Poppy Pop Up

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Marijuana is outdated. Now poppy cultivation is popular in Kashmir because it yields better, faster, is less labour intensive and has a niche market where prices do not matter. Masood Hussain details the drug trade that is gradually emerging an alternative economy

Poppy-Fields

While celebrating the modest harvest of cherry and strawberry this summer, Kashmir conveniently forgot one special crop, the poppy. A fast spreading cash crop, farmers down south have already harvested the latest one. It is yielding much better than any other crops, right now. On per-kanal yield basis, experts say, even Saffron may not compete.

Poppy’s popularity lies in the “beauty” of its quick outcome. Seeds that are apparently the main product (costs Rs 400 per kg), normally used in Kashmir bakery, offer a fraction of the overall sale as big money comes from its dried up stems, roots and the seedpods. These are grinded into fine powder that is known as Fukki. Massively in demand in Punjab plains, right now it fetches Rs 400 a kilogram and by the end of apple harvest when the buyer drives Kashmir for transporting the fruit, its costs touch as high as Rs 1200.

Unlike government’s sustained battle against Charas, the marijuana, the efforts to curtail Fukki has not yielded any significant results, farmers on ground said. “Earlier the people would cultivate poppy on vast swathes of land but once the government started acting against them, it took a new turn,” one farmer in an interior south Kashmir village, falling in Kulgam district, said. “Now people use smaller patches in their vegetable gardens as part of inter-cropping and keep the show going.”

Talking anonymously, the villager said that this crop is the key player behind the new breed of peripheral multi-millionaires, who have grown in size, influence and net worth. “Most of them have bigger businesses to showcase but the real business is Fukki,” the villager said. “They are very well connected even outside Kashmir.”

It does not take much of efforts. Sown in March, it quickly grows with or without fertilizers and is ready for harvest by early June. Unlike Charas, it does not require expensive experts to get the yield: pluck the plant out and take home, get the seeds first and keep the straw for drying. Charas hand-harvesting requires skilled and costly labour rubbing the live plant between the palms, standing the whole day. The ‘black gold’ is eventually extracted from the palms.

Seeds apart, the poppy plant are mainly grown for Fukki. In between, however, it offers opium, the main raw material for heroine. In the last one month, a strange kind of thefts kept sections of peasantry busy in various south Kashmir villages. Gangs of youth would prick the bulbs during late hours and collect the crystals during wee-hours. Once done with opium, they would finally come and cut the plants, extract seeds, dry-up the straw for conversion into Fukki. These “thefts” were not reportable to the police!

Kashmir has been a traditional hashish cultivator. For most of the pre-1947 era, Charas has remained a major export. Post-partition restrictions limited the scale of cultivation but could not stop it altogether. The ‘export’ has evolved alternative channels of movement.

On December 18, 2012, Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) officials in Ahmadabad arrested three persons with 105 kg of Charas. Of them, Farooq Qasim and Ishtiyaq Aziz were from Rajouri and Poonch and their recipient was Sheikh Junaid Shabbir Hussain. The consignment had originated from Kashmir.

The contraband cache comprised 42 packets which were concealed in specially designed cavities inside roof of the driver’s cabin of the truck with J&K registration. The truck was carrying potatoes to Surat vegetable market.

On July 19, 2014, the same unit of NCB arrested J&K-based Farooq Qureshi with 15 kg Charas while leaving Sabarmati Railway station. He had resumed his cannabis operations after serving a decade in jail!

Post militancy, 2002 was the first year when Customs Department of the Government of India asked its Jammu office to initiate action against cannabis cultivation. Led by V Prabhakar, an Assistant Commissioner, almost 100 personnel from Customs, Khanabal based 1-RR, Qazigund based

2-RR, CRPF 19 Bn, JKP, Narcotic Bureau and State Excise department, worked for 11-days and damaged Charas plantation on 682 hectares. Most of the operation was around the Bejbehara villages of Laktipora, Malhura, Kawin,

Bandna, Tulkhan, Jablipora, Hussainpora, Duptyar, Hayar and Ketinag.

“In several villages people have stopped paddy cultivation to grow the narcotic crops and it is a major source of earning,” Prabakar told this reporter in September 2003. “Tons of Charas is being exported to Maharashtra, Gujrat and Goa from Kashmir.”

By then, poppy was gradually popping up. In 2002, poppy cultivation on 2.91 hectors was destroyed. A year later in May 2003, it needed lot of manpower to destroy poppy over 224.73 hectors of land that was otherwise growing paddy.

poppy-destroyed-south-Kashmir

Since then, detecting and destroying poppy is a routine summer exercise. But the growers have evolved their own ways and means of cultivating and eventually marketing it. In 2006, NCB officials said more than 2500 hectares (50,000 kanals) of agriculture and wastelands in Islamabad district alone were under poppy cultivation. Then, they could only tackle 3500 kanals. Rise of poppy actually impacted all other cannabis cultivations. Against ganja seizures of 1,44,055 kgs in 2004, there were only 25,291 kgs recovered in 2006.

In 2011, mostly in autumn, state police recovered a total of 10 tons of Fukki, 200 kgs of Charas and 30 kgs of heroine. It was less than half of 23 tons Fukki that was recovered in 2010.

“Smugglers get active during fruit season when it is easy to carry contrabands by hiding them under fruit boxes,” one top police officer said. In fiscal 2012-13, the Lakhanpur check post alone seized 9000 kgs (9 tons) of Fukki!

Cultivation apart, there are other angles to the drugs business in J&K. Espionage set-up around the International Border (falling completely in Jammu belts) has drug as a major part. It created an interesting situation in August 2011 when the state government found instituting a magisterial inquiry as the only way-out in a mysterious “suicide” of a Camp Khour resident.

Police had detained a young mechanic named Sanjay in lieu of his father. In order to get him freed, his father Sarfu Ram “surrendered” but his arrest did not led to his son’s release. Soon after, police arrested Shinder Singh alias Shinda of R S Pora and accused him of using his house, located on IB, as a transit point for receiving heroine.

Within days, police claimed they have exposed a gang of narco-smugglers importing heroine from Pakistan. Soon, Ram was founded hanging from the ceiling of his cell in JIC Miran Sahab. Police said Ram committed suicide using his trousers.

Preeto, his widow, alleged that Ram was actually a spy working for almost all including RAW, MI and IB. The day he decided to give up working for them, Ram was arrested and jailed for five years in Tihar. During his arrest, Preeto alleged, these agencies tried to force Sanjay take his father’s job. He refused and was arrested. Finally he was forced to take his own life.

Big monies even have lured the counter-traffickers. In January 2009, J&K was embarrassed when Saji Mohan, a Kerela IPS officer of J&K cadre was arrested by ATS Mumbai on January 25, carrying 12 kgs of heroin. Later, his revelations led to another recovery of 25 kgs. This, he was carrying while being a Deputy Director in the Enforcement Directorate.

During his 12 years service in J&K, Mohan had headed many counter-insurgency operations (he had killed two militants), had at least one questionable liaison, had recovered some drugs and finally was awarded president’s medal in 2004. His arrest opened the erstwhile UN peacekeeper in Bosnia track record.

During his postings in Doda, Ramban, Bhaderwah and Udhampur, Mohan remained pretty controversial. As ASP Ramban, he had a relationship with a local high school damsel that becomes such an emotive issue that it reached assembly. He was shifted out but it was established that he had supported another girl to become an air-hostess, allegedly to support his ‘shadow’ business.

In Bhaderwah, police investigations found, Mohan befriended Parminder Singh, a smuggler whose network he used. There, he had two contacts – Virender Singh and Baljit Singh, who would peddle his consignments into the plains.

After his deputation to the NCB, Mohan as Zonal Director Chandigarh controlled NCB J&K from February 14, 2007 to May 16, 2008. During this tenure he recovered 60 Kgs of heroin from Makwal. It was there, he had cemented the foundations of his alternative business.

In July 2011, Rajouri police arrested Keshav Singh, an SPO and Ranjit Singh, a Rehbar-e-Taleem (ReT) teacher carrying about one kg heroin. Residents of Rajouri found the low-paid state “employees” trying their luck to get big bucks in one go. They were caught, however.

In February 2014 first week, Delhi Police arrested Kashmir Police constable Khurshid Aalam, a second generation cop from Gutlibagh, along with two Tamil Nadu residents and recovered 10 Kgs of heroin. They had taken the consignment from Jammu.

Another SPO Mohd Rafi was also arrested by police in December 2015 carrying 54 heroin packets. Had it not been recovered, it was Rs 50 crore material.

LoC might be fenced but impregnable it never was. Purging LoC trade from contraband is emerging a Himalayan challenge. It created an interesting situation in January 2014 when cops recovered 114 packets of brown sugar from one of the 49 trucks that had checked in from PaK into TFC Slamabad. The driver was arrested along with the trader who was supposed to receive the consignment. Islamabad refused to accept the convoy short by one truck and retained all the Kashmir trucks at Chakothi.

poppy-destroyed

The drivers and the trucks remained in enemy areas for 27 days till Islamabad and Delhi, after four rounds of talks, agreed to follow law and convoys exchanged side on February 12. The driver is still in custody at Uri and his truck is still seized.

It was exact repeat of the same in February 2015 when police recovered 305 brown sugar packets. Both sides stopped each other’s convoys – Pakistan retained 5-truck Kashmir convoy and Delhi 22-truck Pak Convoy, and diplomacy took a long time to get the cross-LoC trade back on track.

It is not always that smugglers from the state supply. Non local smugglers come as tourists, with ‘families’ and return with consignments.

In January 23, 2015 police arrested Kerela residents Ajay B, son of a soldier, and Sidiq S, a taxi driver in Dubai, with 10 kgs of heroin. They told interrogators that they lifted the assignment from Srinagar.

Earlier in 2011 November, police in Udhampur during routine checking recovered a huge quantity of Hashih and arrested four smugglers from Mumbai. They had brought a vehicle from Maharashtra to take the consignment home.

Kashmir grows poppy and sells it. It is not consuming it so far. But the big bucks in Fukki have killed people. In 2010, there was a tragedy in remote Sempora village of Kulgam. A family had dug a huge den to store the poppy straw very close to a graveyard and sealed it for sale at an appropriate time.

One day, police intercepted a truck carrying Fukki detained the driver. The family knew the detained knows everything. In hurry, they started opening the Fukki ‘grave’ and it proved a grave mistake. The gases that had emanated from the straw during the winter were inhaled by the opener and he died instantly. As the second young man went to rescue him, he also died. The news spread and the local Imam went to visit the place and help the youth. He also died. Only one survived with his burnt face.

A year later, Punjab police is Tarantaran solved a murder mystery that had forced closure of Kupwara. Taxi driver Fayaz Ahmad Lone from Tangwari Gulgam was missing. Later his decomposed body was recovered from Bangali Grahat Canal on August 3. But it was seizure of his cab that police unraveled the mystery.

Lone was lured by a deadly duo Arif Ganie of Wachi (Shopian) and Sonu Singh of Nargil Jalander. They were partners in a huge Fukki cartel. They needed a vehicle for their operations so they lured Lone and killed him!

Though J&K is yet to create special NDPS Courts, cases are being charge-sheeted and convictions are taking place routinely. Right now, there are 35 drug peddlers detained under NDPS act in J&K. There might be scores of J&K residents in jails outside the state under various NDPS cases. But it doesn’t help manage the menace. Is there any other option? Can we involve the clergy? Is there is any other crop that pays more than what poppy fetches? Or is there a possibility of poppy cultivation becoming legal?

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