Blooming Opium Economy

People in the Lohit and Anjaw districts of Arunachal Pradesh have been cultivating opium for centuries in small quantities for consumption as well as use in rituals and medicines. However, these districts have now become focal points of opium cultivation and the surplus is being consumed locally. Nearly all the 266 villages in Anjaw district and 222 villages in Lohit district, which borders China and Myanmar, have witnessed a precipitous surge in opium production. 

People in the Lohit and Anjaw district were traditionally engaged in growing paddy, maize, millet, potato, ginger, wheat, pulses, chilies and vegetables for a living but did not get a good return from these crops. Though the State government provided financial support for growing cardamom and oranges as alternative crops, external interest groups were largely responsible for encouraging the people to take up opium plantation as the traders as well as the cultivators stood to reap windfall profits.

Visible signs of prosperity, though largely restricted to the 300-km road going right up to the Chinese border at Kahao from the Assam border at Dirak, are provide evidence of the success of the opium story. There are about 10,000 hectares of opium fields that produce an annual yield of 100 tonnes of opium, at an average of 10 kg a hectare. This in turn, is far more than the requirement of nearly 24,000 opium-addicts in both Lohit and Anjaw districts. An average addict in the area consumes approximately 3 gms of opium a day. 

Opium fields about 200 metres across the Htezu River can be seen clearly from the district headquarters in the foothills at Tezu. While the Khamptis and the Singphos, ethnic people from Myanmar, grow poppy in the lower part of this district, the Digaru Mishmis cultivate it in the upper part. The greatest cause for concern for the region is the massive scale at which deforestation is taking place to make available extensive fields to grow opium. It is clearly visible astride the motorable road along the Dulai River, a tributary that flows into the Lohit River near Hayuliyang. All along the way, there are huge opium fields spread across acres of land, for which forests have been cleared indiscriminately. Logging and deforestation also continue in full view of the local authorities. Even though the Supreme Court has issued directions against it, increasingly more and more forests are being cleared to cultivate the cash crop.

The rise in opium production in Arunachal Pradesh could also be ascribed to the rising demand for opium from neighbouring Myanmar. As a matter of fact, Myanmar has long been one of the world’s largest producers of illicit opium and together, Laos and Myanmar are two of the leading exporters of opium and opium derivatives in the world with the area under cultivation standing at 32,800 hectares. Myanmar’s potential production, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is estimated at 312 metric tonnes.

However, in the recent past, the demand for Indian opium has considerably reduced in Myanmar primarily owing to its own increased production capacity, thus being instrumental towards the export of Arunachal’s opium produce to other states within the north-east. As the Lohit district borders Assam with the opium fields beginning within a few kilometres off the checkpoint at Dirak, and after the Noah Dihing, Assam has emerged as a crucial delivery point.

Although, the state government in Arunachal Pradesh government is bound to be aware of the increase in opium production, it appears to have opted to ignore the issue. Various NGOs have alleged that the state government has adopted this posture because the area has become prosperous even the long-term price will be rather heavy. The government’s acceptance of this practice is evident from the fact that opium is traded openly and the sellers and buyers do not resent being photographed.

Growing addiction to the drug in Arunachal Pradesh constitutes an increasingly worrisome trend in the tribal society. Substantial numbers of men have become addicts thus forcing the women to manage both the domestic front as well as income generation. As is the case in most of the world’s illicit drug producing states, opium cultivation in Arunachal Pradesh is rooted in poverty. Efforts aimed at employment generation must commence immediately in order to change the prevalent situation in the Lohit Valley. Each village in the valley must be provided with a Public Health Centre with a de-addiction facility. 

It would also be pertinent to affirm that although the production, export and import of opium is illegal, the practice is flourishing because of the nexus that exists outside of the realm of legal commerce. The drug syndicates are not law-abiding corporations and remain and operate outside the control of any governing body. Therefore, the impact of opium cultivation is both direct and indirect. While the direct impact is limited principally to deforestation and soil erosion, the indirect impact of long-term addiction is more worrisome. Only strong measures to eradicate opium cultivation and replace it with other lucrative cash crops will succeed in checking the growing menace.

The termination of opium cultivation is vital for the pursuit of a drug-free Arunachal Pradesh. The vulnerable groups that rely on the crop to earn their livelihood and ensure their food security need immediate support. Narcotics profits have been used to fan the flames of insurgency in terrorism in South Asia and there is no reason to believe that such a thing will not happen in the north-eastern states, which have been riddled with insurgencies for many decades.

Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and Monika Chansoria is Research Fellow, CLAWS, New Delhi.