Poppy in a rice bowlhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/latest-news/poppy-in-a-rice-bowl/

Poppy in a rice bowl

Five districts in West Bengal are emerging as the hub of illicit poppy cultivation.

The fields stretch for miles,the white and pink flowers tossing their heads in the winds. This is Bengal’s Poppy Nation—Burdwan and Birbhum districts,once known as the rice bowl of the state. This season,the paddy fields in these districts have turned into illicit opium cultivation zones. The pretty poppy flowers are deceptive—their pods carry a lethal gum that is laden with morphine,which is chemically processed into heroin. It’s this heroin that heads for clandestine international markets,mostly through the Indo-Bangladesh border at Malda,Murshidabad and Bongaon in the state.

Though Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) officials admit that estimates about the extent of poppy cultivation this year have been way off the mark,a conservative calculation would peg it at about 50,000 acres.

Like everywhere else,a large part of the cultivation in Bengal is suspected to be linked to drug cartels,powerful underground mafia and Maoist groups. The crop is concentrated in areas that have strong Maoist presence and enforcement agencies admit that they have intelligence inputs about Maoists funding the highly lucrative trade in certain areas.

Officials of the NCB as well as that of the local district administration say the trend is dangerous because of the mass involvement at the level of farmers and the effect it could have on the region’s security. But they say that without the infrastructure and network that’s needed to destroy the illegal crop,their hands are tied.

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Besides Burdwan and Birbhum,poppy cultivation has now spread to three other districts in the state—Murshidabad,Malda and Bankura—and to contiguous areas in neighbouring Jharkhand and Bihar. “We know about the cultivation in Jharkhand,but these are Maoist areas and are out of bounds for us,” says a senior narcotics control officer.

Besides,they say,there isn’t enough “hard intelligence” from these states to the NCB,Eastern Region,the Kolkata-based nodal agency that’s responsible for the prevention of this illegal cultivation. Only 18 districts spread over three states in India—Uttar Pradesh,Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan—are allowed to legally cultivate the crop and the opium thus produced is acquired by the Government of India to make morphine for medicinal use.

For the last two years,the government of West Bengal had been seeking the Centre’s permission for allowing poppy cultivation since poppy seeds (posto) is a key ingredient of north-eastern cuisine. NCB officials say the Centre has so far given no such licence to the state government.

The Sunday Express travelled to Burdwan and Birbhum when the NCB undertook a special drive last week to destroy a part of the poppy crops. At the end of a fortnight’s operation that involved the NCB,police and the excise department,about 5,000 acres of poppy crops in Birbhum district were destroyed. Over a dozen tractors were engaged to mow down the standing crop in Khairasol,Ilambazar,Dubrajpur,Kankartola and Nanoor in these two districts. The drive was extended to Barjora in Bankura district; Mongalkot,Ketugram and Kalna in Burdwan district; and Kaliachawk and Chanchol in Malda district. During one such drive at Kankartola in Birbhum district on February 5,farmers,allegedly backed by narco-syndicates,clashed with the law enforcing agencies. But a huge armed force mobilised for the operation fired tear gas shells and shot in the air to disperse the mob. Since then,the operation has been more or less smooth but large tracts have remained untouched.

“You stand at the edge of some plantations and it would seem as if you are standing in some Afghan province,” says Chanchal Sarkar,an NCB inspector. “What we managed to destroy could be less than 5 per cent of the total area where poppy grows in the state.”

Since last year,NCB has been using satellite imagery to identify poppy fields and ascertain the extent of cultivation in Bengal and adjacent parts. As part of this,NCB agents were sent to rural areas to collect intelligence about the sowing. That data was then used for satellite imagery. But K Shanker,regional director,NCB,admits satellite imagery to identify poppy fields has only been partly successful.

That’s because,as S Mondal,an NCB superintendent,says,it is difficult to distinguish the poppy plant from some other vegetable crops in the early stages. It is only when the flowers bloom and the pods appear that satellite images confirm the presence of poppy.

How the syndicates work

L K Duta,an NCB inspector,explains how the drug syndicates plan their operation. First,they plant agents in the villages to identify suitable fields. “They usually look for marshy land or land that’s close to river banks since poppy,right from sowing to when the pods ripen,needs at least 10 irrigation cycles,” says Duta.

The villagers then lease out their land for anything between Rs 6,000 and Rs 8,000 an acre for a season. Once the pods ripen,workers engaged by the drug syndicates extract the gum and give the poppy seeds (posto) to the land owner. Posto,that is used in cooking,fetches the farmer between Rs 500 and Rs 600 a kg. The poppy pod shells and the plant itself are dried and sold as “poppy dust” at Rs 150 to Rs 200 a kg to drug cartels. According to rough estimates,10-15 kg of poppy gum are extracted from an acre of cultivation. The opium sells for Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 a kg while opium processed into heroin sells for Rs 1 lakh a kg in the international market.

All of which makes it difficult for farmers to resist the lure of poppy cultivation. The poor rainfall in the last monsoon season affected the sowing of rice and farmers here found a good alternative in poppy.

“With poppy,we earn roughly Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 in just three months on an acre of our land. In addition,the poppy dust belongs to the land owner,” says a farmer of Rupuspur gram panchayat in Birbhum district.

Farmers say they knew it was illegal to grow poppy,but most of them,with small landholdings of 10 to 15 cottah (7000 sq ft to 10,500 sq ft),decided to push their luck in an election year.

“With elections round the corner,we had thought that the administration would be busy and no political party would dare to destroy the crop and run the risk of losing the support of villagers. But in some areas,police and other agencies have come and destroyed a portion of the crop. People in those places are talking of boycotting the Assembly polls,” he says.

Gautam Bagdi,a farmer at Dubrajpur in Birbhum district,was angry that the police,excise and narcotics officials had destroyed his crop. “The money that we earned from leasing out our land would have seen us through at least three months. We knew it was illegal to grow poppy but everyone wanted to try his luck. We thought in an election year,no one would destroy the crops. We are going to boycott the polls this time,” says Bagdi.

Political parties are already feeling the heat. In several areas where the raids were carried out,local CPM panchayats approached the authorities,saying they opposed the destruction of poppy crops since the villagers were only using the seeds and not the opium gum. Therefore,they said,the farmers should be let free this time. Farmers leasing out land despite warnings could end up spending six months in jail. For those dealing in drugs,the punishment varies from 10 years to 20 years in jail.

Two to three years ago,when the crop began to be grown in Bengal for the first time,the drug syndicates sent experts in opium extraction from UP,MP and Rajasthan to extract the gum,in a process called lancing. But over the years,villagers have been trained in the process. Sarkar,the NCB inspector,narrates how when his team recently raided a village in Burdwan,they found scores of teenagers engaged in lancing operations.

NCB and police officials say they have some inputs on the involvement of Maoists in the illicit trade,but are still working on the clues. “We have telephone intercepts between growers,agents and dealers. They goad farmers into growing the crop and also give them the money they need,” says a police officer in Birbhum district who didn’t want to be identified. “We even have intercepts in which farmers are given assurance of protection. Only the Maoists can give such assurance in this belt. These are people who belong to Jamtara district of Jharkhand but have taken refuge in this part of Bengal.”

A senior police official said that this year,at a coordination meeting of various agencies held before the launch of the crop destruction drive,senior district police officials had discussed Maoist funding for the cultivation and the trade.

The extent of poppy cultivation this year is an indication that massive funds have been pushed into the trade. Mir Tejemamal Hussain,a surveyor at the Block Land Records Office in Birbhum,says farmers here wouldn’t have been able to make the kind of investments needed to grow the crop—irrigation and other needs—if it wasn’t for some “outside funding”.

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That,says Mir,makes Birbhum,Burdwan and the other districts a dangerous place in the fight against narcotics. “Today,there are so many policemen to give us protection,but tomorrow,I will be left alone. Ours is not a one-day operation. We go to visit the villages every now and then and we are the ones who become the target of attacks.”