At Govardhan Giri Apartments on VOC street in Kolapakkam, Chennai, a woman recalls that she was drawing the kolam (rangoli) at her doorstep the morning of September 17 when she was distracted by the presence of “too many people, including women” in the flat opposite hers. Hours later, she would come to know that the people she thought were guests of her usually quiet neighbours Machavaram Sudhakar and wife Govindaraju Durga Purna Vaisali, were officials from Central agencies on the trail of one of India’s biggest heroin hauls.
The couple are under arrest since a firm registered in Vaisali’s name, Aashi Trading Company, was found to be the intended recipient of nearly 3,000 kg of heroin worth Rs 21,000 crore, originating in Afghanistan, loaded in Iran, and seized at Mundra Port in Kutch, Gujarat, by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI).
The neighbours in the middle-class locality of Kolapakkam, located near Chennai International Airport, struggle to describe Sudhakar and Vaisali, parents of two children, 11 and 6, as anything other than “ordinary” (the children are now with Sudhakar’s brother). They had been living in the flat they had rented, for around Rs 10,000 a month, for six years.
During the lockdown last year, Sudhakar had lost his job — a detail that several appear to know among their neighbours.
Aashi Trading Company came up around this time. As per DRI officials, Sudhakar has told them he started it in August last year in the name of his wife as business ventures established with his credentials “were not successful”. The firm is registered at an address in Satyanarayana Puram in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, in a building owned by Vaisali’s mother. The company had an import-export licence from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade under the Ministry of Commerce.
A special NDPS court on Friday sent Sudhakar and Vaisali to Palara Special Jail at the end of their extended remand.
Officials said the involvement of the Chennai couple was not surprising. “Drug traders usually seek out low-profile importers with valid licences… as an Afghani getting an import-export licence would raise suspicion,” an official said.
Sudhakar and Vaisali’s neighbours say there was no hint of their alleged dealings or the searches on in their house, till September 17 morning. The couple lived simply, were religious and had no “suspicious” guests, they say. According to one of them, “They were like any other god-fearing Brahmin family who conducted pujas. They never had guests except Sudhakar’s mother. Vaisali’s brother’s wedding was held recently and they went to attend it.”
While originally from Andhra, they spoke fluent Tamil having lived in Chennai for long. Sudhakar was also fluent in Hindi, a neighbour said.
While Tamil Nadu Police sources say Sudhakar held a job as a cargo agent at Chennai harbour, neighbours say he had told them he used to work with a leading industrial firm in Mylapore. “He used to ride his two-wheeler to work. They also had a car,” said another neighbour.
The DRI has arrested in the heroin haul case another person, Rajkumar P from Coimbatore, allegedly the key to the drug being smuggled into India from Iran disguised in a consignment of “semi-precious talc stones”. Having worked in Iran, Rajkumar reportedly had a “good network” there. He is in DRI custody till October 4.
Produced in the NDPS court in Bhuj, in Kutch district, Friday, Sudhakar and Vaisali sat close to each other and spoke intermittently. To Additional Sessions Judge C M Pawar’s query on whether they had any complaints, they shook their heads.
Asked if they followed the proceedings, Sudhakar said he understood Hindi while Vaisali said she was finding it hard. The judge then directed that the lawyer provided to the couple by the District Legal Services Authority explain to them the proceedings in Hindi.