Tucked away in the far northeast corner, Arunachal Pradesh has emerged on the top among the illegal opium poppy producers in the country, ringing alarm bells among security agencies given its proximity with Myanmar and other nations notorious for cultivation of the contraband.
Due to geographic closeness with the ‘golden triangle’ of Myanmar, Lao PDR and Thailand, infamous for opium and heroin production and trafficking, security agencies are concerned that the state with favourable climate for poppy cultivation has started to act as an extension of the international mafia indulging in the illegal trade and a report in this regard has been submitted to the Union Home Ministry.
Of the total 2,530 acres of poppy crop destroyed across the country by Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) during 2014-15, the sparsely populated state with a population of just 13.82 lakh, as per official figures, accounted for nearly 40 per cent with 1,067 acres.
During 2013-14, of around the same acreage of poppy destroyed by NCB, 1,222 acres were in Arunachal Pradesh. Making matters worse, the drug enforcement agency has noticed a spurt in illegal cultivation over the last couple of years.
According to officials, armed militia guard the farms where clandestine cultivation takes place and officials have been attacked when they tried to step in to stop the illegal activity.
“In 2012 we destroyed less than 400 acres of poppy in Arunachal, which jumped to 1,222 acres and 1,067 acres, respectively, in the next two years. The government is serious over the development,” NCB Deputy Director General (Operations) Deb Jyoti Ray told PTI.
The figures could be just the tip of the iceberg as NCB sources said they could not penetrate deep into the remote state as their teams assisted by administrative officials of the concerned districts were attacked by armed locals.
“Our teams went to Arunachal Pradesh after noticing widespread poppy cultivation in satellite imagery provided by Secunderabad-based Advanced Data Processing Research Institute (ADRIN). We faced ferocious attacks by the locals and had to pull back due to security reasons,” an NCB source said.
“We also noticed involvement of people from outside in poppy cultivation in Arunachal. Armed militia, possibly part Naga insurgent groups, guard the farms. Our agency has sent a detailed report to the central government on the issue,” the source added.
Corroborating the widespread cultivation of opium in Arunachal Pradesh, Romesh Bhattacharji, a former Narcotics Commissioner of India and past president of Institute of Narcotic Studies and Analysis (INSA), said “the state is being lost to opium”.
“INSA had conducted a ground-based extensive survey on opium in Lohit and Anjaw districts there in 2010. It was sponsored by the government of Arunachal Pradesh and discovered that poppy was being farmed on 16,441 hectares in just these two districts,” Bhattacharji said.
Adding that “the situation was much worse now” with cultivation pattern shifting from small farms to commercial scale, Bhattacharji said the scenario can spell doom not only for internal and external security, but also the society, which was submitting itself to widespread drug abuse and increasing violence.
“Sadly, nothing much is being done to contain the situation in Arunachal. It may become a lost case in the coming years,” he said.
According to NCB officials, apart from Lohit and Anjaw districts, there have been reports of poppy cultivation from Changlang, Longding, Upper Siang and Tirap districts.
“Lohit and Anjaw are districts bordering Myanmar and China. So far there have been no indications that the extracted opium from the poppy pods is refined into heroin in India. This means that it is being smuggled to Myanmar, which is one of the largest heroin producers in the region,” an NCB official said.
The official also pointed out that so far India has been on the global heroin trafficking map only as a transit country, but the emerging Arunachal scenario is like a “game changer”, linking the country to its production.
A report from United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on ‘Golden Triangle’ region comprising of Myanmar and Lao PDR says poppy cultivation in these two countries rose in 2014 to 63,800 hectares, compared to 61,200 hectares in 2013.
The UNODC report puts the estimated total amount of opium produced in the area at 762 tonnes in 2014, which was refined with the help of acetic anhydride to make over 76 tonnes of heroin.
“It’s a known fact that opium is refined close to source and then trafficked. Seeing the rapid growth of poppy cultivation and low population of Arunachal Pradesh, there is a distinct possibility that the state is beginning to act as an extension of international mafia indulging in opium and heroin trafficking,” an NCB source said.
People in Arunachal extract opium in a unique way by lacing poppy pods with blades and collecting the viscous fluid on a fabric made of nettles.