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Inside the world's largest opium factory

By Amarnath Tewary
Ghazipur

Opium factory, Ghazipur
The factory exports most of the opium (Photo: Paras Nath)

It remains the world's biggest legal opium factory, dating back nearly two centuries.

And the factory located in Ghazipur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is back in the limelight because of a recently published internationally acclaimed historical novel.

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies is set during a time when opium trade out of India was flourishing under British rule - and much of the opium was flowing out of this factory.

Ghosh says that opium was essentially the commodity which financed the British Raj in India

But at the 188-year-old Ghazipur factory, nobody appears to be aware of its controversial history or to have read Ghosh's novel.

Brisk business

Instead, it is business as usual: the 52-acre colonial red-brick factory employs 900 workers and has an annual turnover of $45m, with 90% of the opium exported to such countries as the US, Japan, France, and Sri Lanka for pharmaceutical uses.

USA and Japan alone import 200 to 250 metric tonnes of opium from the factory every year.

Photography inside the factory is prohibited and security is tight.

Factory official Manik Mukherjee says that Indian opium is "pure" and has immense pharmaceutical value.

The factory was located in an idyllic environment - a far cry from the bustling border town that Ghazipur is today.

In 1888, Rudyard Kipling, on a reporting trip to the area for the Pioneer newspaper, described it in vivid detail.

Opium factory in India
Amitav Ghosh says opium funded the British Raj (Photo courtesy: Wellcome Library)

"On the banks of the Ganges, 40 miles below Benares as the crow flies, stands the Ghazipur factory, an opium mint as it were, whence issue the precious cakes that are to replenish the coffers of the Indian government," he wrote.

"The opium arrives by challans, regiments of one hundred jars".

Amitav Ghosh has this description in the Sea of Poppies. "The factory was immense: its premises covered forty-five acres and sprawled over two adjoining compounds, each with numerous courtyards, water tanks and iron-roofed sheds.

"Like the great medieval forts that overlooked the Ganga (Ganges river), the factory was so situated as to have easy access to the river while being high enough to escape seasonal floods".

Ghosh studied etchings and lithographs of the factory made by British artists.

Colonial vestiges

"It's quite an imposing sight, you know, if you look at those rooms and the balls of opium in them - it must have been millions and millions of rupees' worth".

The cavernous factory still carries its colonial vestiges - the red brick buildings, a canopy-like water tank and a sun clock donated a British opium agent. The agents auctioned off the opium to traders.

The old processing unit was modernised only two years ago with opium cakes laden on moving trays drying under the sun.

Opium factory workers in Ghazipur
Nearly a thousand people work at the factory (Photo: Paras Nath)

The factory diversified during the Second World War, opening an alkaloid extraction unit for life-saving drugs and became one of the largest exporters of legal opium in the world.

Poppy cultivation declined in the neighbourhood and in the rest of Uttar Pradesh state declined towards the end of the 20th century. A lot of the poppy now comes from the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

But some things, like the grand colonial building, haven't changed.

Ghosh wrote about "a miasma of lethargy" that seemed to be always hanging over the factory's surroundings - one example was the opium addled monkeys who would lap the open sewers carrying the factory's waste.

Monkeys still have the run of the factory, eating opium waste and dozing all day.

"They have become addicted to opium. Most of the time we have to drag dozing monkeys away from this place," a worker says.

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