May 1, 2013 – “The opium farmer is neither intoxicated nor hallucinating, but without freedom to make a choice he could soon be in rehab”

A day-long drive takes me from my village to Pushkar, Rajasthan, to attend the 36th National Convention of Bharat Krishak Samaj, where more than 500 farmers had converged from across India. The journey was through the heart of barren Rajasthan’s undulating sand dunes, dotted with khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees. Where ever they found ground water, farmers have planted jeera (cummin), saunf (aniseed) and isabgol (psyllium husk). The story that struck me though was that of a major constituent of the Bharat Krishak Samaj members: the opium farmers of district Mandsour in Madhya-Pradesh; the region’s opium belt.

Member Govind Ram is an opium farmer from the village of Kanghatti in tehsil Malhagarh of Mandsour. Govind’s story is neither intoxicating nor pleasurable or sleep inducing. It is a sad tale of government apathy and restrictions, sans vision of any kind. The 42-year old Govind is a hard- working farmer, who was forced to quit school after class 12 to help his father in the field. He lives in a joint family with his two brothers. Govind has no children but the family bonding is strong. Together, the family owns 20 bighas of land, which is equal to 13 acres; 25 aris are equal to a bigha and 1.75 bighas is equal to an acre.

Opium poppy was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia in 3400BC by the Sumerians, who called it Hul Gil or the ‘joy plant’. Mandsour is not Mesopotamia though and for the poppy farmers here it is a joyless existence. Since the British East India Company established a monopoly on the opium trade, all poppy growers in India were forbidden to sell opium to competing trading companies in around 1793. The policy and restrictions continue to this day with the government of India only permitting cultivation of opium in 10 aris of land.

If the yield from 10 aris is to the government satisfaction, the farmer may get permission to cultivate opium over a maximum of 15 aris. This means the individual farmer is permitted no more than an acre to grow opium on. Earlier, the government permitted even up to 50 aris. Today it is 15 aris. Period.

The land for sowing is prepared in November and the opium seed, saved from the previous year’s crop, is used for sowing. The seed is treated with bawistin powder to make it less vulnerable to fungal disease. Sowing is done by hand, germination of seeds is irregular and the farmer is forced to sow more seeds than required. Therefore, the farmer has to do thinning of the crop by removing some small plants that have grown in closer proximity to each other than required.

Removal of plants continues till winter arrives when plants need to be sprayed with M-45. Susceptible to multiple pests and disease, black spots called “Kali Massi” appear on the plants during extreme cold. Other applications like Redomil, Metalixin, Humicaminog and Aminus are constantly required at time of flowering and later.

After the Gudgil Sagar Dam was built on river Retam, the water level has gone up making multi-cropping is possible. Before that Govind was dependent on the rainfall and would only grow one crop of soybean. Now he is able to grow opium and another crop in a year. Opium requires to be irrigated four to five times per cropping cycle. As the time for watering is important, many farmers are forced to water their fields with help of water tankers that cost Rs 500 per tanker trip. It takes five tankers to irrigate 10 aris of land each time.
Come last week of March and first week of April the crop is ready to be harvested. During harvesting alone, Govind needs to employ six people daily at Rs 500 per day for 20 days of back-breaking work to harvest opium from 10 aris. Incision is made in the poppy capsule in the afternoon to avoid dew, wind or rain as they can spoil the exudation. The next day the extruded latex is scrapped off with a knife and collected between 6 am and 11 am. Normally, one applies four to seven cuts per poppy plant over a period of 20 days. Growing opium is difficult but what follows is a nightmare.

The narcotics department appoints a village mukhiya or head to monitor the harvesting. The villagers have to take their harvested opium every day to the mukhiya, who weighs the goods and makes a note in the official register. At the end of the season, the opium needs to be delivered to the narcotics department at its camp called “afeem godam.” At the camp, on the designated days, farmers come from adjoining villages to stand in lines to deposit their crop of opium in buckets to the narcotics department.
A sample is taken from each farmer’s bucket and sent to a far off laboratory for testing its purity and quality. Another sample is taken by the officials on site and, on manual testing, a presumed grade is given to the opium delivered by the farmer. Based on this grade the farmer is given an immediate payment. The problem is that the report from the laboratory may take up to six months. The final payment is calculated on the basis of the lab report.

If the report varies from that obtained under manual testing done on site, the farmer is forced to refund any amount that might be due owing to inferior quality. Farmers are correctly insisting that the delivered opium must be tested on site during delivery and the payment once given must be final. The farmer must not be left at the discretion of laboratory assistants and bureaucracy for six months to know the value of his produce.

The rate of payment, depending on the grade of opium, can vary from Rs 600 to Rs 2,500 per kg while the open market price of opium is between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000 per kg. Farmers are forced to grow less profitable crops because licenses to grow opium are not freely available. Farmers who choose to exercise their freedom to grow what they want are charge sheeted under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. There are some 900 such farmers behind bars today, though the more wealthy ones that can afford private detox for executives have paid their way into those instead.

There are even more uncertainties. If the weather is not conducive for a good crop, the yield and quality of opium drop and the narcotics department may choose not renew the license of the farmer for the next season. The farmers are also asking for an increase in the price of opium to Rs 10,000 a kg.

The opium waste is called “chura dodha’ that has to be sold off before the monsoons or else they are infested by a poisonous scorpion-like insect. The farmer, however, is not allowed to sell the waste in the open market but has to sell to government appointed licensees. The licensee is supposed to purchase the waste from the farmer at pre-designated prices of Rs 125 per kg in Rajasthan and Rs 100 in Madhya Pradesh. In reality, the farmer is sometimes forced to sell his produce at Rs 41 per kg. The licensee processes the waste to form a quality of dust that sells for up to Rs 1,000 per kg. Farmers feel that the waste must also be bought by the government at a fair price.

The profit from growing opium even at prices designated by the government is more than what one might make while growing the alternate crop of soyabean. The government expects eight kgs per 10 aris from the farmer. That yields one quintal of chura dodha, which sells for Rs 10,000 per kg. Another by product is poppy seed paste – between one quintal and 1.5 quintal – that sells for Rs 40,000. The farmer can keep his seed for use or for sale without restriction. It might sound like a lot of money but this finicky crop is expensive to cultivate.

In 2011-12, there were 27,382 farmers who received “patta” or permission to cultivate opium in 873 villages. The yield was 4,78,412.205 kgs and the payment released was of Rs 57.47 crore. The narcotics department operates two processing plants at Neemuch and Ghazipur. It imports opium for processing for re-export. Govind and other farmers feel that the government should not import raw opium for processing but should allow Indian farmers to grow more opium. How can one disagree with the proposition? Then again the processing facilities are not state-of-the-art. These should definitely be upgraded to better process Indian quality opium.

Finally, someone, somewhere, should take a fresh look at the entire opium farming space to ensure that the farmers get a sustainable income. Or else, the opium farmer will have little option but to consume his own produce to deal with his misery.