Losing battle against drugs

The battle against drugs requires a course correction. A ‘Drug-Mukt Bharat’ appears a distant dream and India appears to be waging a losing battle against drugs and drug mafia

Representative image
Representative image

Gautam S Mengle

India by all accounts is fighting a losing battle against drugs. Notwithstanding the bravado and recent public posturings by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), there is no evidence of any decline in the drug trade or the number of addicts. If anybody has any doubt, search for Drug Deaddiction and Rehabilitation Centres in Ahmedabad. A Google search would yield over 200,000 results, among them “100 top Rehabilitation Centres in Ahmedabad”.

There is, clearly enough, no war declared or undeclared on drugs. Although the National Investigation Agency (NIA) informed the court that it was investigating links to ‘narco terrorism’ in the heroin haul at the Mundra Port on September 11, the case looks as good as buried.

The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had accidentally stumbled on the heroin valued at Rs. 21,000 crore in one of the containers ostensibly carrying talcum powder from Afghanistan. It arrested a Chennai couple, M. Sudhakar and his wife, on September 17. It arrested P. Rajakumar from Mumbai on September 26. All three were sent to jail, indicating that DRI were through interrogating them. The case, filed initially under the NDPS Act, has now been handed over to the NIA which has registered the case under UAPA and other anti-terror laws.

But the case has not led to the usual finger pointing at Pakistan or ISI. Nor do the agencies seem to have made any headway in identifying cartels with deep enough pockets to pay for such consignments. The arrested, it is widely suspected, are just small fries. While the address and the GST registration of the couple’s modest firm in Vijaywada was used to import the consignment, it is not even clear if they were the ones who had placed the order for the consignment. The name and address of the person in Delhi to whom the consignment was to be delivered, have turned out to be fake, deepening the mystery.

The suspicion of drug-money funding political activities in Gujarat and elsewhere is deep-rooted. But no evidence has surfaced so far. The periodic seizures have only deepened the public suspicion that they are charades for public consumption. There is so much easy money to be made through the drug trade that the temptation to resist pay-offs might be irresistible for politicians, political parties and agencies.

While Afghanistan is known for its poppy crops, which are turned into heroin, hash or marijuana before being smuggled through Pakistan, Iran and India, the cultivation is said to have boomed there since 2001. According to some reports, while Afghanistan produced just 180 tonne of poppy in 2001, the production last year was as high as 9000 tonne. Questions have been raised why the US and its allies, who policed Afghanistan for 20 years, allowed it. Iran is already on record blaming the US occupation for increased smuggling of heroin.

The extensive use of opiates such as ganja, bhang, charas and afeem among pilgrims in temple towns and among the Kanwarias, is also a public secret. To complicate matters, an organisation called The Hemp Foundation has been lobbying for legalising the cultivation of hemp. Both Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the foundation claims, have legalised hemp cultivation and others should follow suit, it says. While a part of the crop may be used to make narcotics, it argues, a far more substantial part of the fibre from hemp would be used to weave garments as a substitute for cotton. With cotton being more water-intensive and yielding less volume, hemp could be the cash crop that farmers would be looking for, the foundation says.

A multiplicity of agencies, easy money, political links and no clear direction, say anti-drug activists, have made it a losing battle. “All the agencies periodically seize drugs, arrest people and even claim to burn stocks,” points out one of them, “but the arrested are mostly consumers and smalltime peddlers trying to make a living.” There is no reason, they say, to believe that India does not have a well-connected drug mafia. But they are too well connected, too powerful and they find it easy to exploit the rampant corruption in the system, they believe.

Poppy cultivation is also quite extensive in the country and not just in the Himalayan regions. ‘Malana Cream’ is traded openly enough in Himachal Pradesh, Goa and coastal areas. Nobody is quite serious about drugs, they say, arguing that media hype over the arrests of the likes of Rhea Chakraborty and Aryan Khan merely serve to divert attention from the real issue.

“Why else would this media circus of calling Bollywood stars and celebrities to the NCB office be orchestrated,” asked a former NCB official, “NCB is well equipped to conduct surveillance and reward informants. If celebrities are found to have consumed drugs, a discreet visit to their house and office always elicited the information we required.” The leak of WhatsApp chats and allegedly incriminating details, he believes, do not reflect well on the agency. The Bureau in his day would never handle cases involving small quantities or small fries. Such information would be routinely passed on to the local police for necessary action. NCB would go after the big fish, he recalled.

In June 2009, NCB arrested a Punjab police officer and winner of the prestigious Arjuna award for wrestling, along with three others with 25 kg of Methamphetamine outside a mall in Mumbai. In October 2010, the Bureau conducted simultaneous raids at two factories in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where Ephedrine, a precursor of methamphetamine, was being manufactured and 431 kg of the drug was seized.

The agencies, old timers point out, have also got into the habit of clubbing cases and filing chargesheets that run into thousands of pages with both relevant and irrelevant information. The chargesheet in the Rhea Chakraborty case, against 33 accused, was filed in March this year and it ran into 12,000 pages. The trial in this case is yet to begin, but the purpose of delaying the trial and keeping the case alive has been achieved. “It is the system…everybody gains,” he exclaims with a sigh.

Instagram has been more effective in controlling drugs than anti-drug agencies, quipped filmmaker Ronnie Sen in a podcast in October. Millenials, he argued, wanted to always look good and fashionable and post their video and photographs on Instagram, sometimes every hour. For this generation, drug is not cool and the use of drugs had gone down substantially among the youth, he said. Mumbai Police, however, has a different take. Regular and frequent seizures of large quantities of drugs fly against Sen’s contention, they say. This week itself Mumbai Crime Branch announced the seizure of 45 kg of cannabis. Last week Mumbai Police had arrested a woman with 7 kg of heroin worth Rs 21 crore. In both 2019 and 2020, Maharashtra ATS busted drug smuggling rackets as well as pharma factories where mephedrone was being illegally made.

Community outreach programmes and counselling in educational institutions by the police, they point out, have been regularly organised to wean students away from drugs. And yet, marijuana and mephedrone remain popular drugs among students. Marijuana because it is cheaper and easily available, and mephedrone because it helps them stay awake for long periods for studying. The drug, many of these students also believe, help them stay slim. The rich and the famous prefer cocaine and heroin, which are party drugs of choice for those who can afford them, sources in Mumbai Police say.

Under the NDPS Act, drug addicts or consumers are treated as victims and not villains. Attempts are made to keep their identity secret and families are encouraged to go for rehabilitation and to de-addiction centres. “This is something that the NCB has either forgotten or is choosing to ignore,” quipped a police officer, his finger pointing at the publicity that has accompanied the arrest of Aryan Khan.

Much of the illegal drug trade has also moved online, with peddlers using social media as well as the dark web to procure and sell their product. Both Bollywood and business circles in Mumbai, claim the city police, have as many fitness freaks as drug addicts.

National Award wining director Rahul Dholakia, who made films like Parzania and Raees, asks, “Was this (Aryan Khan’s) arrest meant to genuinely eradicate drugs from the country or is it aimed just at Bollywood? Shouldn’t we be raiding Malana, Goa, Punjab, Delhi, the Northeast or any other region where the use of narcotics is much more rampant?

“Like every other citizen, even I want to free India of drugs, and so I think, shouldn’t we be arresting the people who are bringing drugs into this country or selling them for years? Why do a ‘nakabandi’ at a cruise terminal and not at the Rajasthan border,” he wonders.

Views are personal

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