By Amarnath Tewary
Maoist rebels in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand have been growing opium poppies to fund their operations in the region, officials say.
Rebels say the returns from poppy trade are handsome (Photos: Prashant Ravi)
The rebels have a presence in 18 of the 22 districts in Jharkhand.
The Maoists say they are fighting for more rights for indigenous people in at least five states, including neighbouring Bihar, which has a reputation as India's most lawless state.
What began as small scale poppy cultivation in the remote areas of Chatra and Katkamsandi in Hazaribagh district two years ago has now flourished into a booming activity spread over some 20,000 acres of land in over 300 villages.
Officials reckon that opium worth millions of rupees is traded during the five-month poppy growing season which begins in the region in October.
The police say that the Maoists are not only growing poppy, but also extorting "taxes" from farmers and opium traders.
"Maoists here are into poppy cultivation. This year, they have done poppy farming in my district on an experimental basis. But the situation is getting serious every year elsewhere," the police chief of Hazaribagh district, Pravin Singh, told the BBC.
In Chatra, one of the worst affected districts, officials say opium trading run and aided by the rebels is flourishing.
"Poppy cultivation has become a new raging trend among the
farmers in the rebel affected areas of Jharkhand. It's become a booming business for the rebels," state intelligence officer Gariban Paswan said.
Mr Paswan has recently submitted a report on rampant poppy growing and the role of the Maoists in the trade in Chatra to the state government.
I met Nirpendu Mahto, a rebel, in the village of Patthalgadda who said he had been growing poppy with fellow cadres for the past two years.
Vast swathes of Jharkhand are under poppy cultivation
"We grow poppy as it brings us good returns and we need ready money to run our organisation. We do not force villagers to grow poppy, but we do motivate them and protect them from the police and greedy traders," he said.
"The police dare not visit these areas. It is the safest zone for poppy cultivation."
One rebel I spoke to said the returns from poppy cultivation were handsome.
Dipendra Dangi of Patthalgadda said a kilogram of poppy fetches anything between 20,000 ($476) and 25,000 ($595) in the market on an outlay of between 300 ($7) and 400 ($9) rupees on poppy seeds.
Such high returns have expectedly brought prosperity to the poppy growing areas, with concrete houses springing up in many villages, and many buying cars and motorcycles.
One poppy growing area, Patthalgadda, alone had eight cars and 150 motorcycles, according to a resident, Duryodhan Mahato.
In January, the police raided some villages in the area to arrest poppy growers but could not make any headway in the face of fierce resistance by the residents.
"The situation is quite alarming," superintendent of police A Natarajan said.
The police is unable to make much headway into the poppy growing areas
He said he had submitted a report to the government pointing out that the Maoists were not only growing poppy themselves, but also forcing other farmers to grow the plant.
The police in Hazaribagh have arrested about 20 people this year for growing poppies, but it is unclear whether they include any rebels. Now they have sought the assistance of the federal Narcotics Control Bureau to tackle the problem.
Maoists operate in 182 districts in India, mainly in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal.