Cultivators want that opium growing should be legalised and they have found support from a BJP candidate who wonders "what is wrong" if farmers are able to meet the market demand.
A section of growers has been saying cultivation of opium as an alternative crop should be allowed as the apple crop has been facing weather vagaries every year. Moreover, stiff competition from the imported cheaper apples has severely hit their earnings.
Himachal Pradesh is a major apple-producing state in the country. Last fiscal ended with a bumper production of over 32.2 million apple boxes of 20 kg each, which is approximately 734,000 tonnes, says the state horticulture department.
"Selective cultivation of opium would ensure remunerative returns for the growers who are only depending upon the apples for their earnings," said Himkiran Thakur, a prominent apple grower in Jubbal, Shimla's prominent apple belt.
"Since most of the apple plantation needs rejuvenation, which is a costly proposition, opium cultivation as an alternate crop will reap benefits," Thakur told IANS.
Another grower Deepak Katoch said the cultivation of opium would help check illegal cultivation of cannabis (charas) and the apple growers, who have been demanding enhancing the import duty on apples from 50% to 100%, would get a major relief.
Joining the issue, sitting MP and BJP candidate from Shimla (reserved) Lok Sabha constituency Virender Kashyap said legalised cultivation of opium is the best option.
"There is a huge demand for opium in the pharmaceutical industry. The climatic condition in certain areas is congenial for its cultivation. So if our farmers are able to meet the market demand, what is wrong in it?" Kashyap told IANS.
He said some states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have allowed selective cultivation of opium which greatly helped to strengthen the rural economy.
Kashyap, who is pitted against Mohan Lal Bragta (Congress), said poppy cultivation was not banned in the state before independence. "It's wrong to presume that the drug mafia would flourish with the backing of the government. There is a solution to its misuse with strictest enforcement. We have in place the Narcotics Control Bureau, the state police and a number of surveillance agencies."
The first-time lawmaker said he was raising this issue frequently in the Lok Sabha. In his election meetings, he is promising to legalise its cultivation if the NDA is voted to power.
Kashyap is also promising that the import duty on apples from all countries would be increased to save the domestic industry.
Police officials say cannabis and opium fields are grown illegally in vast tracts of Kullu, Mandi, Shimla and Chamba districts, leading to a serious problem of drug cultivation, trafficking and its use.
The lure of drugs and quick bucks attracts foreigners too to the higher reaches and largely unexplored areas of the state where they have become part of opium and cannabis growing and smuggling.
Data with the police department says 78 kg of cannabis was seized and cultivated cannabis in around 3,000 bighas was destroyed in Kullu district in 2013.
In Kullu district, the plantation of cannabis is confined to the higher reaches of Malana, Kasol and other areas, while in Chamba district, bordering the Doda area of Jammu and Kashmir, it is done mainly in the remote areas of Kehar, Tissa and Bharmour.
The volume of this clandestine trade can be gauged from the fact that during the past 10 years, more than 7,000 kg of poppy husk and 4,000 kg of cannabis were seized across the state.
Over 60% of the poppy and cannabis produce in Himachal Pradesh is smuggled out to countries like Israel, Italy, Holland and some other European countries. The remaining finds its way to Nepal or Indian states like Goa, Punjab and Delhi.
Himachal Pradesh will go to the polls for its four seats, Shimla, Kangra, Hamirpur and Mandi, May 7.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)