• Devangi Sharma

The Opium Industry: Then and Now

It is said that Alexander the Great introduced opium to India as early as 330 B.C. Since then it has become a significant part of Indian culture. The Portuguese, who first observed Indian opium use in the 1600s, stated that it was widely used and highly valued in society. Opium’s role in culture remained just as significant when the British East India Company established itself in India.

Colonial Rule

For the greater part of the 19th Century, opium was the second-most important source of revenue for the colonial state, outmatched only by land taxes. The biggest client for Indian opium was China. Opium shipments to China grew rapidly from the 1820s and for a while, became India’s single largest export.

Britain grew opium in India and exported it to China, in turn financing its tea and other imports from China. By helping Britain balance its deficits in this manner, India played a crucial role in the late-nineteenth-century world economy. But at the same time, farmers growing poppy got trapped by poverty. What they paid for in rent, manure, irrigation and hired workers was much higher than the income generated by the sale of raw opium. The opium industry in India helped fund colonial rule, but it impoverished the locals.

Modern India

Opium is used in many rituals panning nearly all religions. Till date, its most common and widespread usage is in the drink Bhang served at the festival Holi. India is currently the biggest producer of legal opium for the global pharmaceutical market. It is one of the few countries that

still legally grows opium poppy and is the only legal exporter of opium, accounting for 335 tonnes of the same. That value represents over 98% of global opium production. The poppy plant is the source of opium gum which contains several indispensable products such as morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Morphine is the best analgesic in the world. Codeine is commonly used in the manufacturing of cough syrups. A license has to be obtained from the government to legally grow opium, and every year a minimum amount has to be produced to retain the validity of the license. Opium cultivation is permitted in the notified tracts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Although over the years, farmers' profits from opium cultivation have reduced, they continue to harvest poppy in hopes to maintain their licenses.

The Opium Industry: What comes next?

Although recreational use of opium is illegal today, the legal opium industry is still at large globally, with India heading production. Many farmers are reliant on poppy cultivation as their major source of income. The lock-down has adversely affected the industry. For months now, opium has been lying in the homes of farmers. They are worried that keeping the opium in their homes and go-downs for long periods of time could lead to deterioration in its quality, thereby affecting its net weight. Additionally, this could even result in poppy cultivators losing their license.

Recent years have seen a decline in demand and a reduction in quality. Foreign competition has also posed a threat to India’s monopoly over the industry. Moreover, despite strict regulations, illegal production and circulation of opioids is still a concern nationwide. Govt. reforms need to be brought in to incentivize quality legal production.

Otherwise, illegal production will skyrocket and drug abuse in India could grow to be an epidemic like situation, as in Afghanistan.


The Economic Times


Whitman Education

~Devangi Sharma