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View | Learnings from the US OIG Report

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Given the extent of the drug problem, it is appropriate that multiple agencies are empowered. It is imperative that there is close coordination between the agencies and inter-departmental rivalry cannot come in the way of a coordinated fight

View | Learnings from the US OIG Report
A recent report of the US Office of Inspector General (OIG) (November 17, 2021) on the implementation of the OIG's recommendations on drug interdictions by the Department of Homeland Security department (DHS) makes interesting reading. The OIG is the equivalent of the Comptroller & Accountant General (CAG) of India. It has the mandate of conducting independent and objective audits, to promote efficiency and prevent fraud, waste and abuse.
The report of the OIG is available here. It is very topical for India given the increase in drug smuggling consequent to the Taliban takeover as also the increased interdiction of drugs by various agencies.
The OIG report inter alia highlights the lack of coordination between the various wings of the DHS tasked with drug interdiction. It specifically speaks of the lack of ‘planning, information sharing, intelligence integration, and response activities for a synchronized departmental response to drug interdiction'. It emphasizes that while there is coordination at the regional level, such coordination did not take place at the local level.
The response of the DHS was to introduce Regional Coordination Mechanisms with a focus on coordinating activities at various levels in order to avoid duplication. Emphasis was laid on joint training exercises and sharing lessons. Additional operating mechanisms to improve information sharing, intelligence integration, and response activities were also introduced. A Security Coordination Working Group was also established. The audit para has been closed by the OIG.
The report also talks of seized drugs not being properly sealed and stored. The report points out that the adhesive strips which were used to seal the bags had a shelf life of 5 to 7 years. When old adhesive strips were used or retained on the seized bags of drugs, the bags could easily be opened and could be tampered with. This report points out compromises the integrity of the evidence.
The DHS has in response carried out an inspection of all evidence bags for defects and replaced them where necessary. All unused bags older than 4 years were ordered to be destroyed. All bags were to have a 'born on 'date as a way of determining their remaining useful shelf life. This para too has been closed by the OIG.
In India, the Narcotics Drugs & Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act has empowered a whole host of organizations under the Act. This is a reflection both of the seriousness of the problem as also its extent. Thus, apart from officers of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) the nodal agency for drugs, officers of GST, Customs, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Central Armed Police Forces, Armed Forces, Coast Guard, Police, Revenue, Drug Control, State Excise are authorized to act under the NDPS Act.
There is consequently overlapping of jurisdiction. Coordination suffers. There is a natural tendency for all agencies to work in silos. Given the challenge in getting credible intelligence and the need for secrecy, there is little sharing of intelligence or information. All this results in duplication of efforts. The NCB has the unenviable task of ensuring coordination between all these different organizations. The Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB) in India also seeks to ensure cooperation across agencies.
Obviously, these are areas where greater work is required. Joint training sessions and sharing lessons are essential. This will ensure camaraderie on a personal level and trust-building. Analysis and data sharing post successful interdictions should be made essential.
Closer supervisory oversight to enforce coordination would strengthen the anti-drug action. Given the growing drug problem, these steps will ensure a more effective and synchronized action.
The second issue raised in the OIG Report also has resonance for India. Seized drugs are sealed and kept as case property in godowns. Given the fact that powers under the NDPS Act have been given to so many agencies, what it means is that seized drugs are strewn across the country in various godowns. While centralized data regarding the quantum of drugs available should be available with NCB, oversight regarding the safety of the drugs is with each agency. This obviously leads to varying levels of diligence.
The seized goods are key evidence to be produced in the court when prosecution is filed. Court proceedings tend to stretch over years. While the NDPS Act does provide for pre-trial disposal, investigation agencies use this provision sparingly. All drugs are disposed of by destruction. Till that happens, sealing and safe custody of the seized drugs is essential.
The CAG has conducted a compliance audit of the Social, General and Economic Sectors of Punjab which inter-alia includes a chapter on the implementation of the NDPS Act in Punjab (Report No. 5 of the year 2017 ). The report highlights several areas of concern including shortage of equipment, the need for capacity building and training, and the high rate of acquittals. These are issues that are ubiquitous to all states. The report does not touch on the issue of storage of seized goods.
It is necessary that a regular audit of the seized property is done to ensure the seized goods are available, have been effectively sealed, and are speedily disposed of. It is imperative that there is no loss of the seized property. The NCB as the nodal agency should ensure this.
Given the extent of the drug problem (Gujarat again witnessed a major haul of 120 kgs) it is appropriate that multiple agencies are empowered. Given the seriousness of the problem, it is imperative that there is close coordination between the agencies. Petty inter-departmental rivalry cannot come in the way of a coordinated fight against the menace.
— Najib Shah is the former chairman of the Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs. The views expressed are personal.
Read his other columns here
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