Poppy plantation in Manipur shouldn’t be seen in isolation as drugs are international commodities and the produce from Manipur is marketed elsewhere. After Khun Sa, the drug lord of the Golden Triangle surrendered to the Myanmar Government in 1996 though never prosecuted, and his natural death in 2007, the production of heroin in the Golden Triangle got reduced and the main producer became the Golden Crescent. From the late nineties, poppy plantations were started in Manipur hills in small patches carried out by a few individuals. After the efforts of DEA in weaning away poppy cultivators in Afghanistan by 2016 through carrot and stick policy, street price of heroin shot up dramatically; from Rs. 29 lakh per kg in Mumbai in 2017 to Rs. 98 lakh per kg in 2019.
The drug mafia sought alternative plantation areas and Manipur hills came into focus. In 2019 it was roughly estimated that about 15,000 ha was under cultivation but by 2021 it reportedly shot to above 60,000 ha. Even a few Tangkhul villages which refused poppy plantation till 2019 succumbed to it, blaming lack of income due to the pandemic. To look into the poppy plantation as a local issue would be naive as all drug smugglers are linked globally as none can work in isolation.
With large scale production of opium, as its transportation is bulky, risky and cumbersome, makeshift labs handled mostly by members of a particular community to convert opium to brown sugar or heroin hydrochloride flourished. Twenty five kg of opium can be converted to 1 kg of pure heroin hydrochloride with an increase in price by more than 10 times. The chemicals required are not large and not difficult to source. The methods used in Afghanistan were reportedly adopted in Manipur also. The chemicals required include Calcium Oxide, Ammonium Chloride, Sodium carbonate, acetic anhydride, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, acetone, etc and as these are used for other purposes, tracking them is next to impossible.
The modus operandi is simple, and the production is through gangs from planting to final marketing with the top financier or operator hidden through a series of hierarchy so that the growers or the mules are not aware of the real bosses. The latter are from all communities and they are unscrupulous; well connected and well heeled. Thus, apprehending the lower hierarchy just could not lead to arrest of the kingpins. It has been said that a major chunk of opium or even heroin apprehended by the security forces, are those carried by small time operators or those who manage to pilfer from the gangs and were fingered by the gang members. Only a few gangs reportedly operate in the state and they control this illicit business. Many of the gang members are well armed with some reportedly even carrying licensed arms.
There are huge tracts of plantation in almost all the hill districts of the state and many of the plantation were guarded by AK toting fatigue dressed UG elements, pointing that some UG groups who are in talks with the Government are involved in this business. The land owners are paid a fixed amount as also the labourers who had to deposit all the produce to the gangs. So are the mules. Most labourers are from two communities; both migrants in the past but settled in Manipur for long, supplemented by new migrants. Recently even mainland Indians were found working in poppy plantations in some areas of Tengnoupal District. Most do not speak Meiteilon thereby showing that this illicit business is bringing in migrants from other states and countries.
The flip side of poppy plantation is that it does not follow the jhum cycle where trees are cut, burnt and then cultivated and allowed to go fallow resulting in secondary and tertiary forest subsequently. Now in the same plot, fertilisers are applied with even a little salt and at the fag-end of monsoon, glyphosate was sprayed to kill the grasses and the same plot is used for years, resulting in soil erosion and the area becoming barren.
One is a bit concerned when a claim is made that suspected brown sugar or heroin is apprehended. Why can’t the apprehending team use standard colour test protocols which are used elsewhere such as Marquis, or Mecke or Frohde methods which are simple to use and very reliable. The chemicals required are easily available and the reagents can easily be prepared or the reagents can be procured from commercial manufacturers. These tests can detect opiates and codeine. Spot colour tests can be conducted which may be videographed along with the accused and used as proof. This will reduce the chances of manipulation as lab testing takes time and the samples seized can be substituted on the way from the place of seizure to the testing labs. There were reports of heroin deposited in Malkhana found changed to flour or glucose later on!
Even though one village in Ukhrul had earlier pledged to refrain from poppy cultivation, for the first time as a community, the Poumai have assured that in their area poppy plantation will be stopped. The Tangkhuls also followed suit within a couple of days. It is hoped that other communities will also step forward on similar lines. Smaller communities were targeted by gun toting gang members and even within their village jurisdiction these outsiders grow poppy with the villagers having no power to resist. One reason cited as to why the Poumai decided to stop growing poppy within its jurisdiction is a bit difficult to accept. That is the claim that 99 per cent of them are Christians and their faith doesn't allow growing, manufacturing or using drugs.
Members of the well known Medellin cartel are all Christians but deal in cocaine. Even in Manipur one community whose members are involved maximally in poppy cultivation are Christians. 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. No particular religion can be blamed as with greed in the forefront, all aspects of life including religion turn topsy-turvy. One aspect raised by the Poumai is the destruction of forest and the loss of wildlife can be the focus, as it is completely changing the traditional lifestyle. If the present rate of destruction of even tertiary forest to give way to poppy plantation continues, there will hardly be any top soil left, the rains will be erratic, the winds will be stronger, the temperature will be higher, so on and so forth so that in a few decades the state will become a land of extremes.
Communities should be worried about the trickle-down effect where the opium and its products will not be completely outside their jurisdiction as some will trickle down within their community, resulting in a few of their populace dependent on opiates. With peer pressure the number will increase and there will be serious social crisis when many become dependent on drugs. Many will not be able to beget children leading to demographic issues. Government needs to conduct scientific study on why our youth are so amenable to drugs. Is it due to frustration from lack of opportunities or due to what other factors? Policy and intervention should be based on scientific evidence and not on mere presumptions. Else the intervention may end with opposite result.
Other communities must also take similar resolutions and work for the common survival of the people of the state. In the meantime, the state agencies must find out the real reason why people resort to poppy cultivation; is it only for a fast buck or other reasons. The margins for the growers are limited as most of the profits are garnered by the top hierarchy so changing the crops should not be difficult. Even despite community effort, it will not be easy to detect all plantations as the jurisdiction of some villages is big with parts hardly visited regularly.
Government may by using drones sow indigenous tree seeds just before the rains to cover more space. Planting a few thousand trees here and there, especially in the valley cannot have any impact and large scale sowing of tree seeds in the hills must be experimented. In many countries, seeds coated with soil are aerially scattered on the ground; with rain the seeds sprout. Aerial scattering of such processed seeds were the norm in advanced countries which has now been carried out using drones. Aerial scattering of the seeds using fixed wing planes may be too costly but with drones it is feasible. Innovation should be the key in all endeavours, including the fight against drugs which must be multi-pronged. Based on real time satellite imagery, villages with highest forest cover may be rewarded.
(The views expressed are personal)