How Security Agencies Are Preparing A Crackdown On Illegal Poppy And Ganja Cultivation That Funds Left Terrorism

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Oct 27, 2021 04:36 PM +05:30 IST
How Security Agencies Are Preparing A Crackdown On Illegal Poppy And Ganja Cultivation That Funds Left TerrorismSecurity agencies preparing crackdown on illegal poppy and ganja cultivation
  • The Maoists’ patronage of the cultivation of poppy and cannabis started about two decades ago and intensified after the demonetisation of December 2016 that hit the terror outfit very hard.

Field-level officers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are currently taking some unique lessons in their well-fortified camps in Maoist-infested areas of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh from scientists of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) and agriculture departments of these states.

Lessons not on how to grow vegetables in their kitchen gardens, but on how to identify poppy and cannabis (ganja) plants from live images transmitted by drones and also from satellites.

That’s because cultivation of opium and cannabis by poor and small farmers in the heavily forested and inaccessible areas of the four states bordering each other has reached alarming proportions and a lion’s share of the proceeds are going into the coffers of the Maoists.

The CRPF officers are also taking lessons from experts on operating the latest sophisticated drones that the force has acquired. These drones are being looked at as the game-changers in the fight against the red terrorists.

The sowing season for poppy (from which opium and other narcotics are derived) is November and the harvesting happens in mid-March. “We will start surveillance of the remote areas with the drones by mid-November,” a DIG-ranked officer of the Central force’s Bihar sector told Swarajya.

The Maoists have been motivating, and often even forcing poor farmers of the Maoist-infested Gaya, Jamui and Nawada districts bordering Jharkhand to grow opium and cannabis. According to estimates, the two crops are grown on more than 2,000 acres in these three districts.

“These crops are grown in clearings in the middle of or bordering thick forests and are difficult to detect by untrained eyes. That’s why we have taken the help of agricultural scientists to train our officers on how to detect these crops from live drone images and also satellite images,” said the senior CRPF officer.

Many of these areas are inaccessible and require days of trekking through thick forests, hills and hostile terrain to reach. “Maoists lay ambushes and our men have faced attacks in the past when they ventured to those areas to destroy opium and cannabis crops,” said an officer of the CRPF’s 205 Cobra Battalion stationed in Bihar.

The CRPF is also being helped by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in cracking down on poppy and cannabis cultivation. NCB officers have been deputed to help the CRPF in this task.

According to the NCB’s estimates, the cultivation of opium and cannabis in the forested and Maoist-infested districts of the four states yields more than Rs 1,000 crore a year. The Maoists have developed a deep nexus with the drug mafia and about 75 per cent of the turnover from this goes to the terror outfits' coffers.

The Maoists, say CRPF officers, pay a small amount to the farmers who cultivate these crops. “As per our information, the Maoists pay about Rs 2,000 per bigha (3.9 bighas make one hectare) to a farmer for the yield of poppy and Rs 1,000 per bigha for cannabis. The Maoists supply the seeds and fertilizers, and often help the farmers in sowing, deweeding, irrigating and cultivation of the crops. Quite often, they take charge of the processing of the poppy and cannabis crops and sell the semi-finished or finished products to the drug mafia,” said the CRPF DIG.

The proceeds from this cultivation of poppy and cannabis goes to upkeep of the red terrorists and their purchase of weapons. “Earlier, extortion was a major source of funds for the Maoists, but now it's the proceeds from the cultivation and sale of narcotics,” said Vinod Kumar Sharma, a retired MHA bureaucrat who had been tracking the Maoists and their activities for decades.

The Maoists’ patronage of the cultivation of poppy and cannabis started about two decades ago and intensified after the demonetisation of December 2016 that hit the terror outfit very hard.

“The Maoists lost a huge sum of liquid cash that they held after demonetisation and so they became desperate to build their cash reserves for their sustenance. Earnings from cultivation and sale of poppy and cannabis was the easiest source of income for them, and they took to it. From 2017, the Maoists started encouraging and forcing poor farmers, mostly tribals, in the areas under tier control in the four states to grow opium and cannabis,” said Sharma.

In the past, the CRPF and police forces of the four states had to rely on satellite imagery to identify areas under poppy or cannabis cultivation. But that wasn’t very effective since, very often, the illicit cultivation used to take place in forested areas.

“Also, many farmers have started cultivating these crops along with other crops in what is known as multi-cropping in agricultural parlance. They have started growing poppy or cannabis plants along with paddy or wheat in the same farmland, making it very difficult to detect them. It is impossible to detect the illicit crops cultivated in this manner through satellite imagery. That’s why real-time images from drones are necessary,” said a Commandant-level officer working in the office of the Inspector General of the CRPF’s Chhattisgarh sector that falls within the force’s central zone.

“But detecting the standing cannabis and opium crops even from live images is not easy, that’s why we have taken the help of agriculture experts to train our officers in such detection,” he said.

“Drones can’t fly very low because of the risk of being shot down. Low-flying drones would alert the Maoists as well. But to the untrained eye, examination of the images we get from drones will only show what will look like wild plants. It is difficult to distinguish between cannabis or opium plants and other plants that grow in the wild. Hence the need to train our officers and men in this detection,” said the CO.

The CRPF had, last year, placed orders for high-tech drones with very specialised cameras. These drones can fly higher, but also take very high-resolution images, the CRPF officer told Swarajya from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur.

But detection of the illicit crops is only half the job done. “Destroying the crops is a major operation. It means putting boots on the ground, and that’s risky. Our men and officers will have to trek over very hostile terrain and risk ambushes. We have to plan such operations very carefully,” said the CRPF DIG from Bihar.

“Of course, carrying out such operations has become easier due to the high-tech drones that we have acquired now. These drones can detect human movement on the ground very minutely and so we can know of ambushes being set up by the Maoists in advance. The risk, however, remains,” he said.

That’s why the option of armed drones destroying the illicit crops is also being explored. “Drones armed with some incendiary material that can be sprayed over such crops can be deployed. But there’s the risk of collateral damage as well. And since poppy and cannabis is often grown in the midst of paddy and wheat, it means the destruction of all the crops that will adversely affect the poor farmers and be a huge setback to our efforts to win the hearts and minds of people in the LWE (left wing extremism)-affected areas,” said the DIG.

The CRPF and the governments of the four states have been conducting awareness campaigns in the Maoist-infested areas to dissuade farmers from growing poppy and cannabis. “The state government has offered them alternatives like growing lemon grass and saffron and bee-keeping and is providing them incentives as well as technical expertise for switching over to these cash crops. We are also making the villagers in these areas aware of the stiff penalties in cultivating illicit crops that yield narcotics.

"The poor villagers in those areas are completely unaware of the fact that cultivating these plants can attract life terms and even the death penalty. We have also told them that we have the expertise to detect the illicit cultivation in remote, inaccessible areas. From the feedback that I have received from the ground, villagers have expressed their readiness to switch over to other cash crops and are also wary of cultivating the illicit crops out of fear of landing in jail for life. Hopefully, the cultivation of poppy and cannabis will come down drastically in LWE areas from this season,” said Shailendra Kumar, Inspector General (IG) of Bihar Sector.

CRPF IG of Jharkhand Sector, Rajiv Singh, said that the awareness campaigns conducted among tribals in that state, along with increased surveillance, is bearing fruits. “I have received encouraging reports that many farmers will not plant cannabis and poppy this time,” he said.

Cannabis and poppy is cultivated in Maoist strongholds of Khunti, Chatra, Saraikela, Palamu, Gumla, Hazaribagh and Chaibasa areas in Jharkhand and Malkangiri and surrounding districts bordering Chhattisgarh.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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