India has a Rs 10 lakh crore drug problem. So why aren’t ­ agencies going after the cartels feeding a growing demand for banned substances?

By Bhavna Vij-AuroraSeptember 28, 2020

Purple strobe lights, psychedelic floral patterns unfolding behind a reeling hero, curry western rock ’n roll…and yes, the vamp, always the vamp. There’s something about the 70s Bollywood potboiler that has defined the frame through which a lot of Indians interpret the complex, peril-filled world of drugs. That Indian cinema is never the best factual guide to reality is secondary.

What it really does is to channel all energies into fearful stereotypes about ­‘modernity’, especially resentful attitudes tinged with envy about ‘the elite’ and their ‘sinful’ living. And what that in turn breeds is the ideology of the witch-hunt. The real problems—international trafficking, hard drugs and the market for ­ever-new synthetic forms, under-age addiction—all these get sublimated in the temporary high brought on by someone rich and famous being nailed to the cross.

Consider the difference in magnitude between two events—first in reality, then in terms of how much of play they got in the public mind.

  • The first is, of course, the endless media apoplexy over actress Rhea Chakraborty, which ended in her being arrested on charges of being “an active member of a drugs syndicate”. The case hinges around 59 grams of marijuana ­recovered from fellow accused Karan Arora and Abbas Ramzan Ali Lakhani. Marijuana, a traditional soft drug in India, is increasingly finding legal and ­medical tolerance around the world. Rhea faces up to 10 years in prison for allegedly procuring a substance that, in 2015, almost half of all Americans had tried.
  • The second case is straight out of a grimy scene of Narcos, with an Indian ­flavour. Ten months before the Sushant-Rhea case blew up, some members of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel family had visited India, ostensibly on a tourist trip to Jaipur. Sinaloa is tagged by the US government as “the biggest, most powerful drug cartel of all time”. Intelligence agencies red-flagged their visit, but say there was no further action from the various enforcement agencies, including the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). And of course, nary a ripple in the media. The Sinaloa syndicate primarily deals in the trafficking of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The contrast in the degree of urgency shown is quite stark—and is actually quite symptomatic of how the whole system works. There were no prime-time tipoffs, no heroic camera posses outside a Jaipur hotel: real crime-busting can’t happen like that. But let alone any behind-the-scenes sleuthwork, “there was no effort to find out if there was a hidden purpose to the Sinaloa family visit, or who they met,” claims a senior official in the country’s security establishment.

Similarly, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) gave the NCB information about an Afghan drug lord called Haji Saleem. Operating in the Af-Pak region, Saleem is believed to be the man ­responsible for smuggling huge ­quantities of heroin into India. The biggest heroin seizures in the last four years—amounts ranging from 1,500 kg to 100 kg—are known to be from Saleem’s shipments. Sources say he smuggles heroin into India via the Arabian Sea route. “There seems to have been no attempt to follow up in a serious manner. There isn’t even a red corner notice,” sources tell Outlook. This overall laxity is a serious structural deficit; all data about the trafficking of hard drugs shows the market has an innate resilience that all ­observers say points to connivance at several levels. While that stays unaddressed, we see the focus of the NCB squarely on high-profile users.The market of hard drugs has an innate resilience, pointing to connivance at several levels. While that stays unaddressed, we see the focus of the NCB squarely on ­high-profile users.

It’s not common for the agency to get involved in individual drug possession cases. In India, cannabis in the form of bhang, ganja and charas are seeped into culture—so is opium to a lesser extent—and authorities have generally preferred to overlook cases of individual consumption. A 2019 survey carried out by the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) of AIIMS estimates there are as many as 31 million marijuana users in the country. “If we start booking people for consumption, the sadhus smoking marijuana in their chillums in Haridwar and Puri; tourists consuming charas at Pushkar mela; revellers using bhang during Holi or the Rajasthanis partaking ­opium-made ‘amal’ during weddings and funerals…they will all be arrested,” says an official from the narcotics cell of Mumbai police. “And if the NCB goes after Bollywood for use of drugs, one of the biggest economic activities in Mumbai will be finished,” he adds, only half-jokingly.

The legendary former top cop Julio Ribeiro believes it’s simply not the NCB’s job to go after users. “According to me, users should be counselled and encouraged to give up drugs rather than be arrested. Rhea is merely a pawn in a larger game that appears more political than anything. There are several big fish as far as the drug scenario is concerned. The NCB should go after them,” says Ribeiro.

NCB chief Rakesh Asthana cites his own rationale for this approach—­people like Rhea are “role models” and youngsters look up to them. “They cannot be condoned. We have to make examples out of them to send a ­message of deterrence to others,” he tells Outlook. Based on information gathered from Rhea, her brother Showik and others, the NCB is likely to widen its net to other Bollywood ­figures. The ripples have been felt in the Kannada film industry too, with the state Crime Branch arresting Sandalwood actresses Ragini Dwivedi and Sanjjanna Galrani and eight others, including rave party organisers and peddlers. While on the Rhea case, the NCB also busted a racket involving curated marijuana or ‘buds’: these cost Rs 5,000 per gram and are sourced from the US and Canada. The buds were to be sent to Mumbai from Delhi and onward to Goa. The suppliers ­reportedly were in contact with some Bollywood celebrities, NCB officials claim. A marker of how the marijuana market is evolving from its local ­cottage industry days, buds feed into the debate of whether legalising will actually help control cartelisation.

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Senior lawyer Ramesh Gupta, who specialises in cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, says the CBI was investigating the Rhea case, and there was no need for the NCB to come in. Curbing drug smuggling and peddling is the job of several agencies—state police forces, customs, CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence are all mandated to handle drug-related cases. “The NCB was set up in 1986 mainly to coordinate with various other agencies and also with international agencies. The CBI has enough expertise to handle such a case,” Gupta tells Outlook.

“The only reason I can think of is that statements made by the accused ­before NCB are admissible in the court, not ones made before CBI. So they must have been asked to step in, in the absence of any other recovery or proof. The thinking would have been to use Rhea’s statement as a confession to ­indict her. But now that she has withdrawn her statement, it has little ­evidentiary value,” explains Gupta. According to him, even the more stringent section 27A of NDPS—relating to the financing of illicit drug trafficking—has been used only to ensure Rhea doesn’t get bail. He asks why the agencies are not going after the cartels and peddlers, who are feeding into the ­demand for drugs from an increasing number of young adults.

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The latter is indeed a problem: the presence of drugs and psychotropic substances has become all-pervasive among school and college students. Ranging from marijuana to harder ones like LSD, meth, Ecstasy, or even pharma-based cough syrups and painkillers, teenagers have access to them all, depending upon the money they can put together. “They are not only becoming users, many are also becoming pushers among their peers to ­finance their addiction. Decent quality weed costs around Rs 5,000 per tola (10 grams), they can roll about 40 joints or jotas or doobs or boofs from it,” reveals a Gurgaon police officer, who dealt with a case involving a ­student from one of the most ­prestigious private schools of the ­millennium city.“Even the United States, despite all its stringent ­measures and laws, has not been able to curb the ­smuggling of drugs,” says MP-IDSA ­research fellow Pushpita Das.

“A class XII boy, a brilliant student, was caught selling ganja to some of his classmates two years ago. He admitted to selling and also using it, claiming it enhanced his mental faculties. Though some parents informed the police, the school authorities ­prevailed upon them not to pursue the case since it would destroy the boy’s future. So it was left to the parents and the school to handle the situation,” the police ­officer says. He admits the problem has gone beyond easy ­accessibility, where a local paanwala can be the ­supplier. “Even if you ­manage to cut off marijuana supply, students get hold of pharma drugs. There’s a concoction they call Lean—basically a mixture of codeine-based cough syrup, a fizzy lemon drink like Sprite and a hard candy like Jolly Rancher that yields a purple concoction…this instant high has become popular among teenagers,” he adds.

The flow of hard drugs in India owes partly to its geographical location. Lying between the two largest producers of opium derivative heroin—the Golden Triangle (straddling the borders of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar) and the Golden Crescent (Af-Pak-Iran)—India is both a major transit point and the destination itself. India has emerged as a major transhipment route for drugs originating in Southeast Asia and heading towards the US and even Europe. Officials say supply of 90 per cent of the world’s heroin begins in the poppy fields of Afghanistan and another five per cent in Myanmar. When the traditional route over the Balkans closed down due to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, India emerged as a major transit route via East Africa.

Then there’s India as destination, like a dangerously exploding supermarket, without the benefit of regulation or informed counselling. The shelves are bursting: besides cocaine and heroin, there’s designer drugs like meth and Ecstasy, pills like Yaba (or Jaba), even prescription drugs like tramadol and ketamine. The illegal ones find their way across India from various entry points—via Manipur and Mizoram through the Myanmar ­border, into Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and J&K from Pakistan, to Bihar and UP from Nepal. Then there are the maritime routes from Mexico and Colombia via Dubai, where ­shipments generally land along the coast in Goa and Karnataka. The air route too is used. Cocaine comes into the subcontinent mostly from South America, and the ‘coke gangs’ typically operate between Nepal, Delhi, Goa and Mumbai. Sources say cocaine has never found a huge clientele in India due to its high price, and cheaper ­substitutes like meth and Yaba pills from Myanmar are easily available. Cocaine use is largely limited to the party circuits of the rich.

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It’s difficult to estimate the size of a market that’s entirely off the radar, but enforcement officials peg it around Rs 10 lakh crore annually, based on the value of seizures made by the agencies. “Even that could be a modest estimate: the assumption is that for every one consignment caught, nine go undetected,” says an official from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency.

The RAW official then confesses to a more troubling thought: “It’s almost like an unwritten understanding bet­ween the cartels and law enforcement agencies. Such large-scale organised smuggling cannot happen without the connivance of corrupt officials. The fact that there is so much money in the business makes it highly seductive for facilitators and everyone in the supply chain, down to the street peddler.”

Former Goa DGP Neeraj Kumar too talks about how he ran into political walls as he tried to clean up everyone’s favourite holiday destination—cracking down on illicit drugs, rave parties and foreigners staying without permission during his stint in 2006. He devotes an entire chapter called ‘Goan Rhapsody’ in his book Khaki Files to this episode, where he talks of how an MLA complained to him that he had ruined Goa’s reputation as a holiday destination. “I lasted there all of 11 months. The politician-criminal nexus was too powerful. It was tough as a ­policeman, working under the state government,” he says. The IPS officer also tells Outlook about the role of ­foreigners in drug trafficking in Goa—the Israelis and Russians are ­prominent here, while the Nigerians get stereotyped. Hundreds of ­chartered flights coming in during the tourist season creates a favourable narco-ecosystem awash in cocaine and synthetic drugs.

Pushpita Das, research fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), tells Outlook that supply is never going to be a problem. “As long as there is demand, the supplies will continue. The profit margins are just too much in the illicit trade. Catching drug consignments doesn’t seem to be a priority for border-­guarding forces. Even the US, despite all its stringent measures and laws, has not been able to curb the smuggling of drugs,” she says.

Not, of course, for want of trying—and that’s a contrast. “The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the US has made several offers to India to ­conduct joint operations with the NCB. None has materialised in the recent past. This, after US President Donald Trump, last year, designated India among the top 20 major drug transit or illicit drug producing countries,” says the RAW official. India has been clubbed with countries like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Even the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has identified India as a major hub of illicit drugs. It also ­red-flagged the easy availability of drugs online. Its 2019 report said that the global trend of purchasing drugs over the internet, particularly on darknet trading platforms using cryptocurrencies, has spread across South Asia, and is particularly rampant in India. “One recent study identified some ­online vendors over the darknet who appear to be operating from South Asia. The study identified more than 1,000 drug listings from India published across 50 online crypto-market platforms,” the report compiled by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) of UNDOC states.A combined supply disruption and ­awareness drive would seem to be the way, but it remains on paper in most states, and even at the central level.

The shift to India as transit in the ’80s had another enabling factor: militancy in Punjab and then Kashmir, with militants ­themselves smuggling drugs to fund their activities, says an Intelligence Bureau (IB) official. “There emerged the narco-terror link. Coinciding with liberalisation in India, part of the ­consignment started finding a steady market in India itself. Pakistan’s ISI also got involved, pushing drugs into Punjab. So did the Taliban. Their ­purpose was as much to destroy the population as the economy. Over the years, India has seen a proliferation of drugs pushed by cartels. Now it’s very difficult to stem the flow. The system is too well-oiled and deeply-entrenched. The demand is too high and all-­pervasive, coming from all sections of the society,” he adds. That’s where the ‘Udta Punjab’ phenomenon took off—where, typically, anger and denial preceded acceptance. But now, Punjab may be showing the way.

Harpreet Singh Sidhu, chief of Punjab’s Special Task Force (STF), agrees with the IB official’s overall take, but is optimistic that the fight can be won. Captain Amarinder Singh, chief minister of Punjab, has clamped down on drugs with a heavy hand. Sidhu tells Outlook that the state ­government has implemented a Comprehensive Action against Drugs Abuse (CADA) ­programme that tackles enforcement, deaddiction and prevention ­simultaneously. “Reducing demand and the number of addicts is a crucial part of the strategy. If you merely cut the supply of one drug, it will have a substitution effect…anot­her substance will take its place,” he says. At the same time, enforcement is strict—“the ­number of arrests and ­recovery at all levels, from street peddlers to big ­suppliers, is a testimony,” says Sidhu. The STF has registered 39,621 drug-­related cases since 2017 and arrested 50,255 persons. It has ­recovered 1,595 kg of heroin and 1,721 kg opium in the same period. This goes alongside 200 new Outpatient Opioid Assistant Treatment (OOAT) centres where over 2 lakh patients; another 6 lakh are ­registered. A Buddy programme takes the ideal of prevention to schools and colleges: over 37 lakh students are ­covered. “Most students start drugs under peer pressure,” Sidhu adds.

A combined supply disruption and awareness drive would seem to be the way, but it remains on paper in most states, and even at the central level. “There’s not even an ad campaign in ­regional languages,” says an NCB ­official, pointing to the lack of effort from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. And disrupting supply too has achievable goals. “We cannot eradicate manufacture of ­heroin in Afghanistan, but we can clamp down on pharma factories in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh, making meth ­illegally. If the big cartels are out of our reach, we can at least get to their links among ­politicians/police. If we have to make an example of 59 grams recovered in the Rhea case, we should at least ­tom-tom the recovery of 1,350 kg ­cannabis, meant for supply to school kids, in Bangalore on September 10,” adds the official.

Cannabis is on a different footing not only in cultural or medical terms, but also vis-à-vis where it comes from: a substantial amount is grown off the map in India itself, with the most highly rated variety coming from Malana in Himachal Pradesh. Legal cultivation of opium too is ­allowed for medicinal purposes in ­licensed zones in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh—though the danger of diversion to the heroin market is ­ever-present.

Opium is also cultivated illegally in Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand. The future could lie in ­revisiting the NDPS Act, allowing for reasonable ­gradations, seriously relooking the self-defeating equivalence between marijuana and harder drugs, allowing the sober light of legal regulation, and drumming up something similar to the huge anti-smoking awareness ­creation of previous decades, while cracking down on the real menace of hard drugs.

Right now, we are being served juice from the lowest hanging fruit.

courtesy The Outlook