Scientists in the northeast are fired up to replace tear gas with the ‘world’s hottest chilli’. Teresa Rehman reports
DEFENCE RESEARCHERS in the northeast may soon release a new weapon against unruly demonstrators and insurgents. Its main ingredient will be the bhut jolokia, a pepper species so hot that its pickers must wear gloves and its processors must don canvas suits, masks and goggles.
Bhut jolokia, or Capsicum chinense, shot to fame in 2007 when the Guinness World Records named it the “world’s hottest chilli”. But scientists at the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) are fired up for a different reason. The pepper has the potential, they say, to be a cheaper, less toxic and more eco-friendly alternative to conventional tear gas in anti-riot hand grenades. It would replace chloroacetophenone, the main chemical component in tear gas, which can cause “long-term pulmonary, carcinogenic and reproductive effects”, according to a 1989 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The chilli will be a cheaper, less toxic and more eco-friendly means of riot control
“In counter-insurgency operations, the use of chilli-based weapons will help in incapacitating and capturing the person rather than killing him”, explains Lokendra Singh, Director of the Defence Research Laboratory in Tezpur, Assam. “Capturing an insurgent is always a better option, as it helps in investigations and yields more information.”
A bhut jolokia grenade is still in the experimental stage and its cost is yet to be estimated, but a DRDO scientist says it will “definitely be cheaper” than tear gas since it is a natural product.
Weapons-related experiments with bhut jolokia are not novel. Long before the advent of pepper sprays to ward off eveteasers, Arunachal Pradesh’s Singpho tribe used the crushed chilli seeds as a key ingredient in gunpowder. More recently, Assam government authorities used bhut jolokia to keep wild elephants from straying into human habitations.
Widespread use of the chilli in defence applications could be a boon for its farmers in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, where the cultivation of bhut jolokia has so far been confined to kitchen gardens and sporadic farm patches. With an increase in the pepper’s commercial viability, it is now important to maximise its potential yield and climate adaptability, according to KK Baruah, Dean of the School of Energy, Environment and Natural Resources at Tezpur University.
Frontal Agritech Pvt Ltd, the only firm presently exporting bhut jolokia — to Germany, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — is trying to do just that. Started by entrepreneur Leena Saikia, who hoped to make her favourite chilli commercially viable, Frontal Agritech is training farmers, mostly in Golaghat, Dibrugarh and Karbi Anglong districts in Assam, to productively grow the fragile plants and to secure bank loans. In addition to assisting farmers, the company cares for its own 60 hectare bhut jolokia field, where it hopes to increase yields from its current rate of one kg per plant per year to as much as five kg per plant per year.
Some police officials are also looking hopefully toward bhut jolokia’s future. “We often have to use tear gas to disperse an unruly mob, and sometimes it might cause breathing problems”, explains Bibekananda Das, Superintendent of Police in Assam’s Hailakandi District. “A natural option such as bhut jolokia is definitely better.”