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Kashmir declares war on poppy as violence ebbs

AWANTIPURA, India (Reuters) - Police and soldiers armed with sickles, sticks and guns are swooping on the fields of Kashmir, not in a hunt for Muslim militants, but to destroy fields of opium poppy, the source of heroin.

Taking advantage of a fall in violence in the Himalayan state, security forces have destroyed thousands of acres of poppy fields in the foothills of the Himalayas in the past month, police said on Thursday.

They are confronting angry farmers, desperate for cash, some of whom say they were not even aware they were breaking the law.

“Earlier, these areas were highly militant-infested and farmers took advantage of that and started cultivating poppy,” Dawood Ayub, a senior police officer, told Reuters.

“But the situation is improving and we have decided to eradicate poppy.”

Violence involving Muslim militants and Indian troops has declined considerably after India and Pakistan, who claim the Kashmir region in full and rule it in parts, launched a peace process in 2004.

“Poppy on several thousand acres of land was destroyed in the past few weeks and this drive will continue,” Ayub said.

Police also appealed this week for Muslim clerics to support the campaign and use their pulpits to denounce poppy growing.

“NO ONE SAID IT WAS ILLEGAL”

India allows poppy cultivation under licence in very small pockets and under strict supervision for medicinal use.

But authorities say hundreds of farmers in southern Kashmir, in the foothills of the densely forested Pir Panjal mountain range, started growing poppy after the rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989.

More than 42,000 people have been killed since then, authorities say. Human rights activists put the toll at about 60,000 dead and missing.

“Farmers get 25 times more money from poppy cultivation than from other crops and with little efforts,” said an excise department official, who did not want to be identified. “Also, they need not bother about irrigation and pesticides.”

In May and June, farmers typically extract hundreds of tonnes of opium by “milking” the poppy pods, which drug cartels convert to heroin to sell in India’s cities.

Some angry farmers in Awantipura, about 30 km south of Srinagar, said the poppy crop was their only source of income.

“I have been growing poppy for the last 11 years, no one objected or said it was illegal,” said 50-year-old Gulzar Ahmad.

“This was my only livelihood. They have ruined my life.”

Acknowledging that many people were not aware of the law, police said they had not made any arrests. But they have also not paid compensation to farmers whose fields they destroyed.

The climate of Kashmir, ringed by snow-covered Himalayan peaks, is suitable for poppy cultivation, farm officials say. It is famous for growing apples, almonds, walnuts, saffron and rice but is also known for growing cannabis and producing hashish.

“The poppy trade will die its own death if the insurgency is finished,” said N. Ahmad, a police officer leading an anti-poppy operation in southern Kashmir.

But if cultivation goes unchecked, he warned, Kashmir might soon become “notorious for the drug trade”.

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