Drug addiction

Indians working in exploitative conditions on Italian farms are using opium to numb the pain

About 30,000 Indians, mainly Sikhs from Punjab, live in the Pontine Marshes. Most of them work as labourers, for 13 hours a day for a pittance.

For almost three years, Amandeep started most of his working days eating opium and ended them smoking heroin.

In between, he picked watermelons for up to 13 hours a day in what activists say are exploitative conditions faced by thousands of Indian labourers in Italy’s Pontine Marshes, just South of Rome.

Drugs helped him get by, said Amandeep, a 30-year-old who asked to use a pseudonym. “In summer it is very hot, your back hurts,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “A bit of opium helps you not to get tired...Too much puts you to sleep, I took just a little, only to work.”

About 30,000 Indians, mainly Sikhs from Punjab state, live in the Pontine Marshes, a region that Italy’s fascist regime drained for agriculture in the 1930s. Most work as labourers and over the last decade, many have been forced to work for virtually nothing to pay off debts to agents who promised good jobs and organised travel from India.

This is known as debt bondage – the most prevalent form of modern-day slavery worldwide according to the United Nations. As many as 46 million people are estimated to be enslaved globally, said rights group Walk Free Foundation in 2016.

Gurmukh Singh, head of an Indian community association in Rome’s Lazio region, stands outside his shop in Borgo Hermada, Latina, Italy. March 25, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Umberto Bacchi
Gurmukh Singh, head of an Indian community association in Rome’s Lazio region, stands outside his shop in Borgo Hermada, Latina, Italy. March 25, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Umberto Bacchi

Atypical addicts

The Indian workers have settled in villages and the seaside towns where Romans spend holidays, but they have secluded lives.

Speaking little or no Italian, many cycle long distances every day from rundown, shared accommodation to the thousands of farms and greenhouses that produce courgettes, radishes, melons, kiwis and mozzarella.

A growing number of these labourers are taking drugs to cope with long hours, poor conditions and very low pay, according to interviews with workers, doctors, police and rights groups.

Most chew dried poppy pods, which contain low levels of morphine and codeine, but when consumed regularly can cause addiction that requires methadone treatment.

Some, like Amandeep, slide into consuming heavier drugs, including heroin.

“They are not typical addicts,” said Ezio Matacchioni, a neurologist at the addiction treatment department of a hospital in the provincial capital of Latina.

These users do not seek euphoria or pleasure, he said. “They take drugs to put up with the strain... because they are treated like slaves.”

Police show 18 kg of dried poppy pods and cash seized during an arrest in Sabaudia, Latina, Italy. May 6, 2017. Police handout
Police show 18 kg of dried poppy pods and cash seized during an arrest in Sabaudia, Latina, Italy. May 6, 2017. Police handout

Debt bondage

Amandeep was prescribed methadone two years ago after he was hospitalised during a withdrawal fit.

He first arrived in Italy from Punjab in 2008, dreaming of a bright future promised by a labour agent to whom he paid $13,000 for a plane ticket and travel documents.

Amandeep paid half up front and took a loan from the agent for the rest, which he paid back by working virtually for free for about seven months.

“(I was left with) just about enough to eat and pay the rent,” he said.

Many Indian labourers who settled here in the last 10 years came in similar circumstances, said Marco Omizzolo of In Migrazione, a migrant rights group.

“Traffickers promise work and accommodation as well as sorting out travel and paper work, four essential things for those who do not speak Italian,” he said.

Newcomers are sometimes stripped of their documents to ensure they don’t leave until the debt is repaid, he added.

Afterwards most remain in the area, where they rely on the support of the Sikh community but remain vulnerable to exploitation.

In many farms, pickers are paid 3-5 euros ($3.30-$5.50) an hour – well below the industry minimum wage of about 8 euros – and work without breaks in scorching summer temperatures.

Those hired with a regular contract often have fewer days than they actually work recorded on their payslips.

“I can’t read my contract,” said one labourer. “Before coming here I thought Italy was a paradise but I still haven’t found where that paradise is.”

The work is overseen by gangmasters, known as “caporali”, often members of the Sikh community acting as go-betweens with employers, who recruit pickers but withhold part of their pay. “If the farm owner pays 4 euros, [gangmasters] tell [workers] the pay is 3.80 and pocket the difference,” said Gurmukh Singh, head of a local Indian community association.

Andrea de Gasperis, a regional chief prosecutor, said investigation was difficult as few people are willing to speak out against other members of their community. “There is little we can do if they do not report [abuses],” he said.

Those who do are seen as troublemakers and it’s hard for them to find another work, added Omizzolo.

The code of silence began to crack in April 2016 when Singh helped organised a strike and demonstrations for better pay. Those protests encouraged many workers to come forward – but also exposed Singh to threats and intimidation.

Police have since carried out dozens of inspections and have arrested two gangmasters, a farm owner and a farm manager.

Pietro Greco, head of the local branch of Italy’s main farming association, said Italy’s notorious red tape was also responsible for pushing some employers to cut corners. “If there was less bureaucracy many companies would hire workers with no need for middlemen or ‘caporali’, he said.

Cars are seen at the entrance of the SM Goretti Hospital in Latina, Italy June 20. The hospital hosts an addiction treatment unit serving some Indian farm workers. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Umberto Bacchi
Cars are seen at the entrance of the SM Goretti Hospital in Latina, Italy June 20. The hospital hosts an addiction treatment unit serving some Indian farm workers. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Umberto Bacchi

Poppy fields

Meanwhile, the consumption of poppy pods is spreading. Omizzolo and Singh said they first heard about opioid use four years ago and reports have been increasing since.

Few workers will admit chewing husks as drug use is taboo in the community. Yet labourers said the pods are a common sight and are relatively cheap, with 100 grams costing about 10 euros.

One picker said almost half of his about 50 co-workers made regular use of the drug.

At least one worker told a mobile health clinic that he wanted to quit but found it difficult as poppy use was “strongly encouraged” on his farm.

Two addiction help centres treated more than 20 Indian labourers with methadone in 2016 and they expect the number to rise this year.

“We are the tip of the iceberg,” said Matacchioni, the neurologist. Patients seek help to cope with withdrawal that can cause chills, sweating, diarrhoea, vomiting and muscle pain.

Gianfranco Mozzillo, head of a local police unit, said poppy pod trafficking is an “expanding phenomenon”.

Police have arrested at least eight Indian nationals for drug offences over the last year. They were caught separately, carrying bags containing up to 18 kilograms of pods.

“The human body is not a machine.... If you continuously work 13 hours a day without rest in the end you have to take something,” said Singh.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Making two-wheelers less polluting to combat air pollution in India

Innovations focusing on two-wheelers can make a difference in facing the challenges brought about by climate change.

Two-wheelers are the lifeline of urban Asia, where they account for more than half of the vehicles owned in some countries. This trend is amply evident in India, where sales in the sub-category of mopeds alone rose 23% in 2016-17. In fact, one survey estimates that today one in every three Indian households owns a two-wheeler.

What explains the enduring popularity of two-wheelers? In one of the fastest growing economies in the world, two-wheeler ownership is a practical aspiration in small towns and rural areas, and a tactic to deal with choked roads in the bigger cities. Two-wheelers have also allowed more women to commute independently with the advent of gearless scooters and mopeds. Together, these factors have led to phenomenal growth in overall two-wheeler sales, which rose by 27.5% in the past five years, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM). Indeed, the ICE 2016 360 survey says that two-wheelers are used by 37% of metropolitan commuters to reach work, and are owned by half the households in India’s bigger cities and developed rural areas.

Amid this exponential growth, experts have cautioned about two-wheelers’ role in compounding the impact of pollution. Largely ignored in measures to control vehicular pollution, experts say two-wheelers too need to be brought in the ambit of pollution control as they contribute across most factors determining vehicular pollution - engine technology, total number of vehicles, structure and age of vehicles and fuel quality. In fact, in major Indian cities, two-thirds of pollution load is due to two-wheelers. They give out 30% of the particulate matter load, 10 percentage points more than the contribution from cars. Additionally, 75% - 80% of the two-wheelers on the roads in some of the Asian cities have two-stroke engines which are more polluting.

The Bharat Stage (BS) emissions standards are set by the Indian government to regulate pollutants emitted by vehicles fitted with combustion engines. In April 2017, India’s ban of BS III certified vehicles in favour of the higher BS IV emission standards came into effect. By April 2020, India aims to leapfrog to the BS VI standards, being a signatory to Conference of Parties protocol on combating climate change. Over and above the BS VI norms target, the energy department has shown a clear commitment to move to an electric-only future for automobiles by 2030 with the announcement of the FAME scheme (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles in India).

The struggles of on-ground execution, though, remain herculean for automakers who are scrambling to upgrade engine technology in time to meet the deadlines for the next BS norms update. As compliance with BS VI would require changes in the engine system itself, it is being seen as one of the most mammoth R&D projects undertaken by the Indian automotive industry in recent times. Relative to BS IV, BS VI norms mandate a reduction of particulate matter by 82% and of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) by 68%.

Emission control in fuel based two-wheelers can be tackled on several fronts. Amongst post-emission solutions, catalytic converters are highly effective. Catalytic converters transform exhaust emissions into less harmful compounds. They can be especially effective in removing hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide from the exhaust.

At the engine level itself, engine oil additives are helpful in reducing emissions. Anti-wear additives, friction modifiers, high performance fuel additives and more lead to better performance, improved combustion and a longer engine life. The improvement in the engine’s efficiency as a result directly correlates to lesser emissions over time. Fuel economy of a vehicle is yet another factor that helps determine emissions. It can be optimised by light weighting, which lessens fuel consumption itself. Light weighting a vehicle by 10 pounds can result in a 10-15-pound reduction of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Polymer systems that can bear a lot of stress have emerged as reliable replacements for metals in automotive construction.

BASF, the pioneer of the first catalytic converter for automobiles, has been at the forefront of developing technology to help automakers comply with advancing emission norms while retaining vehicle performance and cost-efficiency. Its new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility at Mahindra World City near Chennai is equipped to develop a range of catalysts for diverse requirements, from high performance and recreational bikes to economy-oriented basic transportation. BASF also leverages its additives expertise to provide compounded lubricant solutions, such as antioxidants, anti-wear additives and corrosion inhibitors and more. At the manufacturing level, BASF’s R&D in engineered material systems has led to the development of innovative materials that are much lighter than metals, yet just as durable and strong. These can be used to manufacture mirror brackets, intake pipes, step holders, clutch covers, etc.

With innovative solutions on all fronts of automobile production, BASF has been successfully collaborating with various companies in making their vehicles emission compliant in the most cost-effective way. You can read more about BASF’s innovations in two-wheeler emission control here, lubricant solutions here and light weighting solutions here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.