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November 23, 1998


BJP's policies rob poppy growers of their high

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Mewar

Guess who is the star campaigner for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Mewar region of Rajasthan? Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee? No. Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani? No.

It is Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha.

And the reason?

To cool the tempers of opium farmers who are unhappy over the BJP's policies, both at the state and central levels on opium farming, none other than the finance minister has had to brainstorm the angry villagers.

To begin with, the Mewar region consists of Banswada, Bhilwara, Chittorgarh, Dungarpur, Pratapgarh, Rajsamand and Udaipur,. Except the last two, all other regions are growers of poppy, the plant from which opium is extracted -- the weed being one of the main crop on which the farmers are dependent. In fact, these regions put together extend over some 40 assembly seats.

Trouble arose when the BJP announced that it would give new licences to farmers who wished to do poppy cultivation.

The scheduled date of application and giving licences was between November 5 and 10. Naturally, hundreds of thousands of farmers, eager on acquiring the licence, flocked from the entire Mewar region to the narcotics divisional head office in Chittorgarh.

The government then found that it could not allot licences to everybody since there were so many applicants, as a result of which only 2,916 licences were allotted per region in Mewar.

The farmers then felt cheated that the government did not keep its promise. They also felt that the licences were only allotted to BJP supporters and their cronies. The worse part was that middle agents duped some farmers of their money.

After November 10, when the government stopped issuing new licences, violence erupted in some districts and the farmers began an agitation against the BJP government, flocking in large numbers to the divisional head office in Chittorgarh which had stopped issuing licences. And in Pratapgarh, irate farmers burnt down two police jeeps.

Realising the anti-government feeling running high among the poppy farmers, the government hastily shifted the narcotics divisional office from Chittor to Bhilwara overnight.

Under the new licence agreement, the government had allotted every farmer 20 Aaris (0.20 hectares) of land for cultivation. Farmers, however, feel the government could have accommodated many more had they given 10 Aaris to every farmer in Mewar region.

Says Dalchandji, village sarpanch of Jalanpura village in Chittorgarh district, "There are 900 people in my village, but not one of them got a new licence. They only provided licences to BJP supporters or to people who could bribe the bureaucrats."

The economics of opium works this way: the narcotics department, which comes under the jurisdiction of the central government, allots new licences each year. No farmer in the region gets more than 0.25 hectare of land on which he is allowed to grow poppy.

The narcotics department then sets a certain output, usually in kilograms, for each farmer, which is mandatory for the farmer to comply with. Failure to do so could result in loss of licence.

"This was an issue the BJP never paid proper attention to. If there are no proper rains, how can I produce the targeted opium?" remarks Dalchandji.

Another grievance of the farmers was that the opium they produce, does not get a fair price from the government. The BJP had promised to increase payments to decent levels when it came to power. But the present government is paying only Rs 75 more compared to what the farmers used to get during the United Front regime.

The minimum amount paid by the government to farmers per kg is Rs 400 for the low variety of yield, and the maximum is Rs 1,000 for the best yield.

"The government is making millions of rupees from our hard work and pays us in hundreds," rues Lal Singh, another opium farmer. "I hope when the Congress comes to power they will do something for us."

Says Amrit Lal, 70, a BJP supporter who now backs the Congress: "The BJP had promised us that it will give us a good deal per kg of opium when it came to power. It must pay us at least Rs 4,000 per kg, since the government sells our opium in the international markets and makes millions of rupees."

So peeved was Amrit Lal that he had gone to Delhi to meet Vajpayee over the issue.

"With great difficulty I got to speak to him. But he paid little heed to my words and repeated the words of Shekhawatji, 'Hum dekhenge aur adhikariyon se baat karenge'. And that is why I am going to vote for the Congress this time because the BJP is only talking and not doing anything for farmers."

And that was the reason Yashwant Sinha had come to Mewar, persuade the opium growers. He held three meetings and assured the farmers that by the next Budget he will raise the price of their booty.

Denying that opium farmers are upset with the BJP, Narpat Singh Rajvi, son-in-law of Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and the sitting MLA from Chittor, says, "It is wrong to assume that the opium farmers are upset with the BJP. There are many farmers who are happy over the new licence. We are confident of victory."

Agrees Ratan Lal, another poppy grower from Falasia village and a BJP supporter. "Only those farmers are upset whose yield is not good. If their yield is not good the government will certainly not givethem new licences."

However, Ratan Lal is upset over the fact that the government is paying only Rs 400 per kg for opium, and feels it must pay more if it has to win the confidence of the voters.

The opium farmers also feel cheated by Shekhawat and opine that his policies are anti-farmer, as he has made it compulsory for every village to pay for electricity poles which cost nearly Rs 9,000 and has thus increased the cost of electricity supplied to the farmers.

Says Nargad Bhopal Singh, panchayat leader of Aathri village in Chittorgarh, "The Congress government used to charge Rs 900 for electricity poles. Shekhawat has increased the cost by ten-fold. Also, during Congress rule, the cost of electricity per unit was much less than what we are paying today."

Since opium trade runs into millions of rupees what about incidents of smuggling?

Interestingly, while nobody is willing to talk on this subject, the common belief running through the region is that in a year, one case of smuggling almost always comes to light.

In fact, after harvest, even if one grain of opium is missing, the farmers can be held guilty and put behind bars for 20 years and levied a fine of Rs 100,000.

It is the farmers' responsibility to transport the opium from the fields to the narcotics office. If, on the way, there is a theft, they can be put behind bars by the narcotics department.

"We spend sleepless night for just Rs 1,000 after the opium is harvested," adds Bilasi Ram. "The government must instead have a system whereby they come and collect opium from our fields. They did not do anything on this front too."

"If we did smuggle opium we will not be living like paupers but roam around in cars like you all and stay in bungalows instead of these jhuggis."

Assembly Election '98

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