“This is the high of highs”, says Bheraram, as he shoves opium husk from his palm into his mouth, and washes it down with tea. The 68-year-old is entitled to legal purchase of 8 kilograms of the addictive in a month, and for the past four decades, he has rarely missed eating or drinking it, thrice daily, like lakhs of others in Rajasthan.
On Thursday, Bheraram is agitated and fearful of what happens Friday, when a ban on legal sale and purchase of opium husk (doda post locally) takes effect in the state. He knows the side effects of missing its consumption too well: “Your head becomes heavy, your body becomes weak and starts itching, blood doesn’t reach your legs and you get diarrhoea. It is a slow death.”
“What’s worse, you can’t even protest at the office of the district collector, as you are just bedridden, awaiting your death,” he said.
Thursday was a particularly bad day for him as he missed buying his legal share at his earmarked shop in Kolayat, Bikaner, as the word spread quick and the shops were out of stocks soon after they opened. It was Kolayat Congress MLA Bhanwar Singh Bhati who raised the question in state assembly on Wednesday: What is being done to cure the 19,000 licensed and lakhs of unlicensed doda post consumers in Rajasthan as the extended deadline for banning opium husk gets over on Thursday? Urban Development and Housing Minister Rajpal Singh Shekhawat replied that the government had set up 596 camps and cured 64,224 persons in the past two years.
However, there are people like Krishna Ram, 70, who fainted at a de-addiction camp nearly ten months ago. “Out of ideas, the worried doctors then fed me doda post, and I was back on my feet,” he said. “I have been to two government de-addiction camps. In first one, they showed some intent, but the second one was totally fake. The doctors said that most success has been restricted to recent addicts,” he said. Person after person points out how “useless” the state wise de-addiction campaign, Naya Savera, has been, and how officials sold them doda post at the official rate of Rs 500 per kilogram when the medicines didn’t work, while also listing their names under the “cured” list.
There are also “miracle” stories of “shoorveer nasha” (brave/maverick addiction), such as that of Pratap Singh, 38, diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago but who now likes to move around with a beedi between his fingers. “I went through chemotherapy thrice. The thing with tablets during such illnesses is that they ruin your liver and organs. But doctors here suggested opium husk to ease the pain. And I am cured and on my feet only due to opium,” he proclaims.
Lal Chand, 60, a motor mechanic, says that “you feel sleepy after consuming alcohol. But you consume doda post and your senses become sharp and you feel strengthened.” As per local folklore, some elders can also tell the exact time of the day owing to the blood pressure in their body which is regulated by opium husk consumption.
Sohan Lal, 42, who arrived from his village 85 kilometres away only to find the shop closed terms it “a crisis waiting to happen.” “The poor will suffer the most as the prices of illegal opium will shoot through the roof post ban,” he said. Mani Ram, 43, who arrived from Bane ka Gaon, nearly 36 kilometres away, said that “the real test of the ban will be two days from now, when the people start landing in hospitals, once their stocks run out.” The shop is just one of 19 in the district and 264 in the state. There are 950 licensed buyers in the district, and 19,000 in the state; the buyers licenses haven’t been renewed since 2001.
Those gathered outside the closed shop, most of whom are past 40 years, say it is an “ill” which cures “ten ills”. Most notably, it gives them strength. “You are aware of your surroundings, you can work for longer hours, and you also satisfy your partner very well,” said Raj Kumar. “Give it to a dying person and you might prolong his life a bit”, he says sincerely.
“Our married life is over if it is banned,” he said. Interestingly, a few who hopelessly await the reopening of the shop have no purchase licenses. “I buy two kilograms each month for Rs 1,800-1,900 per kilogram from these shops”, said Umesh Singh Bhati, 55, a truck driver, “enough to keep me awake during long drives.”
Also, consumption of opium husk is embedded in several parts of Rajasthani culture. Gurjeet Brar, who has lent out the space to the now closed opium husk retailer, says that “during weddings, filtered opium husk is served as a drink, called Amal. It is a mandatory ritual during weddings as well as during the 12-day mourning period after a death in the family.” Bhanwar Singh, 60, says that he served 32 kilograms when his father passed away 18 years ago.
Brar says that it is also employed as a ‘universal’ medicine of sorts. “Two pinches of opium husk stops diarrhoea in children. Adults — they don’t have to be addicts — consume it to stop cold,” he said.
But beginning Friday, the District Excise Officers will go to 264 shops in the state and seize any remaining opium husk, gather it in godowns, weigh it, and destroy it. However, while expressing helplessness, UDH Minister Shekhawat Wednesday said that the state government will request the Centre to extend the deadline once again. Also, the opium cultivation has not been banned yet.