PATIALA: As Punjab tries to wriggle out of the grip of a continuing farm crisis and drug menace, a small set of farmers and politicians has been pushing for legalising opium cultivation in the state, arguing it will increase farmers' income and help fight "chitta" (synthetic drug).
The farmers seeking legalisation of opium cultivation say they will support those who accept their demand in the elections.
Patiala MP Dhramvir Gandhi and Shiromani Akali Dal Rajya Sabha member Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa are among those advocating opium cultivation under the supervision of the state government.
Dhindsa says small farmers in Punjab are under huge debt and fighting for survival. Opium cultivation under a government contract can turn things around for them.
"Opium cultivation can fetch Rs 5-6 lakh per acre. The financial condition of small farmers will change drastically if the government allows each farmer to cultivate opium even in an acre of land," he says.
"The government cannot put a complete end to drugs. That's impossible. What we can do is we can replace more dangerous 'chitta' with natural drugs," the MP says.
"In many states, like in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, farmers cultivate opium poppy under the government's supervision. One would not have heard of drug addiction in such states, unlike Punjab," he says.
Dhindsa says most of the politicians in Punjab agree in private that opium cultivation should be legalised, but they don't say it publicly.
Gandhi, who is seeking re-election from the Patiala Lok Sabha constituency, argues a large number of people can be weaned away from more harmful synthetic drugs if the government allows medically supervised, regulated production of opium.
He says the ban on drugs has led to mafia selling cheap, more damaging drugs like cocaine.
"I have been demanding that the draconian Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, be scrapped. There's 10 years' imprisonment for a first offense, 20 years for a second offense and even life imprisonment or hanging if the judge desires so. For what? For consuming a small amount of opium husk or marijuana.
"Lakhs of people have suffered because of this inhumane law in the last 20-30 years. They have been labelled criminals. The marginalised section of society has bore the brunt of this law, not the upper class or those who go to rave parties," Gandhi says.
On the drug menace in Punjab, he says countries like the US, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Uruguay, and Portugal have decriminalised drug addicts.
"Their jails have been vacated. They have adopted a new approach. They have begun treating drug addicts like patients and not criminals," he says.
Gandhi, a cardiologist by profession, had in 2016 moved a private member's bill seeking legalisation of recreational use of marijuana. The late actor and politician Vinod Khanna and Biju Janata Dal MP Tathagata Satpathy had also supported him.
However, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's wife and the Congress candidate from Patiala, Preneet Kaur, says the government has been trying very hard to contain the drug menace and the issue of opium cultivation requires proper legislation and a very-well-thought-of decision.
Bharatiya Kisan Union (Lakhowal) General Secretary Harinder Singh Lakhowal says that according to a study conducted in the states where governments allow opium cultivation, a farmer can earn up to Rs 5-6 lakh per acre through poppy.
"Opium is a better alternative to synthetic drugs. Its consumption in small quantities is socially and culturally acceptable in the state.
"While paddy is a water guzzler, opium cultivation hardly requires any water. It also leads to crop diversification," he says.
"Recently, 50,000 farmers filled up forms seeking legalisation of opium cultivation and submitted them to the chief minister and Governor V P Singh Badnore, who happens to be from Rajasthan. The chief minister said he will convene a meeting, but nothing has happened so far," Lakhowal says.
Another farmer leader, Harjinder Ghumman, says, "We will give up our demand if anyone can prove that opium led to a death in Punjab. All the deaths in the state are due to 'chitta'."
He says that at places like Barnala and Sangrur, farmers are not allowed to dig borewells as the groundwater level had depleted to alarming levels. Opium cultivation is an answer to their problem as it doesn't require much water.
The farmers say they are supporting candidates who have been advocating the legalisation of opium cultivation like Pramjit Ranu, an independent contesting from Anandpur Sahib, Samarjit Mann of Akali Dal (Amritsar) in Sangrur, and Jagmeet Jagga in Faridkot.