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The Indian Budget 1996-97 The Indian Economy Overview

Legalized Opium Cultivation: Opium Growers

[Opium cultivation in India] [Related Pages: 1 2 3 4

Photo Essay on Cultivation of Opium in India

For villagers in North India, growing opium offers a guarenteed income, supplementing the food and revenue their small plots of land generate.

All photographs are Copyright Pablo Bartholomew, and may NOT be used in any context or form whatsoever without express written permission.

Inaugural prayer with incense to appease the Goddess of Destruction Kali, represented by three colored stones.
The sun rises over the poppy fields, drenching the green-gold pods in its nourishing rays. It is late May. The summer heat is coming and the poppies are about to bloom. Farming is a family business. From the beturbanned patriarch to the youngest child, they work the field, plant by plant, making tiny incisions the length of each fat bulb. Sticky grey sap oozes out. This is the essense of opium, a drug these North Indian villagers cultivate under the direct supervision of the government.



Opium is extracted by lancing the poppy pods, bleeding the sap overnight, and scraping the pods with a knife to collect the resin the next morning. The brass bowl contains freshly collected opium resin.
Early the next morning, after a prayer to to the deity of the field, the thickened sap is gently scaped off each bulb and collected in big iron bowls.Over the following days, the process is repeated until the bulb yields all of its narcotic resin. The work is slow and meticulous. It takes two days to collect a single kilogram of raw opium.

Once the harvest is over, the villagers thank the gods for a bountiful crop. In addition to opium, the farmers grow enough grain and vegetables to feed the family and earn a little extra income at the market. The dried pods, drained of their precious sap, still contain poppy seeds, a favorite cooking ingredient that fetches a little extra income at the bazaar.

On the appointed days, officials of the Central Narcotics Bureau set up a collection point at the village school. Under strict supervision, the villagers cue up, each with a sample of his harvest balanced on his head. Over the next few days, officials examine the opium, testing its moisture content, checking it for adulterating substances like sugar and plant matter.

After lancing, the drained poppy pods dry up, and are harvested for the seeds.
The grower risks his licence if his opium is of poor quality. Once graded the pasty substance is packed into 30 kilogram bags for shipping to a processing plant.

To retain his license to grow opium for another year, the farmer must fill his quota of 4.5 kilograms. For one kilogram the govnernment pays him Rs 250 ($8) - a fraction of the drug's value on the black market. Silence reigns. No haggling here. The government pays a fixed price.

Without the licence to cultivate opium the farmers would struggle to make ends meet. Since their land holdings are too small to raise cash crops, opium cultivation supplements their meager incomes.


After lancing, the drained poppy pods dry up, and are harvested for the seeds.

Poppy seeds (posto) are a popular cooking ingredient, bringing in additional profits.
[Opium cultivation in India] [Related Pages: 1 2 3 4

Pablo Bartholomew is an Indian photojournalist of world renown, with many awards to his credit, including the World Press Photo Award. His work is regularly seen in Time, NewsWeek, Business Week, Forbes and the National Geographic Magazine.
He is a member of the Indian Economy Overview editorial panel, and Director of Photography for the site.


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