Behind the police raids, the FIRs, the deaths of addicts in jail, the big question that hangs over Punjab’s two-year crackdown on drugs is this: where do the drugs come from?
Punjab’s government and police say the answer lies at the 553-km-long international border with Pakistan and blame the Border Security Force (BSF) for not doing enough to curb drugs smuggling. The BSF says it’s caught in a “catch-22” situation and that only a minuscule amount of drugs found in the state comes from across the border.
Amid the blame game, the findings of an investigation by The Indian Express, with figures obtained under the RTI Act from 14 of Punjab’s 28 police districts of drugs seizures, map a clear drugs trail that starts from the border and seeps into the hinterland.
It shows that as seizures of heroin by BSF at the border spiked over the last five years, a high number of cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substance (NDPS) Act were registered in Kapurthala, 95 km from the border, in the villages of Toti, Latianwal and Boot.
* The BSF’s haul of heroin at the border was 67 kg in 2011, 288 kg in 2012, 322 kg in 2013, 361 kg in 2014, 344 kg in 2015 and 104 kg so far in 2016.
* Sultanpur Lodhi police station, which covers Toti and Latianwal, registered 83 FIRs in 2014 under the NDPS Act of which 42 were from these two villages.
* Out of the 237 FIRs registered at the Kot police station during this period, 47 were from Boot village alone.
En route to Punjab
According to Ishwar Singh, director, state narcotics control bureau, most of the drugs seized came from across the international border and other states.
“The heroin recovered during the drive made its way into Punjab from across the border. Opium and poppy husk, too, have their origin outside Punjab and were seized after being pushed into the state from outside. Synthetic drugs were also seized in Punjab during transit. The source of synthetic drugs was primarily factories in Baddi (Himachal Pradesh). Action has been taken in such cases,” said Singh.
According to BSF Deputy Inspector General Raj Singh Kataria, the source of the heroin seized by the force is the “Golden Crescent” of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. “The majority of the heroin is believed to be from Afghanistan as world over 80 per cent of the heroin traces its root to Afghanistan,” said Kataria.
“We have covered almost entire stretch of fencing (487-km-long) at the border with CCTV cameras. But, standing crops and foggy weather pose a challenge and smugglers try to take advantage of that to smuggle heroin into Indian side. We have identified vulnerable areas and set up special ambush points,” he said.
The “changing tactics” of smugglers also pose a challenge, said Kataria. “Sometimes, they push heroin to the Indian side using pipes. Then, they bury heroin in the fields across the fencing where an Indian counterpart retrieves it,” he said.
Kataria said even farm implements are used to transport drugs from the border into the interiors. “Think of anything and there is scope of cavity. The cavities can be carved out even in the wooden logs farmers carry into their fields across the fence. So, we have to be very careful,” he said.
However, the BSF’s seizures have become a matter of controversy, too. In 2014, Punjab Police seized 202.4 kg of heroin from 14 districts, including the four border districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Fazilka, the quantity close to two-thirds of the amount that the BSF reeled in that same year.
The SAD-BJP Punjab government has been quick to pin the blame on the influx of drugs in the state on the BSF, accusing them of not manning the international border adequately.
SAD spokesperson Daljit Singh Cheema said that his party had said in the state assembly that “a comparison of heroin seized by our government and BSF should be done”.
“The heroin comes from across the border, it is not produced in Punjab. Cross-border smuggling of heroin takes place through the land or air route. Whenever a seizure is made, this issue is discussed by all including state police and central agencies and the shortcomings deliberated upon,” he said.
In 2014, SAD MLA Virsa Singh Valtoha wrote to the Centre demanding that the BSF increase its vigil and questioning how such a massive influx of drugs could occur without the force’s alleged collusion.
In a 2013 letter to the previous UPA government, Valtoha alleged: “The people of Punjab as well as people of my constituency are totally convinced and are 100 per cent sure that the bad elements, i.e, from lower levels upto a higher level, working within government agencies as well as within the BSF, are making a lot of money from this drug smuggling.”
“I was the first to take up the issue, on behalf of SAD, of laxity in guarding the border on part of the BSF. I had said that there were loopholes in the border-guarding mechanism and after my letters there has been a change. The smuggling has not gone down 100 per cent but the drop is substantial, up to 80-85 per cent. But even now, there is still a need to beef up BSF presence along the border since the Centre has no dearth of resources,” said Valtoha.
In its defence, BSF sent a detailed report to the Union Home Ministry in January 2015, pointing out that heroin and opium smuggled from Pakistan was responsible only for five per cent of substance abuse in the state. Says M F Farooqui, who was DIG (BSF), Amritsar sector, until October 2015: “The BSF is caught in a Catch-22 situation. If we make heavy seizures, questions are asked about how such large quantities of drugs are being smuggled in from across the border. But when our heightened vigilance leads to a drop in the influx of drugs, we are blamed for not making enough seizures.”
Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, former Professor of Sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, says that seizures at the border are only the “tip of the iceberg”. “People know this fact. [Former Zonal Director of Narcotics Control Bureau] Saji Mohan himself was arrested with a huge quantity of heroin,” said Sandhu.
Mohan was arrested in January 2009 by the anti-terrorism squad of Mumbai Police for allegedly pilfering 60 kg heroin from unaccounted seizures and selling these. In March 2013, he was sentenced to 13 years rigorous imprisonment.
Pakistan to Canada via Punjab
Investigations by Punjab Police have revealed that heroin smuggled across the international border transits through Punjab and J&K before reaching supply hubs in metros and onwards to the international market up to Holland and Canada.
Heroin: Punjab Police say smugglers based in Pakistan procure heroin from Afghanistan. Carriers on the Indian side are instructed to pick up the consignments, which are either thrown across the fence or pushed in through plastic pipes inserted into the border fence. Couriers on the Indian side hand them over to another team for transportation into the state and onwards to east Asia or Europe and North America.
Poppy husk/Opium: Cultivation and sale of opium/poppy husk is legal in the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Police say this explains why these two substances are found in abundance in the districts near Rajasthan, such as Bathinda, Fazilka and Mansa
Charas/Smack: Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu district is famous for production of charas, especially the area around Malana village, which has gained notoriety over the years. It is believed that most of these drugs are smuggled into Punjab from Himachal Pradesh by couriers.
Capsules/ tablets/Cough syrups: Synthetic drugs are mostly available over the counter at chemists across the state. Pharmaceutical units in Una and Baddi (Himachal Pradesh) and a few locations in Haryana have also come under the scanner for illegal production of these drugs in huge quantities.