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India's top narcotics cop: Drug trafficking and use have increased significantly

Narcotics Control Bureau DDG (Operations) Sanjay Kumar Singh tells MoneyControl in an interview that around 100 million Indians consume drugs such as heroin and cocaine. After COVID-19 outbreak, drug traffickers have invented new methods to beat law enforcers and are even using drones for shipments, the 1996-batch IPS officer says.

June 09, 2022 / 05:04 PM IST

On May 28, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) said it had unearthed a heroin trafficking network with the arrest of eight people and seizure of about 35 kg of narcotics.

In February, the apex agency for drug law enforcement arrested 22 suspects, including software engineers, a financial analyst, an MBA graduate and one of its personnel.

With that drug bust, it claimed to have uncovered a pan-India trafficking ring that used the darknet, or anonymous proxy networks, and cryptocurrency to traffic narcotic substances.

READ | Gujarat: 56 kg of cocaine, worth Rs 500 crore, seized from container near Mundra port

The federal anti-drug agency has been in the news recently not just for high-profile cases, but also a spike in narcotic seizures. Call it effective enforcement or increase in drug consumption, there has been an exponential rise in seizures. The NCB registered 684 cases in 2021 and 245 until May this year compared to 412 cases in 2020. Compared to 343 kg of heroin seized in 2020, the NCB confiscated 1,052 kg in 2021 and 331 kg until May 2022.

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India had 23 million Opioid users in 2018, a five-fold jump  since 2004, according to a survey by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The number of heroin consumers reached 250,000, up from 9,000 in 2004. Nearly 31 million people in India are estimated to be cannabis users.

In an interview with MoneyControl, Sanjay Kumar Singh,  deputy director general (operations) at NCB, spoke about how drug traffickers have invented new strategies after COVID-19 to try and beat enforcement agencies. An Indian Police Service officer of the 1996 batch, Singh, 55, headed the special investigation team that eventually gave a clean chit to Aryan Khan, son of movie star Shah Rukh Khan, in the Mumbai cruise ship drug case and spoke about initial irregularities in its investigation.

What are the common drugs being used in India? 

 In terms of harm, heroin remains the most abused drug followed by charas (cannabis). Synthetic drugs are also showing limited use though they are expensive.  According to a survey by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, at the national level, the most common opioid used is heroin with use of 1.14 percent followed by pharmaceutical opioids (0.96 per cent) and then opium (0.52 per cent).

NCB

Based on statements made by the accused, I can say that the consumption of drugs among the youth is increasing. I am not sure about the exact number, but I think roughly around 10 crore (100 million) Indians consume drugs. It used to be around 2 crore (20 million) 15 years ago. My sense is that, yes, drug consumption is increasing.

Have drug trafficking methods changed radically since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes, the traffickers reinvented strategies during COVID-19 restrictions. We saw a growing trend of use of parcels through courier services to traffic drugs. This is easy because there is anonymity. You place the order online or on darknet sites where tracking is not very easy. We have seized several such parcels at the airport and at the centres of courier agencies. In 2019, we seized just 60 parcels.

Also, read | Grave irregularities in cruise case; no medical test, videography done: NCB

Last year, we seized 300 such parcels across the country. This year, we have already confiscated 200 such parcels. Usually, high quality weed, MDMA (or ecstasy, a recreational drug), LSD, cocaine is trafficked through parcels. The quantity is less because it is delivered to individuals.

In Hyderabad, we arrested a person who was involved in selling prescribed drugs to countries like the US. The drug would cost Rs 25 in India and $25 in the US. You can imagine the margin of profit. The accused had set up a call centre and would receive orders on platforms like Skype. During investigations, we could find that he would supply prescription or regulated drugs to the US. This kind of trafficking was not common until now.

Is the emergence of drug trafficking through darknet a concern?

Yes, last year we found around 10 odd networks from various parts for our country, all working from darknet sites. It becomes very difficult for us to find out who all are using the darknet to access the markets... Recently we arrested 20 people in the age group of 20-35. They know each other only through virtual identities.

What is NCB doing to deal with these challenges? 

We have sensitized courier companies and asked them to maintain details of the seller and receiver  We are now asking them to insist on proper KYC and OTP-based verification, so that the identity is known, identity of the consigner is known. We are also upgrading ourselves. We are constantly enhancing our capacity to deal with emerging technology challenges to investigate such cases and gather intelligence. One of the key roles of NCB is coordinating with agencies and to upgrade our capacity and be up to date.

We have seen reports of seizures at airports and seaports. What is happening?

We do not have a presence at any seaport or airport. But yes, whenever we receive any input about some drug being smuggled into the country, we pitch in. Whenever we have information about human carriers, we do intercept them at the airport and if drugs are found, we do register cases. These  kind of cases are very frequent these days.

Also, read | Three held with over 130 kg cannabis in Gr Noida, two days after major 560 kg drug haul

In the last 6-8 months, because we have started doing profiling on the basis of inputs that we received from various sources, almost every third day we are intercepting someone or the other at the airport with drugs. As far as the maritime cases are concerned, heroin and meth (methamphetamine) are mostly trafficked. We take the help of the customs department. When we have inputs that fishing boats are carrying drugs, we involve the Coast Guard or Indian Navy and they, many a times, intercept those boats on our inputs.

There have been so many cases last year where the Coast Guard or Indian Navy had noticed boats carrying drugs. Some of them were caught on international waters in mid-sea. Three months back, in one of the joint operations that was launched with the Indian Navy, a team had gone to international waters near the western coast, very close to Pakistan, and intercepted a boat in which 800 kg of drugs worth crores (of rupees) was seized.

What is happening of late is that the smugglers and drug traffickers carry heroin or meth from ports in Iran or Pakistan and travel towards India.  Sometimes, they go up to the Maldives or Sri Lanka or even towards the African coast. Mostly, we seize the boats and on certain occasions we pass the information on to the countries where the narcotic supply is headed.

 There have been instances of drones used for transporting drugs. What is your take?

Yes. We have witnessed many cases of throwing of drugs from across the border. And recently, a new trend has emerged in which we have seen that drones have been used very frequently. The Border Security Force posted at the borders in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan has been intercepting such drones.

On June 8, we had a seizure of around 4 kg of heroin by BSF along the Rajasthan border that has been handed over to us. Four persons have been arrested. The use of drones started two years back but of late it is increasingly being misused by drug traffickers, mostly along the Punjab border, because the risk involved in this is much less than when you have in humans trafficking drugs. Last year roughly around 250 kg of heroin was seized along the Punjab border by BSF and they were handed over to us for investigation. We arrested about 15 persons. In many of these cases, a remote-control based drone was used.

You have dealt with high-profile cases. What went wrong with the Aryan Khan case?

We have pointed out several irregularities that were made in the investigation and some of the irregularities, I would say, proved fatal as far as the final outcome is concerned.  When the SIT took over this case after a month, and we conducted our investigation in the most reasonable and fair manner, we found there was no evidence to name six of the 20 accused in the charge sheet. You need to have strong corroborative evidence to prove the guilt, rather. So, we could not find corroborative or even primary evidence to establish the allegation, and the guilt.

I have been investigating cases for 25 years, I worked in CBI, which does all sorts of high-profile cases, and I have done several high-profile cases. As an investigator, you have to maintain the same standards in all the cases. It is not that just because someone is very high- profile, you change the standard or the norm, the norm would remain the same.
Gulam Jeelani is a journalist with over 12 years of reporting experience. Based in New Delhi, he covers politics and governance for Moneycontrol.
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