There is a drug boom in the Kashmir valley as farmers and peddlers reap rich rewards from growing poppy and trading its products. Zahid Rafiq reports
IN A small houseboat on the Jhelum in Srinagar, smoke wafts across a dimly-lit room as Noori’s face glows brighter than the pale bulb hanging above. The routine is always the same. Her son answers the knock on the window. The television mumbles in the background as Noori (name changed) commands the visitors to turn their faces towards her so she can have a better look.
“What do you want?” Noori asks, flicking the ash off her cigarette. The 55-year-old woman knows what brings people to her den; the sharp questioning is just part of her business. Maal (stuff ), tamouk (tobacco), phoul (piece) — the answers vary but the customers know what she sells. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood knows it. Noori sells charas (hashish), and for many years now, she has been in this room surrounded by polythene bags, selling brown little stones in small packets.
“I don’t know you,” a wide-eyed Noori tells a customer. “Who are you?”
“I buy from you. There is nothing to worry,” the customer replies with a reassuring smile.
“Worry! What is there to worry about? I have been doing this all my life. You shouldn’t talk like that,” she says.
She buries her hand in one of the polythene bags and quotes a price: Rs. 300. She doesn’t like to bargain; it irks her and she knows that her customers are desperate. Like people don’t bargain over medicine, addicts don’t bargain over their drugs.
Noori gets it cheap because she buys in bulk. She buys for less than Rs. 50 what she sells for Rs. 300. Business is good around the year, even when protests and curfews bring normal life to a halt. Noori gets about three customers a day and earns Rs. 22,000 a month. Rumour has it that the police turn a blind eye because they get a commission.
Like Noori, hundreds are earning a quiet living in Kashmir as the demand grows with more boys getting hooked on to the drug. South Kashmir, which has been home to hash and poppy cultivation, has seen more people joining the trade. Business is booming thanks to a rising demand for phukki in Punjab, big money, lax policing and a negligible conviction rate under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPSA).
In Awantipora, six villages have more than half the population engaged in poppy farming
Awantipora tehsil near Anantnag is emerging as the new hub of poppy cultivation. According to police, six villages have more than half the population engaged in poppy farming.
“In a month from now, we will be busy harvesting charas,” says Iqbal Yousuf, 22, a first year Arts student. “It is a slow job in which the leaves are pressed with hands and then rubbed together to collect the sticky dark cream on a paper. It is attar, the best charas,” he says. Attar(meaning scent) is soft, sticky, like a chewing gum and, fetched Yousuf a lot of money last year. “A day’s work can fetch Rs. 500,” he says. “My brother earned thousands last season.” The other grade of charas is garda (dust).
The fine damp powder made is placed in corn husk and then wrapped in a damp cloth making it look like sticks. “They are then put in the fire to prepare the charas. It is easy,” he says. The main income for Yousuf’s family comes from poppy cultivation, though. His father made more than Rs. 2 lakh last season. “We don’t have much land and we would never make that much money with any other crop,” says Yousuf.
Poppy plants have a green ball-like head on a thin stem and bloom like tulips, their red and white heads waving in the spring breeze in Awantipora, Pulwama, Anantnag areas in south Kashmir. The plant yields both opium and phukki. Opium is harvested by giving small blade cuts to the unbloomed head from which opium oozes like thick milk. And for phukki, the dried heads are ground and beaten either with machines or manually.
POPPY HAS been grown in Kashmir for hundreds of years and is used in Unani medicine and by bakers for its khuskhus seed, which is used on chochwors (bagels) and kulchas. “People can and do obtain permission to grow poppy for personal and medicinal use but that is over very small tracts of land. Most of the growth here is on commercial scale and is illegal,” says Awantipora SP Irshad Ahmad.
For Yousuf’s family and others, it is good business because all they have to do is collect the poppy heads. The dealers take care of the rest. The shadow of the dealer lingers over the vast empty fields of these villages and as the business becomes more institutionalised, the dealers become more powerful. It is they who give the advance to farmers and beat the dried heads into phukki and transport it to Punjab. Last year, farmers sold a kg of phukki for Rs. 250 and the dealers for more than Rs. 600.
In the past year, Awantipora Police has seized about 40 quintals of phukki and 4 kg of charas. It is just the tip of the iceberg, not even the tip. The police rely on specific tips but information is hard to come by.
Feroz Ahmad Parray aka Feroz Don of Charoosa village is the biggest dealer in the area. He has never been arrested even though the police know that he is the kingpin. “In my four years here, there has been no FIR against him, nor has he been called here ever,” says a constable at the Awantipora Police Station.
Feroz, in his late 40s, has become wealthy and his cousins have also joined the trade. “They have opened a cricket bat factory as a cover for their business,” says Ahmad. The police says they can’t do much because everyone arrested under the NDPSA manages to get bail.
“The police is not doing enough to stop the drug trade and the judiciary is undoing whatever little the police is doing. The Excise Department doesn’t do much at all,” says a police officer. “If we destroy 10 acres of poppy land, we leave 90 intact. That is the way it is happening.”
Excise Department officers say the police are in cahoots with the dealers. “Often we are left to wait alone for many hours for the police to arrive on a raid,” reveals an excise officer.
Meanwhile, in Srinagar’s only drug de-addiction centre run by the police, queues are getting longer and longer for admission into the 10-bed institution where teenage boys, middle-aged men and old people try to kick the habit. Most of the addicts start with cannabis and graduate to using multiple drugs, reveal doctors. “It is one of the factors of increasing suicide rate here,” says Dr Muzaffar Ahmad.
In the past two years, more than 3,000 addicts have been treated here and about 5,000 patients have been seen in its Out Patient Department.
Asif Shafi, 17, from Ganderbal, was born two months before his policeman father was killed in an encounter. He smoked his first joint of weed and had his first strip of Spasmo Proxyvon at 12 the day his mother remarried.
There are many like Shafi who are out on the streets of Kashmir. It is easy for the police to label the young boys as addicts. The police seem to be using the drug abuse numbers to help their discourse against azadi protests but they forget that it was their job in the first place to stop the drug trade. Now, who will take the responsibility for closing down Noori’s business or putting Feroz Don behind bars?