The Indian heroin mystery

India has seen in the last ten years a vast upsurge in the illicit cultivation of opium poppies. Despite only accounting for a small proportion of the global crop, the increase has been startling and rapid. The change has been so rapid that India wasn't been included as a major producer in the UNODC's 2010 World Drug Report despite the current figures showing India to now be on par with Pakistan in terms of opium production. Indian figures claim the last three years the known area of illicit poppy cultivation has increased from 737 hectares to 3084 hectares. Compared to the UNODC's figure for Afghanistan this might seem small, where the UNODC claim that the area of cultivation is over 100,000 hectares.

However the number of areas in India were this cultivation is taking place are in a huge arch across the north of the country. The potential for further increases is huge. In the vast lightly controlled upland areas of the Himalayas away from roads, police and prying eyes, the area of land ripe for cultivation probably easily exceeds that in Afghanistan.

The existing Indian figures themselves are highly likely to be a vast under estimate. Ten years ago I travelled extensively in Himachal Pradesh, a small mountain state in the North West, unreported by the India press, illicit opium production was already a key driver of the rural economy in many areas. 

One farmer told me that the economy of Sainj Valley close the town of Mandi, was already totally reliant on poppy cultivation. Even in the more prosperous and fertile Kullu Valley many farmers grew both opium and cannabis as cash crops. The conditions that the Indian media claimed to have just come into existence were already an established fact of life. Armed guards protecting fields in inaccessible locations and a criminalised rural economy already existed in the late 1990s.

India has a huge reservoir of some of the poorest people in the world, many of whom live on the land. The criminal and economic opportunity of opium production must be a force in a society where many of the rural poor are increasingly being left behind in the rapid economic development currently taking place.

Perhaps we need to look back at Afghanistan to understand another driver for why this change is taking place in India. The UNODC in its efforts to hinder the manufacture of heroin within Afghanistan, has attempted to clamp down on access to the chemical acetic anhydride. This is needed to process raw morphine into heroin and has no legitimate use in that country. As part of its Rainbow Strategy the UNODC has made the targeting of the smuggling of acetic anhydride a priority.  

As a strategy it makes sense for the NATO forces to target the smugglers of this chemical rather than the opium farmers. Targeting a small number of traffickers is less likely to fuel the insurgency than the mass of population engaged in opium poppy cultivation. It also allows NATO to support the aims of the Russians and the new Russian head of the UNODC to stem the flow of heroin out of Afghanistan.

The UNODC has estimated that the acetic anhydride prices have rapidly increased since the Afghan invasion in 2001, increasing from U.S. 13-34 dollars in 1998 to an estimated U.S. 300-400 dollars today. The UNODC have reported that “prices for acetic anhydride have nearly tripled in Afghanistan in recent years” and that “as a result, trafficking acetic anhydride is now more profitable than trafficking opium.”

Just prior to the commencement of the current heroin drought in Europe in October last year, a major raid of Afghan heroin laboratories involved the seizure of vast amounts of acetic anhydride. It was the first time that Russian forces were involved on Afghan soil since they pulled out of the country following their defeat by the Mujahedeen.  

A major source of the chemical for the heroin laboratories in Afghanistan has long been India, with its large chemical industry and a vast range of legal uses. Getting the acetic anhydride to the opium in Afghanistan is clearly far more difficult than it used to be. India is a great place to grow opium.

Along with the rapid increase in the cultivation of opium poppies in India, sources within the country have pointed to the increase in heroin manufacture inside the country. Previously both the raw opium and the acetic anhydride were being smuggled into Bangladesh for processing into heroin, now these heroin producing laboratories are known to have sprung up in Bihar, India’s most lawless state and home to a large scale Maoist insurgency. The pressure on heroin manufacture in Afghanistan and the ease of access to acetic anhydride in India are clear economic drivers for the shift in production from Afghanistan. The existing insurgent and separatists movements in eastern India will surely have an interest in such a lucrative source of revenue, with large and accessible markets in India and China at their doorsteps.

So perhaps all of the UNODC efforts in Afghanistan are simply in the process of diverting the negative impacts of the global illicit trade in heroin to poor rural communities in India. Whilst ultimately failing to impact the global supply of the drug in the longer term.