Poisoned Springs: Afghan Opium and South Asia’s Looming Crisis

Afghanistan has been a nation in turmoil for over 40 years, beginning from the Soviet invasion in 1979. Power kept changing hands as a number of regimes came and went. Due to the ceaseless turmoil, the economy was shattered, jobs vanished and poverty descended upon the  entire nation. It was hardly surprising that the population turned en masse to a cash crop that ensured hefty returns starting right from the farmers through the entire value chain: opium.

Today, around 85% of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan. Opium in fact provides more than half of the country’s national income. With one kilo of opium, farmers can earn $250-350 dollars as opposed to 20 cents of wheat of the same quantity. Not surprisingly, the acreage under the crop has been expanding year after year.

Why Opium has Thrived in Afghanistan

A number of factors have come together to support Afghanistan’s booming opium industry. From the agricultural standpoint, opium is a fairly robust crop with drought-resistant qualities suited for Afghan conditions. The growing period of around 95-115 days is relatively shorter than that of other crops such as wheat (7-8 months) and barley (6-7 months). The cultivation is low maintenance and once the seeds are sown, the fields can be completely forgotten about until the harvest season.

Over the years, the absence of a viable central authority caused the fragmentation of the country’s political space amongst a number of feuding war lords. Opium provided them an excellent source of revenue. They went on to protect and patronize the farmers, and often participated in the trade themselves. With opium finances, they could buy advanced weapons like machine guns, landmines, tanks and surface-to-air missiles, to outdo their rivals. The opium economy over the years gave rise to a rather stable ecosystem of stakeholders. These included the farmers, merchants and the war lords. Due to the lucrative returns of the trade and weak police and administrative control, it was very easy to dupe the system. Corruption was  already rife as a result of low government salaries.  

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asian nations like Uzbekistan  provided a lucrative market for Afghan opium. These societies were in a state of transition. Weak checks and balances, corruption and unstable economies provided ample opportunity for Afghan opium to establish a foothold in the region. The drug reached the markets of these countries through multiple roads, hill tracks and foot trails of the ancient Silk Route. 

As the cultivation and sale of opium grew alongside the increasingly deteriorating economic conditions, a lot of unemployed Afghans including university educated youth took to drug abuse. The drug percolated deep into the society and today, there is widespread addiction among men, women, and children across the country. One out of every ten Afghans is believed to be an addict. These also include newborns who were carried and breast-fed by their addict mothers.

Surprisingly, the presence of US and NATO troops hasn’t weakened the opium industry. On the contrary, there was a whopping 35 times increase in opium production between 2001 and 2014. This is because a clampdown on drug trafficking was considered to be beyond US and NATO’s scope of work —War on Terror. Secondly, they did not want to alienate the local population and worsen the already hostile conditions by disrupting the networked ecosystem of the opium stakeholders that had already become deeply entrenched in the Afghan economy.

Opium Percolating into South Asia

Highest cultivation of this crop in south and west of Afghanistan makes logistics to south-Asia easy and low-cost. Karachi being the closest entrepôt to the international drugs market, Pakistan is an important transit route to Afghan opium. As the opium is transported all the way south to Karachi through various levels of the supply chain, much of the opium is retained, distributed and consumed within Pakistan itself.

The country with its $2 billion per year drug trade is believed to be the most “heroin addicted country per capita, in the world”. One of the highest affected areas is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) along the Afghan border, which has an estimated 11% of resident population using illicit substances, primarily heroin.

Next-door, India is a nation of a massive youth population where indications of imported opiates have long been visible. This is corroborated by India’s Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment which states that opioid use is higher in the country’s north-west and north-east as compared to other regions.

Up north, J&K is known to have 600000 people with drug-related issues which comprises 4.6% population of the Union Territory. 90% of these fall in the age group of 17-33 years. Drug consignments are frequently seized in Kupwara and Uri — areas bordering Pakistan. Smugglers are getting increasingly adept at using innovative methods and technology — like drones — to loop the drugs over the border.

Punjab is another frontier Indian state that has borne a severe brunt of the drug trade. Easily accessible low cost opioids such as brown sugar have percolated down to every strata of the society. According to a survey conducted in 2015, there were around 860000 drug ‘users’ — 4.5% of the population— in Punjab. Punjab’s so-called ‘lost generation’ is widely mourned by families, communities and villages. Many have died of drug overdose in their early twenties, while others have been reduced to a life of extreme despondency.

What are South Asia’s Risks?

According to UNICEF, South Asia has the world’s largest adolescent population of around 350 million. This enormous pool of human resource is seen with a lot of hope and optimism across the region. 

Every year, India dedicates substantial resources to nutrition, healthcare and education of its children and adolescents. However, recent statistics in Punjab suggest that the age group of addicts has been dropping drastically and children as young as 12 are now found abusing opiates. If this alarming trend picks up, it could single-handedly defuse the highly anticipated ‘demographic dividend’ of the nation.

The region comprises of developing economies with vast swathes of remote, underdeveloped hinterland. Poverty is known to complicate the drug situation further. In a 2019 study carried out in the US, opioid overdoses were “concentrated in more economically disadvantaged zip codes, indicated by higher rates of poverty and unemployment as well as lower education and median household income”. Economic slowdown, unemployment and poverty could be further exacerbated by the current Coronavirus pandemic, increasing the likelihood of addiction amongst the already distressed productive age population.

South Asian nations continue to struggle with third-world problems of corruption, political collusion, poor law enforcement, and loopholes in customs and government control. Cultural stigmatisation and social ostracisation of addicts further conceals this silent epidemic as addicts and their families are unwilling to seek help. Lack of adequate rehabilitative support, expertise and infrastructure also reduces the chances of turning the lives of the addicts around.

Drug trafficking is an international problem and lucrative foreign exchange often provides a great incentive to sell local produce abroad. As such, many inter-governmental groupings such as the ASEAN have made tackling narcotic smuggling a fundamental tenet of their agenda. However, South Asia due to its unique conflict-ridden regional politics precludes any such coordinated inter-governmental effort to stem the flow of opium in the region.

The poisoned springs of opium that emerge from a devastated Afghanistan can trickle down and silently enslave the young population of South Asia if timely measures aren’t taken. There is a need for all stakeholders to come together and not just curb the menace in their own countries but also address the root causes in Afghanistan. Turning a blind eye to the problem will mean sending an entire generation to gallows, and risking the future of this otherwise promising region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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