Cocaine valley

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

IN mid-March, before the snow begins to melt and when the rivers are still clear, many villagers in the Lohit Valley in Arunachal Pradesh get ready to reap a rich harvest. The crop that has changed their lives for the better one-metre-tall plants with colourful flowers is everywhere, in the fields by the roadside, on hillsides far away, and in towns and villages. But it is a banned one, opium.

Lohit Valley has cultivated opium for centuries for consumption and for use in rituals and medicines. Today, along with subsidised education and some construction activity, it has brought prosperity to the valley. Nearly all the 266 villages in Anjaw district and 222 villages in Lohit district in East Arunachal Pradesh, which has borders with China and Myanmar, have opium cultivation.

The once-poor valley shows visible signs of prosperity, though it is largely restricted to the settlements along the all-weather, mostly tarred, 300-km road going right up to the Chinese border at Kahao from the Assam border at Dirak. Three smaller roads branch off from the main one. All villages along the road have electricity and have benefited the most from development. Most villages off the road still live in darkness: they have no schools, no public health centres (PHCs), no electricity.

Two decades ago, when this writer first visited Lohit, opium cultivation was restricted to a small area. Today there are about 10,000 hectares of opium fields, producing much more than the requirement of the nearly 24,000 addicts in Lohit and Anjaw. According to a rough estimate, the annual yield of opium is around 100 tonnes, an average of 10 kg a hectare.

There is no way you can miss the opium addicts or the vast swathes of opium fields. Yet, strangely, the Arunachal Pradesh government has turned a blind eye to the expanding opium fields or the growing addiction. Opium is cultivated on several kitchen-garden-sized plots in Hawai town, the headquarters of Anjaw district, in the hills. One such plot is just three minutes walk from the Circuit House and opposite a school.

The only apparent government intervention is the presence of a de-addiction facility at a PHC in Lathao, Lohit district, in the plains. Unfortunately, each time I visited this facility since 1987, its doors remained locked.

A brochure that the State government brought out in connection with a festival called Tamla Du, which the Mishmis of Anjaw celebrate in February, has a list of crops raised in the district. This includes sugarcane, which is cultivated on only 4.7 hectares. Opium is planted on thousands of hectares on the hillside, but for obvious reasons does not figure in the list.

The brochure shows 14,850.5 hectares as fallow. This is actually deforested land used for jhum (slash and burn) cultivation. A part of it is left uncultivated for a year or two so that it can regenerate. It is on this land that poppies are grown.

Just like the opium cultivation, logging continues in full view of the authorities. Despite the Supreme Courts orders against it, more and more forests are cleared to cultivate the cash crop. Perhaps, it is convenient for the government to tacitly encourage opium cultivation so that prosperity reaches the area faster.

While people living along the Tezu-Walong road have electricity and durables such as television sets, most people in villages that are away from the road get up at dawn and go to sleep at dusk, preferring to conserve the kerosene in their wick lamps. Poor-quality rice and a paste made of coarse millet form their two meals a day. They can afford at least these, bought from ration shops, thanks to the opium cultivation.

Kondong in Anjaw district is a three-hour uphill walk across Supliang village on the main road. There is no health centre or school here. The 31 families, all falling in the below poverty line (BPL) category, grow opium. The little that is left after their own consumption is sold to buy rice. One man recently bought a mobile phone with the money he got from opium.

As is the local custom, Kondong has six longhouses in which live all the 31 families. All of them are Digaru Mishmis, and 30 per cent of the males in the total population of 130 are addicts.

Supliang has a school, but no one from this village goes to school as children are required to help in the fields. Their longhouses are a tottering array of wood and grass with wide gaps, which let in the wind, rain and the cold. Opium helps them survive.

There is no sign of any government scheme to give solar lanterns to villages in the entire length and breadth of the two districts. Nor is there any poverty alleviation scheme. Across the ridge, and close to Myanmar, are 15 other villages. These have a larger area under opium and hence are marginally better off. They get a good price for their opium in the adjacent Kachin State of Myanmar. The explosion of opium cultivation here started about six years ago when, in a brutal effort to stop illegal cultivation in Myanmar, the junta killed more than 2,000 small farmers. It did not work as the Kachins got their opium from Anjaw.

The Dulai is a voluminous tributary that meets the Lohit river near Hayuliyang. A motorable road runs 57 km up to Chaglagam. All along the way are opium fields, and forests are being cut ruthlessly to make way for more. The tell-tale signs of prosperity here are evident at Metengliang sturdy houses with solar panels and motorcycles parked in front of them.

It takes two hours across the Dulai river from the road head of Teepani to reach Raliang village. It has more than 100 hectares of opium poppy under intensive cultivation. The houses have solar panels and stereo systems. The village has a well-maintained school with a hostel. It also has its addicts, just like the 266 villages in Anjaw, but they grow so much of the narcotic substance that they make quite a profit. Some women in the village sport strip-dyed hair and polished nails.

The son of the gaon burah (village elder) of nearby Gaen village is the contractor who built the sturdy suspension wire bridge across the Dulai. He has a well-built wooden house here. His wife runs the only shop for miles around at Teepani. He said in a matter-of-fact manner: We will fight to protect this crop.

I visited just four villages in the Anjaw district that were growing opium and saw from a distance another 16 villages that had large fields of opium. That would be at least 500 hectares. There were 246 more such villages in the district.

Lohit district borders Assam. The opium fields begin within a few kilometres of the checkpoint at Dirak, and after the Noah Dihing. They are carefully hidden behind clumps of trees and tea estates. Namsai is where it is first seen in abundant concentration. The plots vary from 50 square metres to a hectare. The deeper one goes into the district, the more brazen they become.

At Tezu, the district headquarters in the foothills, there are several, well-fenced fields, about 200 metres across the Indira Gandhi College or about a kilometre from the Circuit House and across the Htezu river. The Khamptis and the Singphos, ethnic peoples from Myanmar, grow poppy in the lower part of this district and the Digaru Mishmis in the upper part.

If the spread of education is slow, that of health services is worse. For the 266 villages in Anjaw district there are only 20 PHCs, covering a population of about 18,441 (2001 Census). Most of these are not functional. The foundation stone has been laid for a hospital at Hayuliyang, but there is no sign of any construction.

The lower Lohit district, with a population of about 1,43,478, has a hospital and 31 PHCs but not enough to prevent opium being cultivated and used as a medicine. Now it is a thriving business.

The people of these two districts grow paddy, maize, millet, potato, ginger, wheat, pulses, chilli and vegetables but do not make much money from these. The State government had given financial support to grow cardamom and oranges, but a cartel from North India exploited the people.

The average addict in the area takes about 3 gm of opium a day, which is much more than what an addict takes anywhere else in the country. The addicts themselves consume at least 26 tonnes of opium annually. Extracted opium is gathered onto a cloth made from sting nettles. A small piece about 6 cm x 8 cm and weighing about 11.9 gm (one tola) is sold at Rs.200. About 6 gm of opium is obtained from it. Most of the addicts, 25 years and above, smoke this at least twice a day.

Supliang village on the Hayuliyang-Walong road has a population of 80. Of this 20 are addicts. This is the proportion in all the villages in Lohit Valley. Opium is traded openly and the sellers and buyers do not mind being photographed.

According to official figures, there are only about 200 addicts in the country. Subsidised opium is given officially to them. The year 1972 was the cut-off year for opium addicts across the country to register themselves. Forty-seven years later, hundreds of thousands of new addicts have joined them, but the government has refused to see them.

The fault lies partly in sticking to the letter of the United Nations Conventions (1961 in particular) that recommend that signatories to them ought to abide by the rules. Many countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands do not do this.

There is much to be done to change the situation in Lohit Valley. First, the number of addicts has to be accounted for. After that each village must be provided with a PHC having de-addiction facility. This will take away the immediate provocation for cultivation. To substitute for the loss of income from opium, the government should encourage other income-generating schemes such as tourism and trade with China across the border. Legalising the cultivation of opium for personal need could also be considered. All this will require a lot of dedicated research.

Significantly, all the addicts are male. With education and development, women have benefited the most. Earlier, they had to work like slaves in fields and at homes, when the men consumed themselves in opium fumes. Now, many of them are educated and are professionals. There are quite a few entrepreneurs also among them. In fact, they are so successful that people from outside the valley are seeking their hands in marriage.

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