28 Aug - 3 Sep 2015 #773

New opium epicenter

Farmers in western Nepal are lured to grow opium by Indian middlemen
Damodar Bhandari in Rukum

The remote poverty-stricken mountains of mid-western Nepal should be draped in purple fields of buckwheat or ripening yellow wheat. But these days terrace farms here are covered in white poppy flowers.

This is where the climate and soil conditions were considered ideal for cannabis. But after it was banned in the 1970s (see story alongside) the cultivation of this traditional cash crop was pushed underground. Lately, however, farmers have been lured by Indian middlemen to cultivate an even more lucrative crop: opium.

“Opium cultivation is now emerging as a serious threat,” says Police DIG for Rukum Keshav Adhikari. “Lack of information and inaccessibility of the mid-western mountains are a major hindrance.”

Adhikari says police have got tipoffs, and between March and June nearly 150 acres of poppy fields were destroyed across Rukum. But that is just scratching the surface -- opium farms dot the villages in other mid-west districts of Salyan, Jajarkot and Dailekh.

Indian middlemen and their Nepali suppliers have a network that is difficult to trace. They moved to these remote mountains after effective police action in Bara and Parsa of the central Tarai eradicated opium cultivation there six years ago. Police believe the opium mafia moved here because it is too remote and inaccessible for the government to act.

Jagbir Rawal of Syalpakha village of Rukum district used to cultivate poppy, but his crop was destroyed by police earlier this year. “I knew it was illegal,” he said. “But that was the quickest way to earn money.”

Rawal was not arrested, police just warned him and other opium cultivators not to plant poppies any more. Inspector Puran Chhetri says: “Even if we arrest farmers, we cannot easily prove them guilty because they claim someone else planted poppies on their land.”

Indian traders have moved to Nepal because of crackdowns in Uttar Pradesh. The Indian state had allowed limited cultivation of opium as raw material for the pharmaceutical industry, but tightened rules after reports that the opium was being refined into heroin. This prompted opium suppliers to move across the open border to Nepal to source the crop.  

Poverty, lack of irrigation and other government agricultural extension support means most farmers cannot grow enough food to feed their families and most men from these districts migrate seasonally to India for work. Police say Indian opium traders make contact with Nepali farmers through these workers and provide them with opium seeds and an advance. Farmers harvest opium pods within six months of planting and a kg of the crop fetches up to Rs 62,000.

“It is quick, easy and lucrative farming,” says AIG Surendra Bahadur Singh, who recently returned from the mid-western hills after an inspection trip. “State facilities meant for poor farmers do not reach beyond the district capital, poor farmers in remote villages have no option but to switch to opium.”

Police have seized 60.8 kg of opium from different parts of the country over the last five years and seized 47.9 kg of heroin manufactured from opium. Police admit their anti-narcotics cell is under-staffed and under-funded, and this is not even the tip of the iceberg of the trade in the contraband drug.

Know your grass

Cannabis: flowering plants from which hashish, hemp, etc. are made

Marijuana: usually refers to the leaves of cannabis which can be smoked

Hashish: a sticky resin made from the cannabis plant; more potent than marijuana

Hemp: made from the stalk and leaves of cannabis for fabric and textiles

Bhang: made from the seeds of the cannabis plant and used to lace food and drinks

Read also:

High time to lift ban, Sarthak Mani Sharma

From poppies to paddy, Rubeena Mahato