There has been a spate of high-profile seizures of narcotics and psychotropic substances across the country these last few months. What has been disturbing is not only the quantity of drugs seized but also the predominant mode—through sea routes. What the sea route means is that the quantity that can be smuggled in, is much more than by the land or air routes. What it also means is that detection becomes even more challenging. India has a sea coast of about 7500 kms and 13 major ports handling both bulk and container cargo.
The trend started in late August 2020 with the seizure of 191 kgs of high-grade heroin in JNPT port, India’s largest container port. The consignment was concealed in a container that had come in from Pakistan via Chabahar port. In April 2021, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) seized 300 kgs of cocaine from a container ship in the port of Tuticorin. The contraband was concealed in a consignment of timber logs. There were two seizures from containers in July–135 kgs in Mumbai port from a consignment of gypsum coming in from Afghanistan and of 283 kgs of heroin in JNPT concealed in a container of talc stones coming in from Iran.
This is apart from interceptions in the sea by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) and Indian Navy (IN). In November 2020, the ICG intercepted a Sri Lankan boat off the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu with 120 kgs of heroin. March 2021 witnessed another seizure by the ICG; 300 kgs of heroin, AK-47 weapons and 1000 rounds of ammunition were seized from three Sri Lankan vessels off the coast of Lakshadweep. In April 2021, the IN intercepted a Sri Lankan fishing vessel with 300 kgs of heroin along with weapons and ammunition.
The same period witnessed several seizures across the airports from passengers coming into the country. There are 34 international airports in the country with 66 million international passengers entering the country last year. There were seizures in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai airports ranging from 25 kgs of heroin to 8 kgs of cocaine from passengers.
Geography is, as has been said, destiny. This cannot be truer than in the case of India in the context of the drug problem. Wedged between the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle, it has a substantial land border with these regions. The Golden Crescent is at the crossroads where East, Central and West Asia meet straddling Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is home to the largest illicit opium-producing areas in the world today. The Golden Triangle represents the region coinciding with the rural mountains of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. It is Southeast Asia's main opium-producing region. India has a land border of about 3300 kms with Pakistan and about 1600 kms with Myanmar making the country vulnerable to drugs.
In 2020, the Border Security Force (BSF) had seized more than 550 kgs of heroin—all attempted to be smuggled in from Pakistan. This is apart from seizures along the border by the Punjab Police and the Narcotics Control Bureau. Delhi had one of the biggest seizures of heroin in July 2021. As much as 354 kgs of high-quality heroin suspected to have entered the country through the Indo-Pak border was seized.
On the North-East border, there were huge seizures in Manipur worth Rs 165 crore, and in Kolkata in January 2021 of 25 kgs of heroin. The Assam police have also stepped up anti-drug operations in June, leading to large-scale raids and seizures across the state of heroin, ganja, cough syrup (yes, that too apparently gives a high as does Iodex spread across a bread slice), methamphetamine tablets. May 2021, saw a seizure of 10 kgs of high-grade cocaine from a courier consignment in Chandigarh.
India is particularly vulnerable also because it manufactures precursor chemicals essential for distilling opium into heroin. These chemicals are manufactured for licit usage but get diverted for the manufacture of heroin. The location of India results also in a reverse flow of precursor chemicals from India. The US National Drug Threat Assessment report has identified India as a major supplier of precursor chemicals.
Drugs reduce healthy individuals to addicts, leading to dysfunctional behavior, who resort to crime to feed their habit. But far more insidious is the impact it has on the country. Proceeds of drug-related crimes fund all sorts of illegal activities including terrorism. Narco-terrorism has become a major cause of concern. The UN Office of Drug Control has estimated that illicit drug-related crime generates proceeds amount to nearly 3 percent of the global GDP. This is humongous.
While enforcement agencies seek to choke supplies, it is equally important to curb demand. In India, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is tasked with creating awareness about the debilitating impact of drugs, running de-addiction camps, and take corrective steps. A study conducted in 2019 of the magnitude of substance use in India has estimated cannabis to be used by nearly 2.8 percent of the population and opioid by about 2.1 percent. It has also identified vulnerable states. While every survey necessarily has limitations, it is a very useful starting point to identify the extent of a problem and to take measures to tackle it.
The Ministry has launched a Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan (NMBA) in 272 identified vulnerable districts with an aim to create awareness. The Ministry has also based on the survey adopted a National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction (NAPDDR).
We must not forget that the continuing stressful conditions caused by the pandemic—the deaths, illness, loss of jobs, shutdowns are fertile ground for seeking solace in the world of drugs. USA witnessed its highest death because of overdose in 2020-more than 93,000 people are estimated to have died because of overdose; a 30 percent increase over the previous year. If one wanted to know the disruptive impact of drugs these numbers are a grim indication. The advancement of science has resulted in newer and more potent drugs—an enhanced version of captogen, an amphetamine that overcomes fear and sleep, is now the drug of choice in Syria.
We must be acutely conscious of the happenings in Afghanistan. With the Taliban getting control of large parts of the country, there is likely to be a push of opium to fund their activities. Enforcement agencies have their work cut out as do educational institutions and social organisations. We have to tackle the menace from both the supply and demand ends. We can ill afford to let the menace of drugs go out of hand.
—Najib Shah is retd. Chairman of Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs. The views expressed are personal
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)