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Opium trade sluggish as norms, infra beg for upgrade

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MANDSAUR|NEEMUCH: India, one of the largest legal producer of opium, by products of which include substances like morphine, codeine and thebaine, has put a bid to import 20,000 kg of codeine phosphate, as poor upgrade of the 85-year-old Government Alkaloid Factory in Neemuch threatens its dominance in the legal narcotics trade.

Adding to this is farmer unrest in the region over poor prices of their opium produce and archaic regulations governing the cultivation. Among all the byproducts of opium, codeine phosphate — used in cough syrups and painkillers — is required in the largest quantity. Morphine, that only 1% of the Indian population uses, comes a distant second.

India is the main producer and the only legal exporter of opium, accounting for 335 tonne (37 tonne in morphine equivalent). That value represents over 98% of global opium production.

In Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur and Neemuch districts that go to polls on May 19, farmers with licence to grow opium have threatened to not harvest this year’s crop. Officials involved in the cultivation say there is a pile-up of the crop at the Neemuch factory as poorly-processed sub-products have no international takers.

This has ultimately pushed the government to import. Last year the government paid $200 per kg to buy 12,000 kg. This year too, if the prices remain the same, the cost of purchasing codeine is expected to shoot up to $4,000,000.

Mandsaur and neighbouring Neemuch were the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation in 2017 when six farmers were shot dead by the police while protesting over the minimum support price and demonetisation.

“Every year there is a pile-up of crop but because opium cultivation is a political issue, the government cannot stop giving out licences or demand a cutdown in cultivation,” said an official who did not wish to be quoted because of the sensitivity of the issue. Farmer groups, on the other hand, want to increase the price at which the government buys from them.

“Most of us continue to cultivate the crop because we don’t want to lose our licences but it is really not lucrative any more,” said Amrit Ram Patidar (50), an opium farmer. The Patidar farmers are demanding the government increase the selling price from the current Rs 1,200 kg to Rs 10,000. An email sent to the office of chief controller of Government Alkaloid Factory remained unanswered.

The Neemuch and Ghazipur alkaloid factories are responsible to source the raw opium, dry it for export and then use it in the alkaloid plants. It is from here that alkaloids like codeine are extracted and later sold to pharma companies.

Drug companies that ET spoke said the quality of crop last year was so bad that it couldn’t be used by them.

Moreover, countries like Australia and Spain have become leaders in producing the concentrate of poppy straw, a method where the gum is not taken out from the opium straw but left to dry and later cut out mechanically.

This is considered a far more sophisticated and efficient method of extraction. Only recently has the government started a process to allow pharma companies to produce concentrate of poppy straw and manufacture alkaloids from this method.

The government alkaloid factories were not able to convert any alkaloids last year. They are in desperate need of a technological upgrade, said a pharma company official who did not wish to be identified.

Source: Economic Times