Opium prohibition campaign in Assam 1

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Author: Shri E. H Pakyntein
Pages: 12 to 14
Creation Date: 1958/01/01

Opium prohibition campaign in Assam 1

I.A.S Shri E. H Pakyntein Excise Commissioner, Assam

Assam was known in the past as the "black spot" of India, owing to the heavy consumption of opium there, both oral and smoking. Opium had in fact been the bane of the economic and social life of the Assamese people. It appears from history that opium was a close preserve of the Ahom royal family during the Ahom rule of Assam. The habit was gradually acquired by the nobility and high court officials, and eventually it became universal. Poppy cultivation was no doubt extensively carried on throughout the land. When Assam was annexed by the British as a result of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, the position remained much the same. The then administration at once found a source of income from opium, and lost no time in making the opium trade a state monopoly. Steps were also taken to suppress the cultivation of poppy by the peasants, solely with a view to advancing the interests of government revenue. Poppy cultivation was so freely and extensively carried out that government measures to suppress it met with stiff opposition everywhere, culminating in the "poppy revolution" at Phulaguri in the district of Nowgong in the late 'nineties. The rebellion was put down with a firm hand, but after casualties on both sides. After this, the Government continued its monopoly by auctioning off the opium shops. Until the year 1919, there were no effective restrictions on the sale and consumption of opium. Till then, the policy was to lessen consumption by raising the treasury price, reducing the number of opium shops, restricting the limit of private possession and raising the permitted age of consumers. In spite of this policy, the guiding factor was revenue and not the moral, social and economic uplift of the people. During 1918/19, the total sale of opium stood at 1,324 maunds 26 seers,[2] yielding a revenue of Rs. 3,391,522.

The year 1919 marks the beginning of some policy of opium prohibition. To begin with, the system of registration of consumers was introduced in the Sadiya frontier tracts. The system was extended in the following years to other areas known as" backward areas ". In 1920/21, shop rationing, on a gradually descending scale, was introduced in the plains districts of the state. The Assam Legislative Council, in its session in March 1921, passed a resolution to the effect that the opium consumers should be registered, and each consumer should be given a definite quota of ration and that the rations should be reduced by 10% annually, so that in ten years the rations would be abolished save on medical grounds. Registration of consumers was introduced on an experimental basis in the Goalpara district in 1924. The system was gradually extended to the other plains districts, and by 1927 the system of registration of consumers and rationing was in full force throughout the state. In 1927, the Legislative Council passed a resolution recommending gradual reduction of the ration of consumers below the age of fifty years with a view to bringing it down to nil within ten years. The resolution was accepted by the Government, and positive steps were taken from 1 April 1927 onwards to give effect to the resolution by carrying out the first 10% cut. In 1927/28, there were about 98,000 registered opium consumers with an annual ration of 792 maunds, and yielding a revenue of Rs. 3,825,730. Registration of consumers and accelerated reductions of ration of consumers below the age of fifty continued to be in force until 1933. In 1933, the Assam Legislative Council passed a resolution to appoint an inquiry committee to review the results of the then opium policy and to advise on the future course of action. An inquiry committee was accordingly appointed, and the committee submitted its recommendations. The policy of the Government, adopted on the recommendations of this committee, was to continue the rationing and the reduction of ration, and not to issue any new ration cards on grounds of addiction. These measures to check the consumption of opium remained in force until 1937. In 1937, an excise committee consisting of some members of the Legislative Assembly was constituted and, as a result of its recommendations, it was decided that no new ration card should be granted or the ration of the existing consumers raised without specific orders from the Government. Further, the powers of the deputy commissioners to issue new ration cards were resumed by the Government. By 1938/39, the tenth (or the last) percentage cut was carried out; and at the close of this year, the number of registered consumers stood at 30,366, with a ration of 180 maunds. Between 1927/28 and 1938/39, 67,634 ration cards with a ration of 612 maunds thus disappeared. This disappearance was not only due to the reduction of ration, but also to such causes as deaths and transfer of residence, etc. It would appear that public opinion in Assam was definitely against the opium habit since 1921. Public opinion found a true expression when, on 15 April 1939, the Congress Coalition Government of Assam took a decisive and bold step by introducing the scheme of total prohibition of opium in the two sub-divisions of Dibrugarh and Sibsagar, which had the heaviest addiction. On this date, 10,150 ration cards with an annual ration of 61 maunds for these two areas were cancelled, and 61 opium shops were closed down. With this cancellation, the number of registered consumers came down to 20,216, and their ration to 119 maunds. A non-official organization was associated with the prohibition campaign in order to supplement the official organization, but the former did not continue long. The system of total prohibition in the two sub-divisions mentioned above, and of reduction of ration in other areas, continued to be in force between 1939 and 1941. Total prohibition was extended to cover other areas of the plains districts between 1941 and 1948. The non-official organization was revived in 1946/47 in order to campaign for total prohibition and to gain control over the smuggling of contraband opium. To achieve proper control over opium smuggling, Assam went ahead of other states by passing the Assam Opium Prohibition Act in 1947. The Act was promulgated on 1 April 1948. This Act gave legal sanction to the non-official organization. The Act provides for heavy compulsory sentences of fine and imprisonment, enhanced sentences for habitual offenders, restriction of movement, and also banning of known and notorious smugglers. The number of registered consumers stood at 2,661, with an annual ration of only 11 maunds on 1 April 1948. This number represented such ration cards as were granted and continued to be valid on medical grounds.

In the September 1948 session of the Assam Legislative Assembly, Shri Bijay Chandra Bhagabati, M.L.A., moved the following resolution:

"That this assembly is of opinion that the Government of Assam do move the Government of India to help in making the Opium Prohibition Campaign in Assam a success by making poppy cultivation and traffic in opium illegal and punishable in law all over India, including the states, and to take such effective steps as to stop smuggling of opium into Assam from other provinces and countries."

In reply, the then Minister of Excise accepted the resolution, which was adopted by the House. In November 1948, a memorandum was submitted to the Government of India with certain recommendations in the light of the above resolution. An All-India Opium Conference was held in New Delhi on 3 August 1949,[3] and certain resolutions, - including one recommending total prohibition within a maximum period of ten years of the use of opium for purposes other than medical and scientific - were adopted. The objective is the total prohibition of consumption of opium by 31 March 1959. Assam's quota of opium as fixed by the Narcotics Commissioner will be nil by 31 March 1959.

In 1949, a survey of addicts who were getting opium from illicit sources was undertaken separately and independently by departmental and non-official agencies in certain districts. It was necessary because the campaign was against the addicts and also against the smugglers. The official agency estimated the number of unregistered addicts at 13,919, and their consumption at 94 maunds 18? seers, whereas the non-official agency put these figures at 11,410, and 79 maunds 21 seers 16 tolas. Taking the average of these results, the number of unregistered addicts obtaining supply through illicit sources can roughly be put at 12,665, with an annual consumption of 87 maunds 4 seers 68 tolas.

The non-official organization devised a form for the survey which was filled in, after local inquiry, by the prohibition officers and non-official workers. The forms thus completed were passed on to the excise officers, who, in turn, checked the entries, making additions and alterations.

The success of total prohibition depends mainly on the elimination of possible new recruits. To this extent, our scheme has been considerably successful in that it has largely done away with the opium smoking assemblies of the past, thus making it possible to wean away the younger generation from the evil. The present methods of vigilance, propaganda and detection and prevention of smuggling of contraband opium cannot eliminate fresh addiction without first stopping the flow of contraband opium from outside the State of Assam. Of late, there has been a tremendous flow of opium from Kachin, between India and Burma. Prior to 1923/24, the smuggling of opium was mainly from Assam to Burma and elsewhere. The position was reversed in 1923/24. The Assam inquiry committee's report and facts and figures about opium in Assam indicate that Chinese and Tibetan opium has been coming into Assam since then through Burma and Bhutan, whereas Nepal, Malwa, Punjab, Rajasthan, northern India and Cooch-Behar opium poured in from the west. The west still continues to be the main source of supply of opium for the Assam smugglers.

The underground .world of smugglers has very wide ramifications. The routes followed are diverse: by rail, river, air and through railway, steamer and postal parcels from other parts of India and by jungle paths through Burma. The methods adopted are very ingenious.

A large measure of success with total prohibition and within a reasonable time limit can, in the very difficult circumstances stated above, be achieved only by eliminating all possibilities of fresh addiction and bringing the addicts under strict control. The first depends on stopping the flow of contraband opium, and this can be achieved only by controlling the addicts and delivering them from the clutches of the smugglers. Once the possibilities of fresh addiction are eliminated and the control over existing addicts becomes effective, smuggling will automatically be stopped. The question, therefore, is how to control the opium addicts. In Assam, we have a register of all the addicts, and we are treating them all medically in treatment centres spread all over the state at considerable government expense. The results so far achieved are encouraging, and the system of treatment - which extends to two months - is continuing. In this way we hope to be able to complete treatment of the known 15,000 addicts in about two years.

It is necessary to point out here that the treatment of opium addicts to bring about a complete change in their nature, so that the craving for opium disappears, has been found to be successful. It cures the addicts within six weeks; but, to be on the safe side, they are kept for two months in the treatment centres. We cannot risk discharging the addicts earlier.

Assam looks to India and her sister state of West Bengal for co-operation and assistance in her final drive against opium, and is confident of getting it in abundant measure in the years to come, in the same manner as she used to get it in the years which have rolled by. It is our firm belief that opium in Assam will be a thing of the past before long.

1

See Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. IX, No. 1, in relation to the problem in the whole of India.

2

1 maund = 37 kg 312 g, 1 seer = 932.8 g.

3

See Bulletin on Narcotics, Vol. IX, No. 1.