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Poverty, Rebel Groups Push Poor Farmers
To Drug Cultivation In India

By Dilnaz Boga

25 March, 2009

India’s North Eastern state of Manipur is paying a high price for its proximity to the notorious Golden Triangle. A population of 2.4 million grapples with HIV/AIDS that stems out of a heroin addiction problem directly related to local poppy cultivation. With a land area of 22, 327 sq km – roughly the size of Israel – Manipur has one of the highest per capita HIV+ patients in India. Lack of infrastructure, corrupt government agencies and poverty has pushed poor farmers to poppy cultivation on lands occupied by underground groups (UGs). These groups seek to unite their regional tribes and gain independence from India.

Sources from the security forces reveal that around 28 UGs from tribes like the Nagas and the Kukis, operate in Manipur. Some of these groups had signed a ceasefire with the Indian government in 2005, ending the violence with the Indian security forces. Since then, the Indian security forces have been asked to cease all hostilities with the UGs, thereby, giving them a free hand in all their activities. The ceasefire has not managed to quell the fighting amongst themselves over territories. In order to fund their extremist activities, they resort to kidnappings, inter-factional killing, extortion from locals and NGOs, drug and human trafficking. The UGs use poor farmers to purchase a small plot of land so they can pay the least tax and stay below the administration’s radar.

Unemployment has either pushed the youth out of the troubled state or forced them to join the UGs or the security forces. “The youth join UGs as there is rampant unemployment. They are like criminal gangs,” says Nelson Elangbam, a salesman who has moved from Imphal to Mumbai. “These gangs extort money from people on the national highway. Sometimes, the person being extorted doesn’t even know which gang he is paying.” As a result, in the land where the game of Polo originated, people are tossed between poverty and desperation.

Cheap heroin, locally available has invariably contributed to the soaring number of HIV+ cases in the state. With a total land area of approximately 22, 327 sq km, Manipur state, which shares its border with Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) has one of the highest per capita HIV positive patients in India.

Brigadier Balbir Singh, Commander, 26 Sector of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit of the Indian Army stationed in the region, says: “Most problems stem form poverty and insurgency, so easy money is always welcome. The weather is conducive to poppy cultivators. (Besides) people here have to survive in the jungles and are unable to fight our organised army. So, they resort to poppy cultivation and extortion to fund terror activities. Youngsters have more desires and their resistance to the lure of money is also weak, so they get sucked into these problems. Poor economic structure is the best breeding ground for resistance movements.”

But this is not all, in the nineties, the security forces, in an effort to “cleanse” the state of separatist groups had come down heavy on the Manipuris – custodial killings and rapes have allegedly taken place under the watchful eye of the State. Since then, the people have been caught between two guns – that of the UGs and the paramilitary. Since then, the government has attempted to provide a healing touch by encouraging the stationed paramilitary forces to provide facilities – from irrigation to medical – to the locals.

Youth of the state have been hardest hit, with unemployment and lack of opportunities. The high level of corruption has made matters worse for the youth, pushing them towards militancy or drugs, says B S Agnes (48) of Lamphoupasa village, 1.5 km from Chandel town. “Despite the fact that our children are qualified, they are asked to give a bribe of Rs 7 to10 lakh (approx US$13,500 to $19,350) to get a civil job.”

Almost 2.4 million people of this state grapple with HIV/AIDS and a closely-related, spiraling heroin problem. A major cause for the high incidence of HIV cases has been the widespread use and sharing of easily available heroin, a result of local poppy cultivation. “Intravenous Drug Users constitute 70 per cent of the HIV+ population here,” says T Issac Zou, Secretary of the Network of Chandel Positive People (NCP+), a non-governmental organisation in Chandel district, South Manipur, one of the remotest and poorest districts. “Authorities are turning a blind eye to this problem. Villages like Joupi, Khaimi and Chuchanpur are notorious for poppy cultivation. Agencies operating in the area take cuts from the drug cultivators, so who will bell the cat?”

The National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) reveals that 1.67% of the state’s population is infected by HIV, a ratio much higher than the national average of 0.36%. Here, persons aged between 21 and 30 are at the highest risk, forming 43.10% of the total persons living with HIV in the state.

Despite the alarming statistics, NACO, until now (March 2009), had stopped funds to Manipur since June 2008 because of embezzlement issues. Director General of NACO Sujatha Rao confirms, “Yes, it’s true. Their accounts are not in shape, so we didn’t provide funds.” Rao adds, “Their audit was not in place and three accountants were arrested too.” Last week, after public pressure, the funds were finally released to the people of Manipur.

Poor infrastructure

A dismal rate of development and poor infrastructure has led to factional fighting among tribes like the Nagas, the Kukis and the Maites who have been at war with the Indian government for independence.

Sajik Tampak, a remote village which lies 12 km from the international border and 62 km from Imphal, has 100 households and approximately 6,000 residents. T Mary (28), the village headman’s daughter-in-law reveals that they got electricity supply only in 1992. “But we couldn’t pay the bills, so they cut the supply. Here, most people live a hand-to-mouth existence. We eat what we grow and sometimes that is insufficient.”

Her husband Muan (32) who lives with his 114-year-old grandmother and father, explains that since there is no alternate source of employment, some villagers feel it’s viable to cultivate poppy once a year. “It’s easy money.”

Manipuris follow the matriarchal system, yet it is the womenfolk who suffer the most. Many have lost their husbands to drugs, tribal clashes and AIDS. To make matters worse, a majority of the population is Roman Catholic, and condoms are not encouraged by local churches. Hnuhnem (60), a war widow and mother of seven children from Chandel’s Modi village, 2 km from Chandel town, is the only breadwinner in her family. She lost her husband who was with the security forces years ago, “My daughter finished her nursing course but she’s unable to find work. Now I want my son to join the army.”

In Aigajana, a village near Sajik Tampak, people have to depend on the security forces for medical care, even water. Headman Onkhothang Haokip (70) who has lived there for 60 years says: “We have to carry ill people on foot as there is no mode of transport.” And those infected with HIV have no choice but to trudge mountains before making it to the hospital. Social worker Zou who frequents these remote districts to counsel HIV+ patients confirms our suspicions, “It takes two days for people to reach the district hospital. The doctors are not qualified and the equipment does not function. How are we supposed to cope?”

The politics

The situation has served as fertile grounds for some parties, enabling them to take advantage of marginalised groups. The UGs have reigned minors in to cross-border arms and narco-trade, “They kidnap villagers and force them to ferry arms or drugs across the border. The groups don’t have any popular support as they resort to extortion. From freedom fighters, they have become criminals who torture the people to further their own criminal causes,” says a member of the security forces.

On October 7, 2008, four armed members of the local separatist group United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF), along with 25 others were arrested by the security agencies while attempting to ferry 99,000 kg of urea to Myanmar, where it was to be sold for a very high price. This fertiliser is a chemical component in making improvised explosives. The group was arrested with 13 trucks that had a huge cache of sophisticated weapons — all amounting to a whopping Rs 60 lakh (approx US$ 1,15,251), a local newspaper reported.

UKLF General Secretary T L Jacob Thadou, a political science graduate, denies the involvement of his cadres (approximately 300) but agrees that the heroin problem is destroying his people. He claims, “We banned poppy cultivation in 2006. It is cultivated in the more backward districts, where access is difficult.” And the cross-border drug trade thrives.

Indian security agencies continue to seize drugs, arms and ammunition being smuggled to Myanmar on a regular basis. On February 16, 2009, troops of 20 Assam Rifles seized actephide tablets worth Rs 4 lakh (approx $7,740) in the Indian market and four times more in the international market at a vehicle check post at Byongyang. On January 2, 2009, the same paramilitary unit had seized 98 kg of opium from four individuals traveling on a bus plying between Imphal and Moreh. Each kilogram of opium is worth Rs 1 lakh (approx US$1,939).

Villagers allege that the UKLF runs poppy plantations in the district along the border. Incidentally, the group is also holding tripartite talks with the state and the central governments – there has been a suspension of arms struggle since 2005. So, the security forces have been advised not to use harsh methods on them as per the ceasefire mandate. But Thadou retorts, “Developmental schemes don’t reach the villagers, as the money is siphoned off. The government is using politics to divide our tribes, which is why we want our own Kuki nation. For the last six decades, since India has got independence from the British, they have not done much for us. Look at the state of our roads -- some roads in the villages have been built by us, the UGs.”

The terror angle

Colonel Neeraj Shukla of 20 Assam Rifles says, “This is a complex problem to tackle. It is difficult for us to keep track of every part of the jungle – the areas are remote and the terrain treacherous. The insurgent groups use the money from poppy cultivation to buy arms from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The border can be infiltrated despite the presence of security forces; it’s impossible to monitor it 24/7. No border in the world is impregnable. Last year, we apprehended insurgents with RDX and Thai-made weapons. They had as much RDX as the 26/11 (Mumbai) attackers did. This could prove disastrous if left unchecked.”

This seemingly unbreakable cycle of drugs, poverty, terror and HIV/AIDS will continue to wreak havoc with the lives of the Manipuris until the state and the central governments decide to address these issues effectively through policies that benefit the people.

Dilnaz Boga is a Mumbai-based journalist and have worked for the Times of India and the Hindustan Times in India over nine years. He can be reached at

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