“Poppy cultivation is a moral offence; desist from it,” 45-year-old imam (cleric) Salfi Hameed, village Nayer, Pulwama district, about 35 km south of Srinagar.
“This year we involved the imams of various mosques in Pulwama district to convince people not to cultivate poppy and cannabis. The experiment has helped us a lot and people themselves are destroying the crops,” Inspector General of Police (Kashmir division) Farooq Ahmad.
From mosques in Kashmir’s southern district of Pulwama, clerics these days are ringing out sermons denouncing the cultivation of poppy and hemp.
They are trying hard to make people understand the moral and legal repercussions of producing them.
“The police have asked us to convince people to destroy the poppy and cannabis crops. During my Friday sermons, I have to repeatedly demonise this practice so as to persuade people not to cultivate it,” said the cleric Hameed, who also grows apples.
It is feared in government circles that profits from poppy growing can feed militancy in Kashmir in the same manner as in Afghanistan.
The cultivation of poppy and cannabis is banned in India, because opium, a highly intoxicating substance, is made out of poppy. However, poppy growing is allowed under licence in very small pockets and under strict supervision for medicinal use.
Among the 175-odd families of Nayer village, many people, especially the youth, have heeded Hameed’s call.
“We do not allow them to make bhang (cannabis),” said 29-year-old Zahoor Ahmad, a shopkeeper.
Lured by the riches it provides, hundreds of farmers in Kashmir’s southern districts of Shopian and Pulwama, in the foothills of the densely forested Pir Panjal mountain range, started growing poppy (a source of opium and heroin) and bhang after armed insurgency started in Kashmir in 1989. As the police and security forces concentrated on militancy, relatively small crimes like poppy cultivation got little attention.
As violence has abated in Kashmir over the past three years, the state’s taxation and excise department, along with the Jammu and Kashmir police, has been destroying the yield of poppy and bhang fields to prevent people from cultivating them.
The two departments have been campaigning hard in the print and electronic media to stop people from cultivating the crops.
“This year we involved the imams of various mosques in Pulwama district to convince people not to cultivate poppy and bhang. The experiment has helped us a lot and people themselves are destroying the crops,” said Farooq Ahmad.
The police are now considering roping in imams of other districts like Shopian and Anantnag.
However, the excise and taxation officer of the Kashmir division, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, who is heading the department’s destruction drive of poppy and bhang, says that much needs to be done.
“They are getting 10 times more money from poppy or cannabis cultivation than from paddy. People are converting the land on which rice was grown into poppy fields,” Bhat said.
Paddy on one kanal of land (1 kanal is 13,450 square feet) fetches Rs 3,000 while Rs 30,000 can be made out of growing poppy.
In the financial year 2007-08, 263 hectares (more than 35,000 apartments of 800 square feet each) of land was cleared of poppy and bhang. In 2008-09, it was done for 931 hectares. From April this year, 1,574 hectares of land on which poppy and cannabis was cultivated was destroyed by the excise and taxation department.
However, Fayaz Ahmad (33), the owner of a chemist’s shop in Melhur village about 20 km from Pulwama town, said that the people needed to be given an alternative.
“People here are poor. We know that neither religion nor does the law allow us to cultivate these crops but we don’t have any other alternative. A person who has to look after a family does not care whether his dealings are legal or illegal,” Fayaz said.