Downsizing a high

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Public awareness and official crackdown have brought down the narcotics production in south Kashmir districts, where large swathes of land were put under poppy and cannabis cultivation in last few years. Hamidullah Dar reports.

Poppy cultivation has gone down drastically in the south Kashmir districts, which witnessed a surge in the narcotics production in the last few years. Law enforcement officials say mass awareness, public abhorrence and government crackdown has helped in keeping poppy and cannabis cultivation down.

Poppy and other narcotics, though illegal, yield good money in comparison to food crops, and can be cultivated in hilly and non-arable areas. A small poor village like Khadermoh in Pulwama district, saw a unheard of economic prosperity after the villagers cultivated poppy on around 1500 Kanals of land for a few years. A construction boom followed in the village, replacing some un-burnt brick and mud houses with homes of cement and mortar.

The cultivation and production of poppy in Khandermoh village that peaked in 2009 attracted attention from society as well as the law enforcement agencies. This year just 30 kanals of land is under poppy cultivation in Khandermoh village.

Khandermoh’s village head Ghulam Ahmad Mir, is spearheading the local social campaign against cultivation of narcotics. He says, “I have warned the (poppy) cultivators of the consequences and they assured me that it will be destroyed within two days.”

However, Mir is wary about the contradictory statements from various law enforcement agencies, which, he says, create confusion. “The DC (deputy commissioner Islamabad’s) office says cultivation is totally banned while as Tehsil officials argue that one can grow poppy on one or two marlas (one marla is 272 sq. ft) for domestic consumption. It made many people cultivate the crop on small patches which when combined is spread over 30 kanals,” says Mir.

Police have also taken the mass awareness route to fight the menace. Senior Superintendent of Police Pulwama, Kifayat Hyder held meetings with prominent citizens, clerics, trade union leaders and to seek cooperation in eradicating the menace of narcotics cultivation. “I am happy that the people of all shades cooperated that made it possible to control it and as a result you cannot find poppy (cultivated) on a scale, it was in 2009,” says Hyder. He said that the crop occupied 5670 kanals of land in Pulwama last year while as it was cultivated on just 191 kanals this year.

In the absence of popular resentment and cooperation, the official drive against cultivation of narcotics last year had yielded little results. In 2009 poppy was cultivated over vast stretches in about 300 villages of south and central Kashmir districts of Pulwama, Islamabad, Shopian, Kulgam and Budgam. The drive by Excise department and police last year could clear only a small area land of the prohibited crop.

Excise and Taxation Officer Srinagar Ghulam Mohammad Bhat says, “Last year we launched the drive to destroy the banned crop to show that Excise department will not tolerate its cultivation in the state. Though cultivators resisted, we were able to sever the (narcotics) cultivating network to a great extent.”

The department, however, could register a case only against one such cultivator. “We did not want to make a whole population hostile in one go. That is why we resorted to leaving stern warning for others. And it proved a good deterrent,” says Bhat.
The official claims of decline in narcotics cultivation are corroborated by the situation on ground. Last year, even the fields adjacent to main roads in Pulwama and Budgam districts had poppy crop on them but now mustard, oats and other food crops can be found in those areas.

“In Pulwama district poppy flowers would bloom everywhere, but now it is limited to the hinterland that fall away from the official gaze. In our village poppy crop is there on a far away patch of land called Palchan,” says Showkat Ahmad Nayak, a youth from Pinglana.

Poppy, however, continues to grow in the interiors of these districts. Nayak says, “In about 20 villages on the right side of the Kuyil karewa including Wakharwan, Gulzarpora, Chandgam and Badarwan large swathes of land were under poppy cultivation besides the karewa running from Tahab to Panzgam also has sizeable chunk of land with blooming poppy flowers.”

SSP Hyder warns of stern action against the farmers, who still resort to poppy and other narcotics cultivation. “In some days we will go out for a massive drive against the illegal crop and stern action will be taken against those involved in the cultivation.” says Hyder.

The motivation to farmers to grow the illegal crop is mostly the economic benefits. “People in these areas are generally poor and to get rid of poverty they found a panacea in poppy for its huge returns,” says Tariq Ahmad, a teacher from Tahab who actively canvasses against poppy cultivation in the village.

Tariq says that people have been cultivating the crop for years. “It (poppy cultivation) has been there for years but in the last four years the narcotic business got a fillip when people started to smuggle fukki, dried poppy husk, in large quantities like charas (cannabis),” says Tariq.

The poppy money has transformed many villages. Melhora, a riverside village near Sangam Bijbehara dwelled in extreme poverty just a decade ago. Unable to find work in the area, the men in the village would travel to plains of Punjab, especially during winters, and work there as manual laborers to earn for their families.

“Occasional floods in the nearby ….. river would destroy our crops (usually paddy and maize) leaving us in distress. However, with the cultivation of cannabis and now poppy, the fate of the people has changed,” says Bashir Ahmad (name changed), looking around for any snooping eyes or ears. In this village even saying anything against narcotics cultivation invites ire of its residents. They have resisted the destruction drives against the illegal crops. And they are no poorer now.

Poppy cultivators call Reshipora in Awantipora area the “village of the middlemen”. Many narcotics traders belong to this village. Sajad Ahmad (name changed), a narcotics trader, is in police lock up. He gives some clues into the modus operandi of narcotics smuggling. “It (fukki) is used by the people in Punjab like we take tea here. When we came to know about it we made contacts with traders there and supplied them with fukki. It is a good business and people in our village became millionaires within a few years. Punjab drivers easily hide several sacks in their trucks and transport it to various traders in that state,” claims Sajad.

Zainapora area in Shopian district which earned notoriety for large scale narcotics production and earned the sobriquet ‘Kandahar of south Kashmir’ for it, presents a different picture this year. Youth in the area have been on the forefront of campaign against narcotics cultivation.

Muneer Ahmad Magray, a young lawyer from Zainapora village says, “Poppy brought a lot of money along with same amount of disrepute to the village and adjacent areas. Police seized many machines that were used to grind poppy heads to fukki powder. The area earned so much notoriety that we would feel ashamed to reveal that we lived in the area.” Police and revenue records reveal that Zainapora was comparatively less infested with poppy even last year when the entire belt witnessed its large scale cultivation.

In the last five years many big villages have turned into towns with the flow of unprecedented amounts of money. Villages like Kakapora, Litter, Zainapora etc have undergone a sea change with small and very few shops paving way for spacious shops and business outlets. “When I was last posted here in 2002, the village had a few dozen shops, but my fresh posting here puzzled me as the village has taken shape of a town with shops keeping everything from building material to luxury items,” says Aijaz Ahmad, an employee in the government’s Public Health Engineering department.

The people apprehend that the decrease in poppy cultivation may not last long. “Once the law (enforcement agencies) takes a lenient approach, the menace will resurrect again,” says Bashir Ahmed. “The money hoarded over several years will not last long and once people face the poverty again they will resort to it (poppy and other narcotics cultivation).”

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