On August 1, Sagar Pradhan and Santosh Sahoo from Odisha’s Ganjam districts arrived at the counter about 30 minutes before midnight to book 10 cartons of cashew nuts to New Delhi. The boxes were carefully wrapped in polythene to keep the produce dry. But something did not seem right, at least to the railway official on duty. The weight and packaging of the boxes seemed unusual for cashew nuts. So he decided to go ahead and open one of the boxes to check.
That was when peddlers Pradhan, 32, and Sahoo, 19, got into trouble with the law. The cartons had 411 kg of cannabis, valued at `41 lakh, according to the railway investigation report. The narcotics had originated from Rayagada district, known for its illegal ganja crops, investigations revealed.
It was quite a big haul, considering that the railways had in April-July detected only a monthly average of 16 kg of cannabis across India. Even though the March-end lockdown had frozen most forms of transportation, the railways’ cargo operations for essential commodities never stopped.
Police and narcotics control officers see this as a sign of desperation on the part of peddlers who have been sitting on piles of drugs since the lockdown was imposed on March 25.
Now, these people are becoming aggressive as a phased unlocking is being implemented across the country since the last two months. The drug smugglers are ready to take higher risks.
A day before the narcotics haul in Bhubaneswar, enforcement agencies in Gajapati district had seized 1,065 kg of cannabis, valued at about Rs 50 lakh, from a truck carrying onions to Varanasi. There have been several recent big-sized seizures of cannabis in the Odisha-Andhra belt. Last month, authorities seized 234 kg of opium in Rajasthan’s Chhitorgarh, the largest opium haul this year. All these incidents have confirmed to the authorities that the paddlers are back with a vengeance.
“In some pockets of my district,” says Gajapati district’s Superintendent of Police Tapan Kumar Patnaik, “illegal ganja cultivation is still on. This year, prior to the lockdown, we seized 571 kg. Smugglers have become hyperactive now. Since the lockdown was announced, we have seized 2,319 kg of ganja.” The capital of cannabis cultivation in India is the hilly region around Paderu in northeast Andhra Pradesh. Illicit farming of the narcotic spreads across a belt on the Andhra-Odisha border, encompassing some Naxalism-affected districts of Odisha such as Rayagada, Malkangiri and Koraput.
Though there is little evidence to suggest that the Naxalites themselves get involved in the cultivation, they reportedly allow the businesses to grow. Police suspect the rebels reap the benefits as they demand a commission from the middlemen.
Cannabis cultivation season begins in September and the crops are harvested in January. From February, middlemen start transporting the produce from the field. First, villagers are used to ferry these as headloads to one point, from where vehicles are used to transport in larger quantities. It is a closely guarded operation. Besides, to hedge the risk, it happens in a phased manner so that a huge consignment is not lost at one go. This year, however, the trading calendar of the drug peddlers have gone — thanks to the novel coronavirus, which imposed a nationwide lockdown.
The cannabis seizure data from Bastar, an administrative division of seven districts in south Chhattisgarh, demonstrate a clear increase in narcotic movement during the past two months, after the government started easing the lockdown restrictions.
Bastar, also a majorly Naxal region, is not a producer of cannabis but its location falls bang in the middle of a key transit route. Peddlers buying narcotics from the fields in Malkangiri have to traverse through Bastar to cater to the vast market in west, north and east India. Bastar’s Inspector General of Police P Sundaraj says the Naxals of Malkangiri encourage the trade as they get a cut from the illicit business of ganja as well as that of tendu leaves used for making bidis, a legal venture. “There was zero activity in April. In May, we had some seizures. But in June and July alone, we seized cannabis worth about Rs 2 crore,” he adds, speaking over the phone from Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh.
In June, about 1,904 kg of cannabis was seized from Bastar. In July, 1,886 kg was seized. However, the monthly average seizure during the first five months of 2020 was only 462 kg. This indicates a sharp rise in smuggling. Some of the other big cannabis seizures during the unlocking period include a 1,655 kg haul in coordinated raids in Bihar and Jharkhand in mid-July; 619 kg haul in Haryana’s Palwal and 868 kg caught in Pune city. The seizures in Pune also include a 7.5 kg packet of hashish, a costlier derivative of cannabis.
Apparently, Pune City police were shocked at the paddlers’ daredevil move to bring in such a large quantity of narcotics, hidden in customised cavities in two trucks. Mumbai was the destination of the consignment that originated in Andhra Pradesh and had travelled some 700 km. “In 2019, the city of Pune saw the highest amount of narcotics seizure in 10 years. Total seizures, mostly cocaine, amounted to some `3 crore. That created a deterrence and peddlers were wary of entering the city since then. Yet, after the lockdown, they have become desperate,” says Bachchan Singh, DCP (crime) of Pune city.
Patna Narcotics Control Bureau lines up peddlers caught with 1,655 kg of ganja in July
In Rajasthan — where opium demand overtakes that of cannabis, both for rituals and recreation — the 234 kg seizure at Chittorgarh last month has raised multiple questions. Authorities say there might be a link between licensed opium cultivators and the peddlers. Opium is a drug that can heal and harm humans. Unlike cannabis, which is illegal across India, the department of revenue extends licences to select opium farmers so that the needs of the pharmaceutical industry can be met. Opium growing districts include Mandsaur, Ratlam and Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh as well as Pratapgarh in Rajasthan.
But smugglers pop up here too. They buy the drugs from licensed farmers on a premium and then adulterate it to prepare a milk-like liquid that fetches a huge profit. A senior police officer from Rajasthan says the peddlers have turned smarter every passing month. For long, they were making WhatsApp calls to circumvent police surveillance. But now, they are more aggressive and have engaged bike-borne goons to escort drug vehicles. These bikers also warn the drivers of police roadblocks, he adds.
Drug peddlers mostly just abandon the vehicles transporting the substance at check posts if they felt they would get caught, especially in the absence of an early warning system. While smuggling of drugs was paralysed across India during the peak lockdown period, some pockets in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana had seen a surge in foreign postal parcels containing narcotics.
Since the lockdown period started, Chennai Air Customs, for example, has seized a number of such packets containing various types of recreational pills. These packages usually originate from the Netherlands, Germany or the UK.
The authorities have also seized a 1.7 kg cannabis packet that was posted in the US. The street value of that packet during the lockdown was estimated to be about Rs 9 lakh. Otherwise, the price of the produce in India would at best be Rs 40,000 a kg, say officials.
”During the lockdown, some youth became restless as liquor shops, clubs, bars and pubs were closed. Some party goers became lonely,” says Rajan Chaudhary, Commissioner of Customs at Chennai International Airport. ”To cope with such a situation, some youngsters resorted to importing illegal drugs at a premium.”
In Chennai, three consignments of 770 ecstasy pills and other items were caught in June. The number of such consignments hit nine (1,047 pills) in July. The narcotics seized by Chennai Air Customs since March has been valued at Rs 1.04 crore.
Some of the Big Seizures During the Unlock Period
The narcotic problem extends much farther north – all the way to Kashmir Valley. Authorities in this state had for the first time deployed rifle-borne women jawans last week to frisk suspected women mules.
Intelligence inputs had suggested weapons and narcotics were being smuggled from across the border with the help of women couriers. Last month, two persons, including a government school teacher in Kupwara, were arrested for facilitating the smuggling of ammunition and narcotics. Authorities suspect local women are also being used for similar exercise.
From Odisha’s Gajapati to J&K’s Kupwara, the nature and topography of narcotic trade may vary, but the gravity of the problem is undeniable. As India unlocks, the narcotic challenge is getting bigger.