Exclusive: End Of Opium Poppy Cultivation In Manipur Soon? Satellite Imagery Data Shows...

MARSAC said finding poppy fields and mapping spatial distribution help run eradication plans

Imphal/Guwahati/New Delhi:

The total area of opium poppy cultivation in violence-hit Manipur has declined 60 per cent since 2021, latest data from the autonomous government institution Manipur Remote Sensing Applications Centre shows.

This scientific institution under the planning department whose key work is to visualise geographic data had been mapping opium poppy cultivation across Manipur between September 2021 and January 2024, during the poppy-sowing and -harvesting seasons.

It used satellite imagery technology from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Hyderabad-based National Remote Sensing Centre, and the Landsat programme run jointly by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The satellite imagery-based report by the Manipur Remote Sensing Applications Centre (MARSAC) shows opium poppy cultivation area fell 40 per cent from 28,599 acres in 2021-22 to 16,890 acres in 2022-23. The area shrunk further by 32 per cent to 11,288 acres in 2023-24 from the previous year. In total, opium poppy cultivation area in Manipur fell 60 per cent in the three-year crop cycle period between 2021 and 2024.

MARSAC submitted the report to the Manipur government in early March, sources told NDTV. The report gave an empirical evidence to measure the “war on drugs” campaign of the state BJP government led by Chief Minister N Biren Singh, they said. Mr Singh became Chief Minister in 2017, and won a second term in 2022.

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The report factored in 19,135 acres of opium poppy cultivation that the state government had destroyed between 2017 and 2024, MARSAC said in the document titled ‘Mapping and Estimation of Opium Poppy Cultivation Area in Manipur’.

MARSAC did not give a break-up, however, of what factors could have led to a shrinking opium poppy cultivation area in Manipur. Senior officers in the forest department, and the Narcotics and Affairs of Border (NAB) indicated the sustained drive to stop opium poppy cultivation in the past seven years definitely had an effect.

Remote Sensing Data, Ground Verification

MARSAC said the best season to plant and harvest opium poppy is from September to February. Sometimes, the harvest extends till March-end.

“We usually acquire the LISS-IV satellite imagery from ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre for first week of September, second week of October, first week of December, and second week of February,” MARSAC said in the report, referring to the home-grown high-resolution camera LISS-IV – launched onboard the Resourcesat-1 satellite by ISRO in 2003 – to gather data on vegetation, landforms, and geological boundaries.

Due to clouds blocking the ground in some seasons, MARSAC had to use the multispectral instrument Sentinel-2A of the European Union Space Programme, and the US’ Landsat 7 satellite to map poppy plantations. Multispectral imaging (MSI) uses different wavelength bands to capture data, and by looking for spectral absorption or emission of different material, MSI can identify vegetation and check crop yield. Poppy plants will have different spectral signatures at different stages of their life.

In the next step, forest department and NAB personnel went to the areas where satellite imagery indicated opium poppy cultivation to verify the data. If confirmed, they recorded the Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates of these areas.

State Of The Districts

During the survey from September 2021 sowing to the February 2022 harvest seasons, MARSAC found 111 poppy cultivation clusters in eight out of Manipur’s 16 districts – or 50 per cent of districts in Manipur grew opium poppy.

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Kangpokpi – the long, inverted U-shaped district that surrounds the state capital Imphal valley from the north – had the largest area under opium poppy cultivation at 9,518 acres, followed by Churachandpur in the south at 6,688 acres. Tamenglong had the least at 668 acres. Ukhrul had 1,931 acres of poppy cultivation.

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The 2022-23 survey found 203 poppy cultivation clusters in nine out of the 16 districts. The poppy cultivation area in Kangpokpi fell 43 per cent to 5,407 acres, and in Churachandpur it shrunk 39 per cent to 4,063 acres. Tamenglong’s poppy cultivation area also shrunk by a massive 85 per cent to only 96 acres. 

MARSAC didn’t find opium poppy fields in Noney district in 2021-22; however, the remote sensing agency detected 132 acres in Noney in 2022-23. Ukhrul had 1,729 acres of opium poppy cultivation.

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The survey from September 2023 to January 2024 detected 141 clusters in nine districts. Though Kangpokpi still had the largest opium cultivation at 4,321 acres, the growing area fell 20 per cent since the previous year.

Senapati replaced Churachandpur as the district with the second-largest opium cultivation area at 2,333 acres. Ukrhul had 1,598 acres while Churachandpur had 1,488 acres.

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The ethnic violence in Manipur between the Kuki-Zo tribes, who are the dominant population in the hill districts Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and a few other areas, and the Meitei community who are dominant in central Manipur’s valley areas including the state capital Imphal, has led to heightened enforcement action in remote locations near the border with Myanmar that are used by drug-traffickers to transport opium poppy to processing plants, NAB sources told NDTV.

Shrinking Poppy Cultivation Areas

Government sources said the “war on drugs” campaign that began in June 2018 has led to a gradual fall in opium poppy cultivation. They said if the current rate of decline continues for four-five consecutive crop cycles, and strict enforcement becomes the rule, there may not be enough opium poppy cultivation left to feed the processing units for making drugs.

In a written reply to the Lok Sabha in its last session, it was mentioned that 1,889 acres of opium poppy cultivation were destroyed in the four-year period from 2013 to 2016. In comparison, 11,438 acres of opium poppy cultivation were destroyed during the four-year period from 2017 to 2020.

MARSAC said finding the location of poppy fields and mapping their spatial distribution help the government run eradication plans with a high success rate, and destroy poppy cultivation and the narcotics trade.

“Unlike shifting cultivation pattern, poppy-growing fields were observed repeatedly in the same area, and usually found very far away from village settlements,” MARSAC said in the report.

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It mentioned in the report’s summary a most controversial aspect of this issue – “deforestation due to mass poppy cultivation has led to adverse impacts on the ecosystem, including soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and changes in the local climate.”

However, there is no study on the effect that opium poppy cultivation in Manipur may have on natural systems and the environment, an Indian Forest Service officer posted in the border state told NDTV, requesting anonymity.

“We are working on a comprehensive survey into this issue. No such survey has been done yet in Manipur. There are studies in other nations, but we can’t compare the data, at least in the key parameters. Maybe the unchecked use of banned pesticides in remote poppy farms is one area which will have the same effect on natural systems, whether in Manipur or Colombia,” the officer told NDTV on phone.

A retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who regularly visited villages along the border with Myanmar told NDTV that soil erosion due to opium poppy cultivation may be high, resulting in the exposure of the hard shale underneath.

“Unlike shifting cultivation, poppy farming is a continuous process throughout the year, which leads to high soil erosion. Most of the rivers are drying up in winter. The hills cleared of forests to grow poppy can no longer store water during monsoon,” the retired officer said, requesting anonymity.

There has also been a drought-like situation in the state in recent years, with water bodies drying up frequently due to mass deforestation, forest officers have alleged.

GPS Coordinates

The MARSAC report includes 455 GPS coordinates of the areas where the NAB and forest department officers found opium poppy cultivation during the three-year survey. Some coordinates are of the same locations every year as LISS-IV, Sentinel 2A and Landsat 7 detected repeat cropping on the same plots.

NDTV accessed the coordinates and checked 250 areas in random. Some poppy fields are just 5 km away from big settlements, and others are deep in the hills with no road leading to them. Some are also only a few 100 metres away from walled, circular settlements with uniformly sized huts.

Image acquisition dates and the satellites used

Image acquisition dates and the satellites used – 2021-22

Image acquisition dates and the satellites used - 2022-23

Image acquisition dates and the satellites used – 2022-23

Image acquisition dates and the satellites used - 2023-24

Image acquisition dates and the satellites used – 2023-24

Here are a few locations and their coordinates from the MARSAC report. The screengrabs are not current; they are to establish the locations mentioned in the report. Only MARSAC has the satellite imagery of the actual poppy cultivation areas.















Why Grow Opium Poppy For Narcotics

“Money,” said the retired IAS officer, “is the number one reason why farmers grow poppy in the hill areas.”

Poor farmers in the hills face severe difficulties in growing regular crops and the returns are not enough to make ends meet, studies have shown. There have been cases when, after facing regular crop loss year after year, farmers had to move to poppy cultivation as it fetches attractive prices and the poppy growing cycle is relatively shorter and faster.

The Manipur government has been running schemes to help farmers switch from growing poppy to other crops. But reports indicate the schemes have not been effective. “Some efforts have been made to find out alternatives, but on-ground implementation is very limited. The horticulture department has been providing vegetable seeds, but there was hardly any monitoring,” the officer said.

The fight against opium poppy production in Manipur can be won only if economically viable alternatives are provided to farmers, who are excluded from development initiatives in the state, Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati professor Ngamjahao Kipgen wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly in November 2019, a year after the Manipur government’s war on drugs campaign began.

Police and anti-narcotics personnel destroy opium poppy plants at Kholen in Kangpokpi district on December 2, 2023.

Police and anti-narcotics personnel destroy opium poppy plants at Kholen in Kangpokpi district on December 2, 2023.

“A number of farmers cited the declining productivity in jhum fields, stating that the income generated was insufficient to feed even an average family throughout the year. Coupled with the absence of alternative sources of livelihood, these farmers resorted to poppy cultivation to meet their needs and expenses,” Mr Kipgen wrote. “… Unfortunately, the forced eradication of poppy cultivation instigated by the government officials is a more problematic approach as it can escalate social tensions, and also create animosity between the local government and farmer communities, which would hinder the establishment of the rule of law.”

“In reality, despite initiating such programmes, the state government of Manipur is yet to deliver on its promises – to provide assistance, compensation, and alternative livelihoods to farmers. Without this, farmers cannot be expected to escape from the vicious cycle of poppy cultivation. Eradicating poppy cultivation necessitates providing farmers with incentives such as subsidies, technical assistance, and agricultural inputs in order to persuade them to stop growing opium poppy and instead shift to alternative or sustainable means of livelihoods,” Mr Kipgen wrote, citing several studies on the matter.

To blame poor farmers over perceived harm to natural systems is an inaccurate way of looking at the problem, a researcher of land conflict who has been studying issues linked to forests in Manipur told NDTV.

“The poor who work as labourers on poppy fields they don’t own do so out of compulsion. They need help. Marginal farmers who moved to poppy after many years of normal crop failure require help. But jail is the only place for the rich who encourage growing poppy for narcotics,” said the researcher, asking not to be named.


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