Around the world, narcotics trafficking has been found to be the most resilient and adaptive crime. In India, too, the pattern of narcotics trade and consumption has broadened into a bewildering kaleidoscope, manifesting itself in heightened organised crime, a narco-terror nexus and an exponential rise in substance abuse.
Unravelling the proportions of the narco trade from innovative smuggling techniques along traditional overland routes, the intensified use of sea routes, routine drone deliveries, burgeoning drug sales through darknet markets and the socio-economic implications of this drug influx is a formidable undertaking.
The sinister narco-terrorism angle poses a constant security threat. In its supplementary chargesheet relating to the 2021 Mundra Port narcotics seizure case in Gujarat, the National Investigation Agency has established that funds generated through the sale of heroin were provided to operatives of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to further terrorist activities in India.
Considering that overland drug smuggling constitutes just 30% of the trade, the scale of narcotics being pushed across borders into India is astounding. Opiates, in particular heroin from Afghanistan trafficked through Pakistan, reaches India both for domestic consumption and for shipping towards European markets.
The northwest coastline along the Arabian Sea is the preferred route of traffickers. In May this year, 2,500 kilograms of methamphetamine worth around Rs 12,000 crore was seized from a vessel along the Kerala coast. This haul highlights not just the use of the southern sea route but the increasing demand for synthetic drugs/methamphetamine aka ‘glass’/‘ice’ which is cheaper than cocaine and more potent than heroin.
Given the proximity to Myanmar, the world’s second-largest producer of opium, illicit drug manufacturing units where heroin is processed are aplenty in India’s Northeast. Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, among the easternmost states, are heavily engaged in the trafficking of ephedrine precursors for the manufacture of amphetamines and opioid analgesics like codeine and dextropropoxyphene for neighbouring countries. Lamenting the rampancy of drugs in the region, Manipur’s stringent activist Binalakshmi Nepram says that the conventional Golden Triangle has expanded into a “Golden Pentagon” with the induction of Vietnam-Cambodia and Mizoram-Manipur-Nagaland.
Cases of pharmaceutical companies with links to transnational organised criminals diversifying into the production of synthetic drugs, misusing licences to manufacture Tramadol painkiller tablets and codeine cough syrups for non-medical purposes, has added further complexity to the trafficking nexus.
The quantum of drugs smuggled via couriers, parcels and postal services, though it’s only a few grams per package to avoid suspicion, has quadrupled since 2019, coinciding with increased Dark Web activity in India.
Since the seizure of 300 kg of cocaine from Tuticorin Port in April 2021 by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the frequency of cocaine consignments into India is yet another unsettling detail. The recent recovery of 3 kg of ‘black cocaine’, at Ahmedabad airport was the DRI’s first seizure of cocaine designed to evade detection.
Drone-assisted delivery of drugs, illicit weapons and cash has become recurrent. Pakistan-based smugglers have switched to smaller, stealthier drones to drop consignments into Punjab. Manufactured by the Chinese company DJI, these models are AI-assisted and more reliable than their precursors.
A countrywide assessment to estimate the extent of substance abuse is long overdue. The last comprehensive national survey, ‘Magnitude of Substance Use in India’ was published in 2019, following which the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment initiated the National Action Plan for Drug Demand Reduction (NAPDDR)/Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan in 2020.
Last month, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment in its report, ‘Drug Abuse among Young Persons: Problems and Solutions’, recommended that the National Institute of Social Defence should undertake a survey to assess the impact of drug abuse.
Overseeing the destruction of more than 1,44,000 kg of drugs in various parts of the country through video-conferencing, Home Minister Amit Shah pitched for “confiscation of assets” as a strong deterrent, at a conference on ‘Drug Smuggling and National security’ in July.
Alongside strengthening law enforcement capacity, there is a need for offering access to de-addiction treatment. There are 535 de-addiction centres unevenly distributed across India. As per the recent parliamentary panel’s report as many as 6.97 lakh children (10-17 years) are hooked on drugs in Punjab, and in J&K there are 5 lakh opioid addicts. If one considers just these two states, the requisite number of de-addiction centres is flagrantly low. Under the Nasha Mukt Bharat Abhiyaan it was proposed that 290 District De-addiction Centres would be set up in vulnerable districts, a plan that is yet to fructify.
Any proposition to deal with substance abuse must begin with a forthright assessment of the scale of the problem. Trends such as the increasing use of methamphetamine must be taken into account. The number of women addicted to drugs is rising alarmingly in states that already register high substance abuse.
The drug problem has captured national attention. Nevertheless discerning the deleterious effects of narcotics trafficking on a national scale is a formidable task. The complexity arises from the expansion and rising proportions of the drug influx, the environment within which it has succeeded in operating, the criminal-terror nexus that it has stimulated and the resultant social pathologies. A comprehensive counter-narcotics effort must perceive both a long-term strategic approach to disrupt trafficking and tackle the most salient public health challenges posed by illicit drugs.
Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst on strategic and economic affairs.