Asia - Pacific

Act to end India’s vulnerability to drug trafficking, experts urge

Periodic seizures show that India’s proximity to 2 large illicit opium-producing regions makes it route for illicit drug trade

Ahmad Adil   | 22.01.2022
Act to end India’s vulnerability to drug trafficking, experts urge

NEW DELHI

As India is sandwiched between the world’s two largest illicit opium cultivation regions, experts have urged more efforts to curb drug smuggling by investing in capacity-building and resources.

Western India is close to the Golden Arc – the name given to peripheries of Afghanistan, Pakistan extending into eastern Iran – and in the east, it has contiguity to the Golden Triangle – an approximately 950,000 square kilometer (367,000 square mile) area involving the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency on eve of the anniversary of the International Opium Convention, which is being observed on Sunday, Bibhu Prasad Routray, director of Mantraya – a strategic think tank based in the western Indian city of Goa – said compared to land-based or air-based smuggling, the volume of drugs smuggled into India through maritime routes is quite high.

"It’s cheaper and is less likely to be intercepted. Hence, this trend is there to stay, which means that India needs to build its capacities to prevent drug smuggling using maritime routes,” he said.

The Jan. 23, 1912 International Opium Convention, signed in The Hague by representatives of China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Persia (Iran), Portugal, Russia, Siam (Thailand), the UK, and the British Overseas Territories (including British India), is believed to be the world’s first comprehensive drug control treaty, according to UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC).

Apart from several drug seizures at Indian ports last year, last September Indian anti-smuggling intelligence officials seized nearly three tons of heroin reportedly worth around $2.7 billion, in a major seizure at a port in the Indian state of Gujarat. The officials said the two containers had arrived at Mundra Port from Kandhar, Afghanistan via Bandar Abbas, Iran.

Difficult to stop

Experts say that while it is difficult to stop the trade completely, periodic seizures do act as a deterrent and can affect the volume of the trade.

Routray said India is facing an acute problem because India’s diplomatic leverage with the countries of origin is minimal.

“Both at the point of origin, i.e., Afghanistan and the principal route, i.e., Pakistan, India’s current diplomatic leverage and security cooperation is minimal. That makes gaining intelligence about smuggling extremely difficult," he said.

According to a brief issued by the UN crime and drug agency last November, the last opium harvest in Afghanistan reached historic highs at more than 6,000 tons. This means that 320 tons of pure heroin was set to be trafficked to markets around the world, it said. In 2020, Afghanistan accounted for an estimated 85% of global opium production.

Routray added that there are issues of manpower, infrastructure challenges, and budgetary constraints to intercepting drugs at points of entry.

"India's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) which is the lead agency, has to address the issue of manpower shortage, and more budget has to be allocated," he said.

He said the "instability in Afghanistan" after last year’s Taliban takeover "is being exploited by the terror and organized crime network to push more contraband into the region.”

More seizures

Sameer Wankhede, a top Indian official until recently posted with the NCB, told Anadolu Agency that of late there have been more seizures, as various agencies are prioritizing the drug issue.

He said since Afghanistan has witnessed bumper crops, there is a high chance that a lot of drugs will go through India.

Wankhede said the drugs are smuggled through ships, containers, couriers, mules, and passenger baggage.

"The important thing is awareness among detection agencies and also in society because new drugs are emerging in the country. Now you see drugs like mephedrone which are very expensive coming from different countries. So, awareness is important," he said.

Recently in India, drug seizures also attracted controversy as film industry figures from Bollywood were also questioned or even arrested for allegedly possessing drugs.

Last year the arrest of the son of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan made headlines. He was detained after drug controlling agencies raided a cruise ship in the Indian financial hub Mumbai. Earlier, Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty spent nearly a month in jail after she was arrested in an alleged drug-related case.

Opioid users

Wankhede said over 300 people were arrested in a year in Mumbai alone, and 14-15 drug syndicates were busted.

According to a 2019 government report, there were 23 million opioid users in the country, including 2.8 million “dependent users.”

India’s National Crime Records Bureau documented 59,806 drug-related cases in 2020. Out of them, 33,246 pertained to possession of drugs for personal use, and 26,560 cases involved drug trafficking.

Dr. Sandeep Bhola – a top drug treatment specialist in the northern state of Punjab, which is also witnessing a major drug problem – said there is a need to address drug addiction and treat individuals dynamically.

"Secondly, involving the community is very important. We need to take more steps to address this problem and focus on marginalized groups as well,” he said.

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