Troops declare war on poppy crops in Kashmir
24 May 2003
The Hindustan Times
Izhar Wani (Agence France-Presse)
Izhar Wani (Agence France-Presse)Awantipur: Security forces are engaged in a massive drive to destroy poppies in Kashmir, confronting angry residents desperate for cash and unaware they are breaking the law. Customs officials from the Union finance ministry launched the campaign with security forces in south Kashmir 10 days ago. 'This year we have destroyed opium poppy crops spread over 224.73 hectares (556 acres) in 27 villages of Anantnag and Pulwama districts,' said V Prabhakar, a senior customs officer. A similar drive was carried out last year here, but did not stop residents from replanting. 'Last year's destruction has not served as a deterrent,' acknowledged Prabhakar, who accused the state administration of laxity. 'No district official has ever reported that poppy crops are grown in his area, let alone taken steps to destroy the cultivation,' he said. But villagers here, about 30 km south of Srinagar, said cultivating poppy crops was their only livelihood. 'For all these years we have been growing poppy crops in our fields, and no one has objected to it,' said Ghulam Ahmed, a farmer. Ahmed said residents were shocked when the officials and troops started destroying their harvest. For many villagers, poppy is grown for their seeds, used to flavour the Kashmiri bread known as kulcha - always in great demand across the Himalayan region. Bakers buy the seeds at Rs 100 a kg. But, in a more lucrative by-product, poppy sap can be processed into opium. Rahti Begum, 46, wailed and beat her chest as she watched her crop being destroyed. 'This is the only source of income for me,' said Begum, who looks after the three children of her late son. Some officials admit the residents are not at fault. 'These villagers are innocent. They cultivate the crop for poppy seeds, but do not know its cultivation is punishable,' a state official said. 'They are inadvertently getting involved in drug trafficking,' he said. For this reason, security forces make no arrests over poppy cultivation, officials said. But Prabhakar fears that if the cultivation goes unchecked, Kashmir 'may soon become notorious for narcotics'. 'This has serious consequences as youth in the state may get addicted to brown sugar and heroin,' he said. According to Prabhakar, poppy cultivation now is largely organised by groups who use their own trucks to transport the drugs for sale in other parts of India. The Kashmir Valley also has its fair share of drug trading. 'Last year, the army seized 350 kg of narcotics in the Valley,' said Prabhakar, who pledged to intensify the drive. The area is already reeling from 14 years of separatist violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and devastated tourism, once a leading source of income. Prabhakar said Central and state officials should cooperate in the anti-drug drive and - with the help of NGOs - - could end the poppy trade in Kashmir. But a major part of such a campaign's success, he said, would depend on educating the public.