Last week [27th August] The Telegraph carried a very interesting story on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asking the state Chief Secretary Malay De to seek necessary permission, obviously from the central government for introducing poppy cultivation in her state. The provocation for this move was a complaint from a Burdwan resident that the price of poppy seeds was too exorbitant and crossed a thousand rupees a kilogram. It is also being imported. Mamata, being a people’s person knows what exactly poppy seeds, also known as “Khas Khas” is as an integral ingredient of Bengali cuisine. For the popular Bengali “posto[poppy seeds] boras” [ poppy seed cake which are small round bites], “Alu [potato]- posto” , “jhinga [prawns]-Posto” or Begun [brinjal] Posto you need poppy seed paste.
Mamata’s response of officially cultivating poppy in West Bengal is indeed intriguing. Most people know that poppy is cultivated for producing opium, one of the most potent narcotic drugs, the derivatives of which are used for pain relief and has been used for centuries as a substance of abuse. What the West Bengal Chief Minister probably forgot while talking about poppy cultivation as a solution to reduce the price of the favourite Bengali kitchen condiment of poppy seeds was that poppy is cultivated only for opium. Poppy seeds are just a non toxic byproduct!
It is considered necessary to give an account about poppy cultivation and opium here. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes [UNODC] has on its site [ unodc.org] states, “In the Ain-i-Akbari compiled by Shaikh Abul Fazi, about AD 1590, the poppy is mentioned as a staple crops of the then Subhas of Agra, Oudh and Allahabad”. When the British took control over these areas the Dutch were the chief purchasers of opium and the East India Company in 1683 issued instructions to make opium part of investment. There were different administrative approaches to opium till 1857 when the Opium Act promulgated opium monopoly followed by two other Acts in 187[Opium Act] and the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1930. These Acts continued to be in vogue and the control over cultivation and manufacture of opium was passed on to the Government of India on 1 April 1950. A year earlier the All India Narcotics Board was constituted under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance. Later the Narcotic Commissioner of India as the head of the department, under whose authority poppy cultivation is carried out on behalf of the government by growers who undertake to sow the poppy, produce raw opium and hand over it to the opium factories in Ghazipur and Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh. The landmark Narcotic Drugs and psychotropic Substances Act of 1985[NDPS Act] “prohibits a person to produce/ manufacture/ cultivate, possess, sell, purchase, transport, store, and /or consume any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance.”
Even the area of cultivation is decided where poppy can be grown now under the NDPS Act. The Central Bureau of Narcotics in Gwalior [Madhya Pradesh] under the Narcotic Commissioner of India [Ministry of Finance] notifies the tracts where opium/poppy cultivation is permitted in the notified tracts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
So it is not easy for the West Bengal Chief Minister to start poppy/opium cultivation in her state to make poppy seeds easily available. An anti drug activist commented that Mamata di is doing what Hanumanji did by lifting a whole mountain when he forgot the name of Sanjivini needed to save an injured Lakshman in the Ramayana. The state of West Bengal already has a problem of illegal poppy cultivation. In fact the district administration of Bankura had, just last year reportedly decided to use drones to crack down illegal poppy cultivation there. In fact, according to a report in The Telegraph, other than Bankura, the districts of Malda, Mushaidabad, Nadia and Birbhum also haVE the problem of illegal poppy cultivation.
Today, India is the largest producer and exporter of ‘licit’ opium. According to the International Narcotic Control Board [https.//incb.org] “India is the only opium producing country included in the present analysis. After reducing its cultivation of opium poppy by 75 per cent in 2013, India maintained almost the same level in 2014 and 2015with an actual area harvested of 5,422 hectares in 2015”. There are strict international guidelines and understanding on what quantity of opium should be produced in India. As the increasing drug addiction is a major mental health issue, there are UN and other international agencies asking for reduction in production/supply of various drugs like opioides, cocaine and cannabis.
Many alkaloids and salts are produced from opium. Among them are morphine, codeine and heroin. The principal opium alkaloid morphine was isolated in 1825 which soon became a standard drug as a pain-killer. It was unsurpassed in treating violent pain, kidney stone, etc. A more potent and effective pain-killer heroin was marketed in 1898. So opium was initially a great boon to mankind.
Use of opium by groups like quarry workers and truck drivers and those who have been using opium for relief from pain and cure of diseases have become a major problem. Those who consume opium under one false pretext or the other or peer pressure, slowly become addicts. Opium has been responsible for shattering and enslaving countless lives. Thus opium and its derivatives which have been a boon to mankind as a medicine , especially as a pain reliever has become a bane.
According to a survey report, “Magnitude of Substance Use in India, 2019” by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre [NDDTC] of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi ,”about 2.1%of the country’s population [2.26 crore individuals ]use opioids which include opium or its variants like poppy husk[ known as doda/phukki], Heroin[ or its impure form-smack or brown sugar] and a variety of pharmaceutical opioids. Nationally, the most common opioid used is Heroin[1.14 %] followed by pharmaceutical opioids [0.96%] and Opium[0.52%]. Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram prevalence of opioids used in the general population[more than10%]”.
Opium cultivation and production have resulted in many socio economic problems in poppy growing areas. Opium is diverted to the illegal trade as it is much more lucrative than giving to the government agencies who pay the farmers at prices decided. Secondly, people in the villages growing poppy have learned how to convert opium into heroin. White heroin is mixed with all sorts of things from corn flour to charcoal to barbiturate powder to rat poison to concoct brown sugar or smack. This deadly, highly addictive mix is sold to thousands of gullible addicts whose lives have been ruined. Intravenous use of heroin by sharing of needles has spread the scourge of HIV/ AIDS.
Historically, opium has been used by colonial powers like the Dutch and the British to establish their hegemony. It is believed that it was the Dutch who introduced the Chinese to mix opium with tobacco and smoke, a habit that became a major problem. Later when the British gained supremacy in India they dumped the opium produced in Ghazipur in China. The British East India Company feasted on the profits at the cost of Indian farmers even as countless Chinese became opium addicts. When the problem of addiction became really alarming the Chinese rulers banned the import of opium in 1829. This led to smuggling in of opium by American and British ships anchored off the Pearl River outside the Chinese territorial waters and sold opium for silver. Finally the Chinese rulers asked the ships to surrender, seized opium and took the foreign merchants hostage. In the name of national honour Britain went to war with China in 1840. This war known as Opium War ended in humiliating defeat for the Chinese and had to face the indignity of the 1842 Nanking Treaty which forced them to open up Chinese ports to the British ships for trade, obviously in opium. The opium War is illustrative of what opium has done to a nation’s pride.
While the West Bengal government is trying to introduce legal poppy cultivation, what happened in Punjab cannot be ignored. The 2016 controversial, but well acclaimed Hindi film “Udta Punjab” focused on the drug problem. The 2017 election was fought on the rampant problem of drug addiction in Punjab. It is worthwhile quoting from a story appearing on 11th April 2019 in “Down to Earth”[www.downtoearth.org.in/ne] during the General Election campaign. The story titled, “In poll season, Punjab debates legalizing poppy seed and opium farming”. According to the story, “Amid the rampant drug menace and continuing farm crisis in Punjab, there have been small noises asking for legalizing poppy cultivation in the state. These voices have been aired by both people in rural areas, where the drug and farm crisis are at their worst, as well as a small set of politicians”. At a meeting held in Sangrur, by several small farmer organizations it was made clear that they are willing to support any leader who promises to take up their issue.
Fortunately there appears to be no possibility of allowing poppy cultivation in more states, notwithstanding demands from states like West Bengal. Incidentally there are demands from groups in some of the Himalayan and North Eastern states for legal cultivation of Cannabis! Do people want our country to go the way of some of the South American countries?