Many people point fingers at the petition by a Meitei organisation and subsequent direction by the High Court to the state government to recommend inclusion of Meitei in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list as the main reason for the present communal conflict and violence. Well, it may have served as the flashpoint or the trigger. However, there are deeper reasons behind the present conflict and widespread poppy cultivation in the hills is one of them.
Earlier, we had speculated on the possibility of the shift of poppy cultivation in areas of Manipur as a direct fallout of the diminishing trend in the Golden Triangle and Myanmar, and that we should be looking for the factors leading to upsurge in poppy cultivation in the hill areas of Manipur in recent times.
Poppy cultivation was found in small pockets of the hills bordering Myanmar about two decades ago by journalists. Word then was that, the poppy cultivators of the state sell their opium produce to small-time drug smugglers who operate mobile drug manufacturing units across the border.
Now, poppy cultivation is widespread in the hills of Manipur and several factors could have contributed to such an explosion. Many thought that it was the poor villagers who had resorted to poppy cultivation as a 'cash crop' yielding easy money and quick dividends. And, the heroin manufacturing units also came up in the state itself, both in the valley and hills.
According to investigating agencies, poppy cultivation is rampant in Manipur as the same fetches more money than other crops and the farmers are also supported by the drug mafia and the cross-border network of illegal drug traders.
As regards the poor villagers who toil in the poppy fields, it is just another day's work. For them, it does not matter whether it is poppy or any other crop as long as they get the wages howsoever meagre it may be.
Recent investigations have revealed the involvement of some SoO (Suspension of Operations) groups in the poppy business. Who knows, these groups may have been big-time participants in the nexus of drug mafia.
It may be mentioned that the Government of India, the Manipur government and several Kuki militant groups had signed the SoO Agreement. The fact remains that, it was the Central government who first signed the SoO Agreement with the Kuki militants and that the state government entered into the agreement late out of certain compelling circumstances.
It may also be recalled that earlier, only organic farming was practised in the hills. and there was no place for chemical fertilizers.
Today, with the introduction of poppy cultivation in the hills of Manipur, there has been rampant use of chemical fertilizers which has led to degradation of soil fertility and pollution of water besides deforestation.
Areas where poppy was cultivated became no longer suitable for other crops and any effort for substituting with alternative crops. And it became frustrating. This led to the state government to combining the War on Drugs campaign along with anti-deforestation drive in areas where poppy cultivation is widespread, especially in Kuki-Chin dominated areas.
One remembers the episode of Kuki CSOs and villagers blocking the efforts of Forest department in its tree plantation drives in Nongmaiching hill range, Kangpokpi district and Thangjing hill ranges. We also remember the particular instance of certain hill-based organisations hailing the acquittal of Lunkhosei Zou in the 2018 case of drugs seizure while also cautioning anti-drug campaigners not to press the issue of furthering the case.
Zou was acquitted on December 17, 2020 by the NDPS Special Court, Manipur, no evidence was found to convict his involvement in the case, even as a huge drug seizure was made from the premises of his official residence.
The most recent case is the seizure of 77 gunny bags of poppy seeds by a combined team of NAB and state police from the Mantripukhri residence of one Paojangam Khongsai @ Apao who is believed to be a member of an international drug cartel.
So, we can safely assume that the anti-drug campaign led by the government and the poppy business is one of the main reasons that factored the present communal conflict between the Meitei and the Kuki communities.
The poppy flower is indeed beautiful and the poppy field when in full bloom is a feast for the weary eyes. One had seen images of beautiful girls dancing in the poppy fields somewhere in Saikul area as circulated in the social media some time ago.
Yet, it is so poisonous that it is devastating the fertility of the verdant land and wasting the lives of hundreds of youths while extremely enriching the dons behind the poppy business.
The anti-drug campaign
It may be mentioned that poppy cultivation is carried out in large scale mainly in the hill districts of Kangpokpi, Kamjong, Chandel and Churachandpur.
As per the latest update by the Manipur police in its report, the state police department carried out the destruction of poppy plantations in various hill districts and destroyed 4305.1 total acres of illegal poppy cultivation in the year 2022-23.
During the period 2017-2022, drugs worth Rs 317.97 crore were seized while in 2022-2023, drugs worth Rs 136.93 crores were seized.
And as per the Manipur Police report, between 2017-2022, around 14,359.4 acres of poppy cultivation were destroyed and 20 acres of Cannabis cultivation was destroyed too. And during the same period, 1,960 persons (1,594 males and 366 females) were arrested with 720 persons (582 males and 138 females) arrested in 2022.
Then, in 2022, drugs worth Rs 122.78 crore were seized, 625 persons (512 males and 113 females) arrested and 3,517.8 acres of poppy cultivation destroyed.
In 2023 till March 30, drugs worth Rs 25.36 crore were seized, 165 persons (132 males and 33 females) were arrested in 175 cases and 787.3 acres of poppy cultivation were destroyed, as per the police record. As many as 116 people have been detained under PIT NDPS Act.
During the period from January 1, 2020 and till April 2023, 80 people, including 16 village chiefs, 62 cultivators and two investors were arrested. During the period from 2017 till date, 44 persons were convicted in 28 cases.
The Manipur government also destroyed a total area of 212 acres of poppy cultivation by using drones and spraying herbicides in Kangpokpi, Chandel and Churachandpur districts.
For the first time ever in Manipur, as a part of the poppy destruction drive under “War on Drugs 2.0”, on January 16, 2023, Kangpokpi district police used a drone to spray herbicides at a hill range in the district.
A combined team of Kangpokpi district police, IRB, Manipur Rifles, Forest department, NAB and others conducted the poppy destruction drive at the hill range located at Mongjang village in Kangpokpi district.