Opium cultivators hold sway in three-cornered contest

Gargi Parsai

4,000 farmers have lost right to grow opium

Grant of licences Centre’s prerogative: Minister

CHABRA (RAJASTHAN): Till recently, Dhuli Chand, an opium cultivator in Cheepabarod village was earning about Rs.25,000 in one season. But in 2006-07, after the opium crop was damaged in a hailstorm, he lost the harvest as well as his licence to grow opium for not being able to return a fixed average yield to the narcotics department of the Central government.

In the last two decades, over 4,000 farmers have thus lost their right to grow opium, ruining their livelihood that stemmed not only from poppy but its seeds and head as well.

This year the issue has become central to the election in this Bhartiya Janata Party stronghold that has the sitting MLA and Minister for Forests Pratap Singh Singhvi contesting against Karan Singh, a Congress youth leader.

Also in the three-cornered contest is Devkinandan Nagar, an independent, who has considerable influence over the Nagar samaj, which is the second-largest community here after the Meenas, and is set to divide the BJP voters. Mr. Singhvi is a three-time MLA from here. Before that, the former Chief Minister, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, held the seat. It was last won by the Congress (Jagmohan Singh) in the early 1970s.

The reason for the latest cancellation of licences is mired in controversy and has a political connotation that is not lost on the cultivators, particularly the powerful and moneyed “Patels,” who control the opium belt. While the BJP blames the Centre for the cancellation of licences, the Congress says the State government delayed its memorandum reporting the loss of crop and seeking compensation for farmers.

Denying there was any delay on the part of the State, Mr. Singhvi told The Hindu at his residence in Chheepabarod that the grant of licences as well as their withdrawal was the prerogative of the Central government.

“We have taken it up with the Union Finance Ministry, asking it to give opium farmers at least two seasons before cancelling their licence. Farmers have no control over natural calamities and their licences cannot be cancelled for that reason. If farmers fail to give the average yield in two consecutive seasons, only then should action be taken. At the same time they must be compensated, as well as provided an insurance cover against damage to crop from hail, storm and rain.”

But that is not all. This region, bordering the neighbouring opium-growing areas of Mandsaur and Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh, is fast becoming a den of smack-consumption and smuggling of illegal opium into Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Some of the cultivators alleged harassment at the hands of the police.

“For two actual culprits, ten are rounded up and let off after payment of money,” said a resident. Although people admit that the area has seen immense development in the last five years, this has become a sore point with them.

A student leader and Congress candidate, Karan Singh, is quick to encash on this sentiment. He promises to make the region “free from harassment, fear and corruption.”

Till Thursday, the last day of withdrawal of nominations in Rajasthan, efforts were on to make Mr. Devkinandan Nagar withdraw, in vain. His presence in the fray as well as the mood of the opium cultivators, would decide which way the wind would blow.

As of now, when campaigning is yet to pick up, it looks difficult for the BJP to retain this prestigious seat.

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