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Here’s why the Mundra drug seizure is a cause of concern

Use of sea routes for drug trafficking is worrying as huge quantities can be smuggled in compared to land or air routes, making detection difficult and challenging for agencies, experts say.

September 24, 2021 / 02:15 PM IST
Mundra Port is controlled by the Adani Group (File image: Wikimedia Commons)

Mundra Port is controlled by the Adani Group (File image: Wikimedia Commons)

The recent seizure of 3,000 kg of heroin, estimated to be worth over Rs 20,000 crore, at the Mundra Port in Gujarat highlights the serious threat of drug trafficking in India, which may rise alarmingly as it is a big source of funds for cash-strapped Afghanistan that is under Taliban rule.

This is reported to be the single-largest seizure of heroin till date and also one of the largest consignments ever seized across the globe.

Drug seizures have been on the rise because of increased trafficking. In April this year, the Indian Navy intercepted a Sri Lankan fishing vessel with 337 kgs of heroin estimated to be worth Rs 3,000 crore. It was taking the contraband to India, Maldives and Sri Lanka from the Makran Coast, along the Iran-Pakistan-Baluchistan region, considered to be a major port of origin for Afghan heroin.

Likewise, two Zambian passengers with 14 kg of heroin worth Rs 98 crore were intercepted by customs officers in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport in April. In May, a similar quantity was seized from two Tanzanian nationals, in one of the biggest seizures of narcotics at Chennai International Airport.

Despite the pandemic and lockdowns last year, 59,806 cases were registered in 2020, under the The Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB). Of these, 44 percent were for possession of drugs for trafficking and 56 percent for personal consumption.

In 2019, more than 72,000 cases were reported under the NDPS Act. “Sharp vigil, effective surveillance, public cooperation, source-based intelligence, sensitization of field officials for better enforcement etc. have resulted in gradual increase in registration of drug trafficking related cases in the country,” the government said in a reply to the Lok Sabha in July 2021.

Drug, prevalence and trafficking in India—a growing concern

Commonly used drugs in India are cannabis (bhang, charas, ganja) and opioids (opium, heroin and pharmaceutical opioids). About 3 percent of the population (10-75 years) or nearly 31 million people are estimated to have used a cannabis product in 2018, according to the Magnitude of Substance Use in India 2019 report.

About 2.1 percent of the population or nearly 23 million individuals were estimated to use opioids in 2018. “Nationally, the most common opioid used is heroin (1.14 percent) followed by pharmaceutical opioids (0.96 percent), and Opium (0.52 percent),” the report notes.

Drug trafficking is a serious threat to India, experts say. “In Punjab the threat of drug use is very high which is causing a serious problem in the society,” Yashovardhan Azad, former Special Director Intelligence Bureau told Moneycontrol.

“The drugs along with small arms and weapons are pushed inside our country from Pakistan with the help of drones, right upto Jammu and Kashmir. The heavy drone traffic reported is based on only those intercepted. Also, there are inter-riverine gaps along the border near Punjab through which these drugs are smuggled in,” he said.

The World Drug Report (WDR) 2021 states that “data on the prevalence of the use of opiates suggest that South Asia (most notably India) may be home to the largest number of opiate users worldwide (17 million people, or 39 per cent of the global estimate in 2019, i.e., far more than in any other subregion) and may have experienced very strong increases in opiate use over the past two decades.”

Opiate demand in South Asia is met by smuggling from South-West Asia, with a rise in quantities being trafficked along the southern route, the report says. “Opiates are mainly trafficked along the route via Pakistan and/or via the Islamic Republic of Iran to India, for domestic consumption and re-export to countries in the region, and to Africa, for local markets and re-export to Europe.”

India has always been a transit route as the consignments from India attract less attention compared to those from Afghanistan or Iran to other countries, according to Najib Shah, former Director General of Revenue Intelligence. “The huge quantities seized (at Mundra) also indicate the presence of a retail network which is buying it and then re-routing it outside,” adds Azad.

The WDR report also says about 40 percent of the heroin seized in India in 2019 came from South-West Asia. In 2019, India reported a particularly strong increase (157 percent) in heroin shipments from South-West Asia by sea.

Maritime drug trafficking a serious challenge: experts

“The use of sea routes mean that huge quantities can be smuggled in compared to land or air routes, making detection difficult for the agencies,” Shah said.

“These consignments coming in through containers makes it more challenging for the security agencies as these are misdeclared and concealed which makes it difficult to track among the millions of containers that pass through annually. To spot a suspect container it requires huge intelligence build-up of data analytics and serious coordination between multiple enforcement agencies. So the seizure at Mundra port is a classic example of all things working together,” Shah adds.

G. Shreekumar Menon, former Director General at the National Academy of Customs, Excise & Narcotics, said: “This is alarming because we have huge container traffic, and the Mundra port is one of the major and busiest ports in India.”

“Today, there are a lot of international restrictions on checking each and every container due to the requirement of expeditious clearance of cargo for quick turn-around time and ease of business. The other challenge is that the customs officials have the authority to check the consignment only if there is an intelligence input or on receiving an alert from the computerized risk assessment system,” he said.

The eminent and imminent threat: Taliban

India is positioned at the confluence of the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle which makes it more vulnerable to trafficking and smuggling activities, according to experts. And now the Taliban taking over in Afghanistan will be a more serious threat perceived by security agencies, as their income and finance depends on the sale of these drugs.

“The likelihood of such consignments increasing cannot be ruled out, which calls for greater vigil and coordination among security agencies going forward,” said Shah.

The Mundra incident raises serious questions, Menon said. “The Rs 21,000 crore estimated amount is the market value of the drugs seized, which does not include the import cost of the consignment. The shipment and transportation cost of the consignment would also be significantly higher, raising doubts about who is behind funding and managing such a big consignment and for what purpose would the sale amount be used for?”

“The magnitude of funds involved through the sale of these drugs would most probably be used for financing terror activities in different parts of the country or for anti-national activities. Assuming that the entire consignment was transported to its destination and the party involved received the sale proceeds. This transaction of Rs 21,000 crore would be through cash, involving black-money, outside the purview of the banking system, raising serious concerns about the end financier and their source of money,” he added.

Chaitanya Mallapur is a Research Analyst at Moneycontrol
first published: Sep 24, 2021 02:15 pm