is not contagious and the development of it in a cluster, points to an unknown cause. They were treated and after recovery discharged but unfortunately two died despite the best of efforts of the attending doctors. On enquiry it was discovered that there are many more cases in the two villages with mild symptoms that do not warrant hospitalisation. When the matter was investigated further it was suspected to be due to glyphosate ingestion.
Information received was that the hill slopes surrounding the villages were sprayed with glyphosate to control the weeds in preparation for sowing poppy. Unfortunately after a few unseasonal showers, the residues were brought down to the springs, the water of which was used for drinking purposes. There are scientific reports that glyphosate causes peripheral neuropathy despite claims to the contrary by Mosanto the manufacturer of Roundup, the best known brand of glyphosate.
The advantage of using drones is that it can cover one acre in about 8 minutes and as it can fly low almost touching the plants above one to three feet, the drift can be minimised, thereby reducing the impact of the herbicide on the surrounding areas.
The hierarchy in this business needs to be understood so that it can be rooted out. The farmers are mere labours in this business, it is the moneyed people who informally lease the land from the village chiefs or Village Councils, pay the labourers and obtain all the produce, that is opium, which is marketed or converted to Heroin No. 1,2 3, or 4 depending on the laboratory facility and the technical knowhow available.
One major concern which was flagged earlier also is that many of the labours are migrants as they can’t speak the common local language Meiteilon and this illicit drug business is bringing in large scale in-migration of outsiders both Indian and foreigners disturbing the demographic profile of the state; leading to mistrust among the communities which can lead to serious conflict. In some places, such people are there more than the number of local population.
The present state chief minister had repeated the suggestion made in this column on May 11, 2022 for the use of drones to scatter seeds of indigenous trees. But seeds scattered now during winter will be a waste of time, energy and money with limited benefit. In advanced countries, the seeds are coated with clay and these are scattered in the spring and during monsoon, the clay absorbs water and the seed germinates.
Merely scattering any seeds will not bring positive results, and seeds of indigenous trees which have high germination rate need to be identified and used; many seeds have low germination rate and their viability is time dependent and seeds of trees like Nageshwor (Mesua ferrea) if not sown immediately just refuse to sprout.
In fact for sal (Shorea robusta) the viability period is so short that within 24 hours the seeds need to be sown or alternatively the seeds need to be pressed down on the earth immediately after it falls down.
The technique is to go under the tree twice a day and any seed found is pressed down by foot and once the seeds are sprouted transferred to plastic bags. It would be appropriate that experts from the Forest Department are consulted and they are given sufficient time to prepare a proper plan on the type of trees the seeds of which can be scattered aerially. Or else, it can lead to huge failure leading to frustration and many can even blame those who are involved that seeds were not just scattered aerially.
One minister even said that growing poppy is against Christian tenet as one community whose members are involved maximally in poppy cultivation are Christians. But in illicit business, religion plays no role. In South America “Narco saints” like “Santa Muerte” dressed in flowing white robes and often wielding a scythe and a globe were worshipped by drug traffickers. Faith is loosely worn by people who worship money.
The seriousness of the government in tackling poppy plantation is seen now and hopes that it succeeds. However, the involvement of those who are involved in the eradication of illicit drugs in the transportation of illicit drugs is a major setback for the government. Those involved must not only be prosecuted but should also be dismissed promptly without waiting for a departmental enquiry but under Article clause (3) of Article 311 or even Para (c) of the second proviso to Clause (2) of Article 311 as narco-terrorism cannot be ruled out.
Through proper investigation he can be penalised under the NDPS Act and rot in jail while not allowing access to any public money through subsistence allowance, etc. He may, if he feels so, file writ before the High Court which can be contested strenuously by the government as his or their act is prejudicial not only to the government policy but also to the general public at large. With many groups under SoO reportedly involved in poppy cultivation and drug business, it impacts the security of the state.
(The views expressed are personal)