Uncertain future in a sea of poppies

Three districts in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan together contribute to 80% of India’s opium production. Already facing the problem of stagnant procurement rates and rising input prices, farmers are now angry with the Union government for opening opium production and processing to private players. A.M. Jigeesh talks to farmers in the Mewar region about their concerns

Updated - January 11, 2024 01:14 pm IST

Published - November 18, 2023 12:48 am IST

Sundar Bai, an opium farmer, and her son Anil tend to their poppy crop in a field in Neemuch district on the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border.

Sundar Bai, an opium farmer, and her son Anil tend to their poppy crop in a field in Neemuch district on the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

When Sunder Bai’s husband, Shiv Narayan, died during the COVID-19 pandemic, she inherited 1 square kilometre of land and his licence to cultivate opium. She lives with her daughter and son in a village near Nayagaon in Neemuch district on the Madhya-Pradesh Rajasthan border. “Both my children, who are graduates, support and help me in this profession,” says Bai. “We employ four or five people to cultivate opium and extract opium gum.”

Bai’s son Anil, 25, who holds a degree in physics, has decided not to find a job and instead help his mother on the farm. Opium cultivation is known as swabhiman ki kheti (agriculture of dignity) in the Mewar region that is spread across Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. There is so much pride in the age-old trade that a saying in this area goes, “Afeem aur aulat barabar (poppy plants and children deserve similar treatment)”. While farmers in Madhya Pradesh call the crop afeem, a name which finds its origin in Persia, the community in Rajasthan calls it amal (pure).

Entire families in this region usually cultivate opium from November to March; some have doing this for as long as 200 years. Young men and women protect the family licence for various reasons. “One reason is that it increases their marriage prospects,” says Parmanand Patidar, a farmer, laughing.

Bai had been cultivating opium with Narayan for about 20 years before he died. Anil says the job is not easy. “The procurement rate for opium hasn’t increased in many years (farmers get ₹1,200-2,000 per kilogramme of opium latex based on the concentration of morphine in it) and the input cost has increased due to the price rise of fertilizers, labour costs, and pesticides. We also have to be vigilant all the time. We go to the field even at night to ensure that the crop is secure from thieves. We also cultivate other crops to manage our expenses. But we will continue to cultivate opium as it is a family practice,” he says with pride.

Apart from worrying about inflation, opium farmers have been agitated ever since the sector was opened up to private players through a Union government policy in 2021. The farmers increasingly worry that this move will threaten their livelihood, affect their profits and family businesses, and also have a bearing on “national security” by potentially increasing the problem of drug abuse.

Opium production in India

In India, there are about 1 lakh farmers across 22 districts in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh with a licence to cultivate opium. The majority of them are from three districts that border Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — Mandsaur, Neemuch, and Chittorgarh. Together, these districts produce 80% of India’s opium.

Opium is obtained by slightly incising the seed capsules of the poppy after the plant’s flower petals have fallen. Two types of narcotic raw materials can be produced from opium poppy: opium gum (latex) and the concentrate of poppy straw (CPS). Until recently, only opium gum, a milky substance, was produced in India. Opium contains morphine, which is known to relieve chronic pain and is used mostly by the pharmaceutical industry to produce medicines, and codeine. On the flip side, it also produces opioids like heroin.

Because it is an addictive substance that can cause mental clouding and hallucinations, opium production is highly regulated in India. In the Mewar region, farmers collect opium gum and send it to Government Opium Alkaloid Works, Neemuch, a factory that began operations in 1935. The gum is procured solely by the Central Bureau of Narcotics, which functions under the Union Finance Ministry.

Change in policy

However, in the 2021-22 crop year, the Union government changed its opium policy, allowing private players to produce CPS from the opium poppy to boost the yield of alkaloids.

According to a document titled ‘An outlook of opium cultivation’ provided by the Central Bureau of Narcotics on its website, other opium-growing countries follow the process of extracting alkaloids from CPS.

“After a shift to the CPS method, India will be on a par with other nations. As other countries have already shifted to the CPS method, the demand for Indian opium in global market is reducing. This is evident from the decreasing export of opium. (Moving to) CPS provides an opportunity for India to regain its market place through the export of CPS. CPS is less labour-intensive than the lancing method (used by farmers now). It will also help in ensuring better drug law enforcement as it will reduce the illicit market for opium gum,” the government says.

In a press release dated September 14, the government said that it has been engaging with the private sector on processing opium gum as well as poppy straws to augment the opium-processing capacity of India. The press release read, “Government intends to further significantly expand the licensing for un-lanced poppy and has decided to set up a processing unit for Concentrate of Poppy Straw of 100MT capacity on a PPP (public-private partnership) basis.”

An opium farmer shows a small poppy plant in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh.

An opium farmer shows a small poppy plant in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

A question of public health and profits

This is the second crop season since the policy was revised. Various farmers organisations such as All India Kisan Sabha, Bharatiya Afeem Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, and Bharatiya Afeem Vikas Samiti formed the Samyukt Afeem Kisan Morcha to raise the issues of opium farmers. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Neemuch to address an election rally last week, these farmers’ organisations tried to meet him. Modi did not meet them, so they have sent him a memorandum demanding that the CPS system be withdrawn, and the traditional system of extracting opium gum be continued.

Farmers believe that private companies are likely to pose a threat not just to their profession, but also to national security. “Opium can be misused. What if the drug mafia gets access to alkaloids? Drugs will be rampant here,” worries Mahesh Vyas, a farmers’ leader from Mandsaur.

Justice G.D. Saxena, a retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and a resident of Mandsaur, expresses similar concerns. “Opium is reportedly coming to Mandsaur from illegally cultivated areas too. States like Punjab are struggling to control synthetic drugs. Allowing private entry in opium processing should be done with extreme caution,” he warns.

The former judge remembers opium being very common in the area when he was young. He says it took several years to restrict and regulate the crop and bring it completely under the government’s control.

Shailendra Singh Thakur lost his job at the Neemuch factory some years ago for protesting against the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government’s plan to privatise the production of opium. “When opium production is handed over to private companies, the safety and security of the alkaloids may come under question. Importantly, life-saving medicines which are made using opium will become costly and poor patients will suffer. Also, recently, narcotics of huge volumes were confiscated from a private port in Gujarat. This is a warning,” he says. Heroin worth ₹11 crore was seized in Assam just this week. “The production of alkaloids was monopolised by the government. It should remain that way.”

Thakur also believes that government alkaloid factories have the capacity to produce more opium. “Employ more people. Why give this to private companies? Right now, five people get steady employment for about three months from cultivating 10 ares (100 sq m) of opium fields.”

Farmers also worry that there are no new postings in the Neemuch factory. Against the sanctioned strength of more than 500 posts, there are just about 200 employees in the factory. The farmers and trade union representatives believe that this is a ploy to help private companies. They demand that more factories be introduced under the public sector with more people working in them so that alkaloids can be produced with strict government control.

A group of farmers from Pipliya in Mandsaur say that “private companies will issue their diktat in this sector.” Pipliya was the site of an agitation by opium farmers demanding better prices for their produce in 2017. The protest took a terrible turn when six farmers were killed in police firing. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed opium smugglers for instigating the community.

Now, the farmers accuse the government of trying to “create divisions with two systems”. They say that the Centre has introduced a policy that is reminiscent of the British era. They have heard stories about the East India Company smuggling opium from their region and exporting it to China and other countries. “Big companies will misuse this crop to maximise profit. If smugglers have stolen opium from government factories, what security can be ensured in private factories,” asks Kachrulal Chadawat of Pipliya.

Nand Kishore and Mohan Singh, two farmers who have come to sell garlic at the Dalauda Mandi in Mandsaur, echo this sentiment. “We do not cultivate opium even on an inch of land more than what is earmarked by the government. Narcotics officials mark the area twice after giving a license to ensure that the area is properly fenced. They monitor cultivation by visiting the farm at least half a dozen times during the season (November to March).”

The farmers say they are already experiencing losses. To cultivate 10 ares of land, they spend about ₹1 lakh. They used to get 1-1.5 quintals (1 quintal is 100 kg) of poppy seeds from 10 ares under the earlier system. Under the CPS, they get about 80 kg of seeds. They complain that the government has stopped procuring poppy petals and pods from them, which it used to do earlier.

Poppy seeds fetch farmers about ₹1,000 a kg. This is the main source of revenue for most opium farmers. “We used to get ₹1 lakh-1.5 lakh by selling seeds during one season. That would meet our expenses. But under the CPS, we will get fewer quantities of seeds,” say farmers. The government procures CPS for ₹200 for a kg.

Parmanand Patidar, another farmer in the area who holds a licence for extracting opium gum, complains that the government did not consult the farmers before opening up production to private players. “This is the second year of the CPS system. The Centre brought this scheme during the lockdown without holding any meeting with the farmers, just as it did with the three farm laws. In our village, 150 farmers have licences of which half are under CPS. This is being done only to divide the farmers,” he says.

‘No transparency’

Farmers allege that there is no transparency in the CPS mechanism. “The government could consider a policy which will enable farmers to sell the additional opium gum (extracted over and above the limit set by the government) in the open market monitored by the government,” suggests Ambalal Jat, a farmers’ leader from Neemuch. Despite their unhappiness, the farmers are scared to speak up fearing that their licences will be cancelled, adds Jat.

Nerulal Jat, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait) of Chittorgarh district, says he has been cultivating opium since 1980. “The procurement price of opium gum has been same all this time. Foreign companies will benefit from the CPS system. The old system should be continued to protect farmers. New factories should be opened under the public sector,” he says.

Farmer leaders agree that smugglers roam around the locality in search of farmers in distress. They say that there are farmers who are involved in the smuggling of opium. In most cases, the supplier of opium is also arrested with the trader or the middleman. Several farmers have been in jail for years for the illegal sale of opium. Leaders believe that such instances will increase if private players are allowed into the field.

Mangelal Meghwal, a farmer from Chittorgarh, says, “Modi will have to take CPS back. Opium cannot be used as a profit-making commodity. It is used to make life-saving drugs. The Prime Minister talks about ‘Make in India’, but allows import of poppy seeds. This is not a Congress or BJP issue. It is an issue of farmers.”

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