After a five-hour hike, a 50-strong team of men reached the top of Koubru mountain in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district and surveyed the astounding view. Light green plants with colourful purple and white flowers carpeted the slopes as far as the eye could see. It was all poppy. Armed with small sticks, the men destroyed as many of the delicate plants as they could. But then the drones failed.
“Clearly, our efforts weren’t enough. The drones ran out of battery power before they could capture all the slopes covered with poppy plants,” says Geetchandra Mangang, general secretary of the non-profit Coalition Against Drugs and Alcohol (CADA), who was part of the team.
That was in 2017, the first time the Manipur government trained its gaze on the scale of commercially grown poppy, which is illegal in the state. Last month, the N. Biren Singh government took the fight against poppy cultivation back to the hill villages where it is grown. It was also a major election promise of the chief minister.
In April and May this year, superintendents of police across Manipur’s hill districts lining the Myanmar border sent notices to more than 30 village chiefs. They were warned that failure to report poppy cultivation on their lands could lead to 10 years imprisonment and a Rs 10 lakh penalty under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act).
But in a politically and ethnically divided state, where village chiefs reportedly hold sway over vote banks during elections, a simple notice is unlikely to have any effect. Besides, the hill land that the village chiefs claim ownership of is not clearly demarcated. The official records of the lands are absent and the village chiefs can easily escape the scrutiny of law and courts if held for cultivating an illegal crop.
According to government data, poppy is grown in the hilly districts, many of which are dominated by the Kuki tribes. The sources in the police and other ethnic tribes ThePrint spoke to allege that it is the Kuki tribes who are growing illegal poppy. But Khaimang Chongloi, former president of Kuki Inpi, apex body of the Kuki tribe in Manipur, calls these allegations baseless. “These are absolutely baseless allegations. There is no evidence which says that the Kukis grow poppy. Poppy is also grown in the Naga areas,” he says.
Yet, barely a few days after the letters were sent to village chiefs, politicians and leaders from ethnic groups in Manipur gathered outside CM Singh’s office to pledge their support for his ‘War on Drugs 2.0’ campaign that he launched in March after starting his second term in office. The Joint Tribe Council, consisting of the Inpui, Liangmai, Zeme, and Rongmei tribes of Manipur, wants to help the CM’s mission. The tribes say they’ve never cultivated poppy. Many Kuki and Naga groups have also come forward and pledged that they will not allow poppy cultivation on their land. Announced first in November 2018, the CM took the campaign a notch up when he was re-elected earlier this year.
Growing roots in Manipur
Every year since 2017, small armies comprising narcotics department officials, local police, non-profits like CADA and civil society volunteers have been dispatched to destroy the crop during harvest season. But poppy has grown roots in Manipur.
The land-locked state is not new to poppy cultivation and drugs. It is close to the ‘Golden Triangle’ of drug production – Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. So, Manipur is flushed with heroin from the 398-kilometre porous border with Myanmar –the world’s second-largest producers of opium. It had its first HIV positive case in 1990 through an injection drug user.
But the commercial scale at which poppy is now cultivated in the state has taken even the drug regulatory authorities by surprise. It is grappling with an in-house problem of thousands of acres of its green hills and forests being razed to grow poppy.
State data shows that in five years, the extent of land used to grow the plant from which opium is derived has increased more than three times from 1,853 to 6,742.8 acres. Of this, only 3,200 acres of poppy crop were destroyed this year. However, no one has ever been arrested or prosecuted for growing poppy.
The absence of clear land ownership records compounds the problem.
Whose land is it anyway?
The hill land that village chiefs claim ownership of is not clearly demarcated. The villages are sparsely populated and when the teams go to destroy the crops, the hills are empty, authorities tell ThePrint. Neither the villagers nor their chiefs claim responsibility and the police cannot arrest anyone as land ownership cannot be proven.
Poppy destruction is labour-intensive and machines cannot be transported to the terrain. The police have to rely on manual labour, which is ineffective, and fraught with danger.
“Commandos and teams from Manipur rifles are sent with big teams to destroy the crops as they can be ambushed,” says K. Meghachandra Singh, superintendent of police, Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB), Manipur.
But how invested are villagers in actually tackling the problem? The authorities took in this show of support with a healthy dose of cynicism.
While on one hand, students and volunteers often join the police teams in destroying poppy grown in the hills, residents told ThePrint that many college students also leave for the hills during poppy harvesting season to make fast cash. “Many students go to these remote hills and help in cutting the flower saps and extracting opium. For a day’s work, they make between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000,” said a source who did not want to be named.
Poverty drives poppy
Quick harvest, assured buy-back and unmatched returns on poppy also push Manipur villagers to grow the crop despite the state’s crackdown.
“The financers, or middlemen, of these crops are people who come from other districts or across the border and with the help of the village chiefs, they ensure that the village grows poppy for them. They take it back once opium is extracted,” explains Singh.
The farmers who grow poppy are extremely poor, and with a conducive climate and fertile soil, poppy cultivation is bringing in money that no other crop can match.
In one 60-day harvest cycle, a family can make enough money to see them for most of the year, says a senior police official in one of the poppy growing districts who did not want to be named. “If farmers grow fruits and vegetables, they make Rs 2 lakh a year. When they grow poppy, they make Rs 10 lakh.”
According to the state government’s estimates, one acre of land can give poppy worth Rs 10-12 lakh. For most villagers, such huge margins make the risk worth it.
Many of these villages also fall under the territory of armed rebel groups who allegedly guard the crops and even provide protection for its safe transit in and out of the border, adds the senior police official.
Between 2017 and 2020, the police arrested around 1,501 people for transporting various drugs, but out of this only 128 were convicted. NCB data shows that from 2020 to now, only 18 cases were disposed of. There were only four convictions; around 106 cases are still under trial.
How to catch a drug lab
Opium from Manipur’s hills finds its way into small make-shift processing units hidden across the state, which convert it into brown sugar and heroin using simple equipment, explains Suresh Kumar, superintendent of police, NCB, Manipur. These powdered substances fetch a much higher return than raw opium and are easy to carry and hide.
A 10-kilogram consignment of opium produces one kilogram of brown sugar and 250 grams of heroin after processing. These sell between Rs 300 and 400 for a gram in Manipur.
Information with the Indian anti-narcotics teams shows that similar processing factories have come up all along the border in Sagaing and Chin states in Myanmar. The refined heroin spills over to Manipur through the hidden village routes on the border.
Between 2017 and 2020, 63 kilograms of heroin and 284 kilograms of brown sugar was seized by the Manipur police. In addition to this, NCB seized 6 kilograms of heroin from 2021 to date.
The busting of these factories by the state and central authorities, however, remains unimpressive. Between June 2019 and October 2020, Manipur police busted only eight brown sugar labs, out of which six were in Thoubal district. The NAB raided 50 houses in Thoubal district in one year but that did not completely end the drug-making business. Their input now shows that factories have moved to Kangpokpi district, which is closer to the hills.
“The processing of opium is a day’s job,” explains Singh, “By the time the police get inputs about where these processing units are running, the drug is made and the shop shifts to another location.”
A wasting generation
These highly addictive drugs are pumped back into Manipur’s towns and villages where children, some as young as 10, are exposed to them.
“No area that grows poppy can be immune to its ill-effects,” says a senior state official who did not want to be named. “Processed poppy comes back to the same areas and it will be cheaper.”
This can be seen in the southern district of Churachandpur. As the sun sets, flashlights from mobile phones glimmer at several points on the Old Bazaar Road and young boys and girls hunch over. At one spot, Hahau, the team leader, is carefully dividing a dull orange-coloured powder into equal parts on bits of paper. Each person pulls out several Rs 50 bills to get their fix for the night, which makes them forget their pains. The youngest member of his team is 16 years old.
Many children like them land up on streets to get their daily hit—and they are getting younger. A study commissioned by the Churachandpur district office shows that 36 per cent of children started drugs when they were 15 years old, and 21 per cent started when they were 10 years old.
Working with addicts across Manipur, Geetchandra Mangang of CADA has similar experiences. Parents are bringing children in Class 6 and 7 to the rehabilitation centres, and the drugs, which only the rich could afford earlier, are now seeping down to the poorest of the poor.
“The heroin rate in Manipur has not hiked since the 1990s. Despite high demand, its prices are stable, which indicates that the supply has risen with the demand,” he says.
In 2019, the ministry of social justice and empowerment mapped substance use in India and found that Manipur is among the top five states where more than 10 per cent of the population use opioids. But the state’s limited infrastructure to rehabilitate drug users shows that at any given point, only about 3,000 addicts can be treated.
In his office, Meghachandra Singh, is gearing up for the next poppy survey. He has stacked new binoculars, walkie-talkies, drones, and a comprehensive list of latitudes and longitudes of satellite locations of poppy growing areas where he is sure to find more hills covered in poppy.
“In the last survey, we could not record all the districts. I am sure, if we do a wider survey, we will find more land under poppy,” says Singh, a geography graduate.