Between tradition and trafficking: opium in Arunachal Pradesh

The first case against illegal opium cultivators in India’s Arunachal Pradesh signals a new crackdown on the social evil that has destroyed vast areas of forest, and many lives, in this global biodiversity hotspot
<p>Opium shrubs interspersed between cardamom shrubs in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]</p>

Opium shrubs interspersed between cardamom shrubs in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]

The Mishmi Hills in Arunachal Pradesh – part of the eastern Himalayas in northeast India – has become notorious for illegal opium cultivation over the past two decades. Authorities have failed to take sufficient action, with the periodic destruction of crops doing little to stem the thriving trade. This has led to the destruction of large amounts of forestland in a global biodiversity hotspot and major social problems in the remote region of India.

Now, for the first time, local police have filed a case against illicit cultivation of opium in Lohit district. This could signal a new crackdown against the social and environmental menace. However, experts remain sceptical this is enough considering the growing scale of illegal opium production, called kaani locally.

Arunachal Pradesh map
Anjaw, Lohit, Tirap, Changlang and Longding all share porous border with Myanmar, part of the Golden Crescent of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, ill-famous for drug trafficking [Map credit:]

Illegal poppy cultivation has grown particularly in the northernmost part of the state, in Anjaw and Lohit districts. These border Myanmar, the second largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan.

Environmental impacts of opium cultivation

The districts of Anjaw, Lohit and Namsai once had India’s densest forests. Large tracts of opium poppies (Papaver somniferum L) have replaced jhum cultivation (a traditional form of slash and burn agriculture) in the hills or biodiverse rich forests in the plains.

“Uniquely located in the Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot, Arunachal Pradesh harbours the world’s northernmost tropical rainforests and is home to nearly half of the flowering plants and bird species from India,” said Aparajita Datta, senior scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. “The loss of many of these forest areas would shrink the space for many bird species; Arunachal has over 600 bird species. Plus, there are many threatened mammal species in these regions,” she said.

Scale of destruction

In the past it was only older men from the Mishmi people, an ethnic group in Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, who grew it for personal consumption. Now youngsters and even women grow it and many people from outside Arunachal Pradesh hire large plots of land to commercially grow opium illegally, especially in the plains.

There has been no official survey to estimate the scale of illegal cultivation across Arunachal Pradesh. But a 2010 survey, carried out by the think tank Institute of Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA), estimated there were over 15,000 hectares (150 square kilometres) of opium fields in Anjaw and Lohit districts alone.

opium in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh
In only a few places illicit opium cultivation takes place near motorable roads in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]

Opium is often grown in remote hill areas that can only be reached by trekking for a few hours, or deep in the jungles in the plains.  Thanks to the difficult terrain, the annual visits by government anti-narcotics teams have only led to the nominal destruction of crops in the relatively accessible areas.

In the first round of opium destruction in 2019, officials destroyed 285 hectares of opium in the Medo area, near Wakro, and 210 hectares of opium in the Lohitpur area near Tezu in February, after which this case was lodged under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act at Wakro police station. All previous cases were only for possession or seizure of illicit opium and other drugs. This is the first case filed against illegal opium farming.

Arunachal Pradesh’s tryst with opium

The transition from the centuries-old tradition of growing opium for ritual purposes only changed recently. In 1996 the Supreme Court banned felling of trees for timber mills and by 2000 agricultural land was interspersed with commercial opium cultivation, which slowly increased year by year.

Growing opium has become the major source of income in the poor region.

According to the INSA survey, “As many as 43% of villages in Lohit and 14.4 % of villages in Anjaw had opium growing fields of size more than one hectare.” In 90% of the villages in Anjaw district and 63% of villages in Lohit district every family was cultivating opium, according to the survey.

Romesh Bhattacharji, former Narcotics Commissioner of India and founder of INSA has been regularly visiting the area since 1987. He said, “I am sure the area [under opium cultivation] has only grown now.”

People are growing opium as a cash crop – like oranges, pineapples and ginger – to make fast and easy money. This is an area with no jobs, limited infrastructure or quality education. And with the advent of satellite television, aspiration levels have grown.

As of 2019 illegal opium is also cultivated in Upper Siang and Lower Dibang Valley – which border with China – as well as Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts.

State wakes up to illegal cultivation & drug addiction

An entire generation of youngsters has been affected by opium. There are at least 10,000 addicts in Lohit and Anjaw according to the INSA survey, though the actual number of users is likely to be much higher.

In the last few years, there have been efforts to spread awareness about the opium menace. The government has opened drug rehabilitation centres, and local police, district administration and women’s groups have organised various awareness campaigns.

A rehabilitation centre was set up in the Zonal General Hospital in Tezu. This centre has treated 195 patients, mostly people under 30 years. But the need for better health facilities is huge. Another centre is run at the premises of Arunachal Pali Vidyapeeth Society at Chongkham in Namsai district. “Opium has a higher relapse rate (compared to other drugs). The easy availability of opium is one of the major reasons,” said Sopitot Towang, the doctor in charge of the centre.

Behem Lap, Wakro area secretary for the All Mishmi Women’s Welfare Association (AMWWA), said her organisation has been trying to persuade families to take up alternative crops that will give cash returns. “Only saying ‘don’t grow kaani’ is not enough” said Lap. “It is very necessary to provide an alternative source of livelihood to people as there are several small land-holding families that are entirely dependent on opium cultivation.”

The government is trying to support local livelihoods to end opium production. In April 2018, the Government of India had sanctioned INR 150 million [USD 2.2 million] to provide alternative livelihoods to opium addicts. In Lohit, Anjaw and Namsai districts, horticulture departments will provide funds “to expand major horticulture crops as an alternative livelihood,” according to local media reports. One of the alternative crops that have been somewhat successful is cardamom.

Opium in Mishmi Hills.
Grown in the high hills opium and other crops are grown in Mishmi Hills. Light green patches are opium while yellowish greens are cardamom [image by: Nivedita Khandekar]

In neighbouring Myanmar, with its much higher opium production but similar terrain, external actors such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) have tried various alternative crops such as potatoes and coffee. Unfortunately the jury is still out on whether these are effective substitutes for opium, although coffee seems to be working better than potatoes. It is worth noting that although there seems to be some cooperation between opium smugglers in these areas, there seems to be no real effort in India to learn from Myanmar’s efforts, which have been ongoing for more than a decade.

The similarities are stark. In a 2016 press release, the UNODC quoted Claude Jentgen, Chargé d’Affaires of Luxembourg in Lao PDR, “At a basic level it is vital that programmes address core issues such as poverty and food insecurity, land tenure and instability – issues that are not only confined to drug control strategies”.

Another related issues is how the problem will be handled in an area where anti-government militias are active, but where politicians are also allegedly involved in the drug trade. The recent UNODC report on the drug trade shows a drop, but focusses heavily on the areas under cultivation in areas held by rebel militias. This has come under criticism for ignoring the much more important role of government actors where opium is grown. Any project in India’s northeast, with its complex security problems, will have to deal with such issues as well.

Cross-border trade and opium

According to local people, there is a lot of cross-border trade as people from outside Arunachal Pradesh, largely the strong trader class from other parts of India, buy opium poppy in various forms, take it to Assam’s towns and sell it to insurgents, who in turn use it to buy arms. Some of it reportedly even winds up in Myanmar, which grows far more of it. India’s northeast has had a series of long running insurgencies since the independence of India. Although casualty levels have fallen across the decades, sporadic violence is still common in the region, with militant factions using any means at their disposal – including shadow taxes on businesses in the region – to continue their operations.

map of india opium trafficking routes
Image from: Narcotics Control Bureau Annual Report 2017

None of the police officials would publicly admit to any such trade in the Mishmi Hills. “Opium produced in the Mishmi Hills is mostly consumed by the Mishmi addicts and for pujas. Nothing goes out,” is the most common refrain. One official, however, admitted on conditions on anonymity, “There is lots of military intelligence about the chain of finance leading to the militants especially in Tirap and Changlang, but no operation (against it) is possible yet.”

Two years ago, the Minister of Home Affairs admitted in Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament) that “there are some cases where India has been used as a transit point for drug trafficking. As India is situated between Golden Crescent and Golden Triangle, which are major opium producing regions in the world, making it prone to be a transit country (sic).”

The UN Conventions envisage state-to-state cooperation when it comes to the illegal opium trade. India has signed agreements with 37 countries to work together regulate drugs and combat drug trafficking as defined by the United Nations International Drug Control Conventions.

Legalise production?

But the first step is reigning in illicit opium cultivation. Bhattacharji claimed nothing will happen on the ground as leaders from each political party are involved in poppy cultivation. “The only way is to legalise opium plantation,” he said.

This will mean that people can still earn an income and there will be no fear of opium money reaching insurgents or across the border.

At the moment, opium cultivation is only legal in 24 districts across three states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajisthan and Uttar Pradesh. India legally supplies opium to several countries, including Myanmar for medicinal use.  However with corruption levels high in India, legalisation in the north-east will bring its own issues.

With inputs from Omair Ahmad