The Quest to End Illicit Poppy Cultivation in Manipur: Examining the War on Drugs Campaign

Lily Sangpui is a PhD scholar at the Department of Social Work, Mizoram University. Jenny Kapngaihlian works as an Assistant Professor at the College of Horticulture, SKLTSHU, Hyderabad.
6 August 2021

The rise in illicit poppy cultivation has posed a  threat to the already conflict-ridden Manipuri society. It further positions the state as the next  possible hub for drug production, rather than just being a spot on the trafficking route. In the fight against drugs, various measures have been adopted by the government to combat it, aligning more with a coercive approach. This paper questions the efficacy of those measures adopted as part of the government’s ‘War on Drugs’ campaign, principally on the means to curtail illicit poppy cultivation. 

 

Manipur has seen an unprecedented rise in illicit poppy cultivation during the past five years. The cultivation of poppy, locally known as kaani, has taken over the hilly regions of the state, populated mostly by Schedule Tribes. As reported by Narcotic and Affairs Border (NAB), a unit under Manipur police, pockets of illicit poppy cultivation remain concentrated mainly in the hills districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Kangpokpi, Kamjong, Churachandpur, and Tengnoupal. From 2020 till the reported month of February 2021, 1,420 acres of poppy plantation have been destroyed by law enforcement agencies (Sentinel 2021). During the 2017–19 triennium, Manipur police have destroyed an area of 2,858 acres of poppy cultivation. The seizure of drugs like WY tablets, SP capsule, methamphetamine, poppy derivatives like opium, heroin and brown sugar, and other contraband substances, the value of which runs in crores, have become fixture front-page news of daily local papers.

Drug abuse has become a serious concern which has gripped every faction of the society, including the youth and children, and sometimes even officials and politicians have resorted to drug trafficking (Laithangbam 2013; Nepram 2020). The recent imbroglio between a decorated Manipur police officer and a politician of the ruling party, over the arrest of a drug kingpin has shed light on to the depth of drug infiltration and corruption in Manipur (Nepram 2020; India Today 2020; Laithangbam 2020). 

The interface between drug use and occurrence of HIV/AIDS in Manipur has also been studied and reported. Manipur contributes nearly 8% of India’s total HIV positive cases as per the report of Manipur State Aids Control Society. The intensity of HIV prevalence is huge considering Manipur hardly contributes towards 0.2% of India’s population.

To add to the woes, tribal villages are lured into poppy cultivation by drug lords primarily to feed the processing plants in western Burma (Bhaumik 2005). Bhaumik’s apprehension that the Indo-Myanmar border will be dotted with poppy plantations if left unchecked has proved to be true as tribal belts along the Indo-Myanmar border have taken up poppy cultivation on a massive scale. Manipur’s proximity to the Golden Triangle, a major drug corridor along with the existence of a porous border and instability brought on by insurgencies, has facilitated the flow of drugs into the region (Kipgen 2019; Sehgal 1991; Das 2018; Leban 2000; Salam 2007). The rise in drug trafficking and cases of drug-related problems is associated with degradation of the social and political fabric of the state. 

Poppy is cultivated mainly in rural areas of Manipur, where people predominantly adhere to jhum cultivation. As land is readily available to jhumias, it is easier to cultivate poppy with other crops. The driving force to cultivate poppy in rural villages is the prevalent poverty, which has its origins in the failure of state machinery, to some extent. Decades of armed conflicts, insurgency problems, and ethnic violence have crippled the state, hitting the economy and in turn the poor, the hardest. Despite the implementation of various rural development programmes, it falls short in delivering to the last mile. Moreover, the desire to provide better education to children and to possess modern appliances and technology has been accorded high priority in today's society. 

As such, the cultivation of food crops alone came to be insufficient in meeting the needs of rural tribal households. Under these conditions, people struggle to survive and vie for a better source of income. The cultivation of poppy acts like a “magic potion” for rural households to pull themselves out of poverty, within a short time span. It proves to be rewarding in providing financial and food security and access to credit/loans. As noted by one poppy farmer we interviewed (2019): “People don’t hesitate to lend us money because they know that we will get good returns from selling our crop (poppy).”  Moreover, the cultivation has become an agricultural practice of a massive scale, in the rural regions of Manipur. Even those who could get out of poverty, continued to cultivate poppy, to sustain their newfound living conditions.

The biggest threat posed by rising levels of illicit poppy cultivation in Manipur is the fact that it could lead to the state being posited as a possible hub for drugs production, rather than just being a spot in the trafficking route. Within the last two and a half years, drugs worth Rs 2,000 crore have been seized and five drug manufacturing makeshift factories were busted (Laithangbam 2020). Heroin and brown sugar remain the two major drugs seized by the NAB. In 2019, in what was regarded as the biggest haul of contraband drugs in the North East, Thoubal district police busted an illegal drug manufacturing factory and seized 184.64 kilograms (kg) of brown sugar, worth Rs 166 crore (Sharma 2019). In another instance, Churachandpur district police busted a factory used for manufacturing brown sugar (Pratibimba 2019). These instances shed light on the thriving business of poppy derivatives like brown sugar and heroin in the state, where drug business runs in crores, currently. 

If one is to examine the case of Afghanistan and poppy cultivation, it reveals that the boom in poppy cultivation leads to an alarming spread of opium addiction across age groups and is usually accompanied by massive destruction of virgin forest and the natural environment. The use of chemical fertilisers to increase the yield also poses a severe threat to the environment. The same situation can occur in Manipur if left unregulated, the consequences of which can be devastating, socially and environmentally. The state government has intervened to check drugs circulation and the unprecedented rise in poppy cultivation, in this scenario.

‘War on Drugs’ and the Quest to End Poppy Cultivation

In 2018, Manipur’s chief minister announced the launch of “War on Drugs” campaign. Considering the havoc created by the cultivation and supply of drugs in the region, it is a welcome initiative. In the fight against drugs, illicit poppy cultivation is targeted mainly, apart from checking drugs circulation and business. The announcement has resulted in seizure of more drugs along with the destruction of poppy cultivation in large areas. In a massive drive to destroy poppy cultivation, the chief minister announced to allocate a team of at least 100 police personnel in each district to uproot and destroy poppy plants (Karmakar 2020).

Both coercive and non-coercive methods have been deployed as part of the campaign, which range from providing alternative livelihoods to the poppy farmers,  providing incentives to seizure of drugs, and forced eradication drives have been carried out as part of the campaign. Apart from it, civil bodies were engaged to create greater awareness among people, mainly to dissuade people from cultivating poppy. On 25 February 2021 representatives from 33 communities in Manipur took a pledge to end poppy cultivation under the banner “All Communities Convention for a Pledge against Illegal Poppy Plantation” as a response to the chief minister’s call to support the “War on Drugs” (Morung Express 2021). On one occasion, Chief Minister N Biren Singh announced a cash award of Rs 10 lakh for Peh village in Ukhrul district as a token of appreciation for destroying poppy plantations (NE Now News 2021).

As part of the government efforts, alternative crops were introduced in some pockets of the districts. Cardamom and lemongrass were identified as substitute crops to replace poppy (Kipgen 2019; Sharma 2017). Providing alternative livelihood options to the affected families of forceful eradication drive remains a way forward to counter the expansion of poppy cultivation. However, the question remains as to how effective these interventions will prove to be in wiping out the menace of drugs and illicit poppy cultivation in the state.

Lessons from the Field and Other Poppy-growing Countries: Challenges and Continuity 

The introduction of one-time cash incentives in terms of reward, compensation for the crops destroyed, and provision for cultivating alternative crops pays attention to the needs of the growers, rather than an abrupt destruction of poppy plants. However, there are challenges to be met in this process. 

One of the most important challenges is in finding alternative crops that could compete with opium in terms of price, profit, and market. Unlike other cash crops, the poppy-growing season is    of  a short duration, with higher returns from the capital invested that far exceed other crops. Moreover, as poppy cultivation does not clash with paddy cultivation, it finds more takers as a substitute for household income (in an interview with a poppy grower, 2019). This is the fundamental fact which  drives  people to continue to cultivate poppy, despite forceful eradication drives  carried out by law implementing agencies.

Another challenge lies in the deliverability of assistance to the affected families. Ground realities highlight the gaps that exist between intention and implementation of the policies in the campaign. The promise of rehabilitating those affected families either never reaches them or most often proven to be inadequate for them to shift to other alternate livelihood options that could sustain their  better living standards.

In-depth interviews were conducted with 10 poppy growers from four villages, selected purposively, from Churachandpur district, Manipur. Apart from this, informal discussion was held with community leaders and with a few shop owners who sell fertilisers ( who hold licences). These shop owners shared their concerns about the growing number of grocery shops selling fertiliser in unhealthy circumstances that violate safety norms which are prescribed for handling fertilisers, where bags of fertilisers and food items are sold together in the same shop.                                            

 In the words of a poppy grower (Churachandpur 2019):

"They (state) promise us assistance if we stop kaani cultivation. But where is it?  We were called to attend numerous meetings by different agencies, making us  go around to various offices but no substantive decisions or actions have ever come out. Where is the alternative option? We were left to fend for ourselves when our crop (poppy) was destroyed. No help ever reach us. The only option left for us is to cultivate in a far remote hill beyond the reach of police."

In addition to it, the insensitivity in describing those affected families as kaani victims (roughly translated as poppy victims) makes poppy growers uneasy, particularly on the choice of word to address as a victim. In order to deter poppy farmers from further cultivating poppy, as part of the government initiative, it promised to provide compensation to those farmers whose crop (poppy) was destroyed during the police raid. However, when farmers visited the concerned office to claim the compensation, they were tagged as “kaani victims”. This phrase has made them uneasy as it is offensive to them. It paints a picture of them as helpless victims who are placed on an equal footing with criminals and antisocial elements. As narrated by a farmer (2019) whose crop (poppy) was destroyed:

"I decided to entirely stop going to the office to ask for compensation, for the crop destroyed during the police raid, which was promised to us. The covert sneering and demeanour of officials when we stated the purpose of our visit that impel us to say, ‘I am a kaani victim’ hurt my ‘self-esteem’. The labelling projects us as anti-social."

The criminalisation of poppy growers, followed by the forced eradication drives made poppy growers act discreetly and they chose to distance themselves from identifying themselves as kaani victims. This along with the open declaration of a “War on Drugs” seems to assist in  creating a further stronger networking system among growers, traders and smugglers that even the occasional destruction of poppy plants have not been able to put a total end to the thriving business, according to our field notes form interviews with poppy farmers.

Lessons from the Taliban ban on opium in Afghanistan and in countries like Turkey and Thailand  show us that these measures could do nothing to herald an end to the illicit cultivation of poppy locally.  The cases of Afghanistan, Thailand, and Laos in the use of coercive measures reveal the shortcoming of this approach as it leads to what is called a “balloon effect,” pushing farmers to remote areas where the state presence is weak in order to avoid detection (Pain 2006: 5). Instead of weakening existing networks, it strengthens by being more tactful in countering any attempt to monitor and monopolised the production and trade of opium.  Moreover, it prompted them to act discreetly, thereby strengthening their network system to navigate beyond the radar of police to access the market.

In Manipur, similar effects can be observed. Interior forest areas were cleared to make new cultivation sites, posing a threat to the environment. To increase production, farmers used fertilisers and spread salt to remove unwanted weeds. Villages located nearby the plantation site had to face the consequences of this rampant deforestation. The nearby stream began to dry up during the winter season and children became vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as typhoid and dysentery (in an interview with the chief of Ngurte village, located on the foothill of Hills, 2019) .

The Taliban ban on opium during the 2000s also resulted in accumulated debt, which acted as a driving force rather than as a deterring force behind the rapid expansion of poppy cultivation (Jelsma 2005). In an aftermath study on the ban by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and Afghanistan government (2004), it was observed that declining heroin purity leads to increased use of injection, with all the added risks of spreading HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases.

The ill-effects of these coercive methods have led  international agencies to call for an innovative  and holistic approach in dealing with the issue.UNODC (2000) supported the introduction of alternative development programmes that could derail people from continuing opium cultivation. Thailand’s near end elimination of opium cultivation is attributed more towards the adoption of alternative development  measures. Similar successful results are also reported in Afghanistan and Laos, where it indicates a subsequent reduction in illicit opium production (Anderson 2017;Boonwaat 2003; Pain 2006).

Conclusion

Drawing on the successful interventions, it is clear that there is a need to plan alternative livelihoods along with the introduction of development plans in Manipur to support tribal farmers who have resorted to poppy cultivation. It is  known that the vast majority of Asian opium poppy farmers grew poppy in order to survive amid poverty and lawlessness (Chouvy 2011). The same is true in Manipur, as it is mainly due to rural poverty and the existing development gaps between hilly areas (rural) and valleys (urban) that contributed to the soaring rise in poppy cultivation (Kipgen 2019). This further asserts the need to address developmental issues and poverty in remote areas. 

Providing alternative livelihood requires a systematic, long-term and multidisciplinary approach that is context-specific and participatory (Fishstein 2014). Also, understanding the contextual realities upon which people base their livelihood calls for comprehending factors such as household decisions, household asset endowments, variation in geographical areas, institutional capacities, policy and systematic implementation mechanism (Pain 2006). Policies that work through the livelihood systems of the poor at micro-level need to be understood before bringing in any systematic change (Boonwaat 2003). 

Narratives from the field indicate that the introduction of lemongrass or other crops as an alternative prove to be ineffective for many reasons. Forced eradication drive is not a stand-alone solution to end illicit cultivation, nor is providing a one-time cash incentive. It should occur alongside other measures such as provision for alternative livelihood programmes, and developmental assistance in order to be effective (Peterson 2007; Boonwaat 2003). 

In the absence of a well-planned backward and forward linkage in terms of inputs, assistance, market, and value addition, the policies implemented seem to have only minuscule impact. Lemongrass as a crop is yet to find a market, and values from other crops fall short to meet the demands of the farmers’ families and aspiration to lead a better life becomes impossible. The central question to all this is: Who does not want to move out of poverty? 

Lily Sangpui is a PhD scholar at the Department of Social Work, Mizoram University. Jenny Kapngaihlian works as an Assistant Professor at the College of Horticulture, SKLTSHU, Hyderabad.
6 August 2021