India might have failed to ‘Look East’ in terms of legal trade and commerce, but there is a huge ‘saving grace’—drug trafficking. Militancy, which stands between growth and the Northeast, has become the driving force of this illicit trade. ENe hits the drug trail from two infamous transit points—Moreh in Manipur and Nampong in Arunachal Pradesh—both heading down to Myanmar, read on to know more about the heady mix of drugs, militancy and politics:
‘Hema Malini’ in Mumbai and ‘Number 4’ in Manipur mean the one and the same thing—heroin. Very few commit a mistake in understanding the term for the extremely ‘popular’ substance. The trade in heroin, brown sugar, cocaine and opium across the borders of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram run into crores. All these states share borders with Myanmar where drug lords roam free. In India, the trade involves everyone from street kids to higher-ups in the security forces. The porous border and alarming rise in substance abuse in the region, and beyond, have contributed to the ‘flourishing’ trade. This comes with a huge price as the crime rate has shot up in the Northeast.
The Trail: Dimapur to Imphal
Due to its proximity to the Golden Triangle with its perforated borders, Manipur has been an alternative route for international drug trafficking since the early seventies. By the early eighties, it became a ‘user state’. Pure heroin locally known as ‘Number 4’ is easily available in many parts of the State, especially on the Imphal-Moreh highway.
Our vehicle had to stop frequently at many checkpoints in our road trip from Dimapur to Imphal. At Zakhama, the inter-state border between Manipur and Nagaland, Narcotics and Customs department officials shifted through our entire luggage for a through checking. This made us ponder as to why do we hear of all the notorious drug trafficking cases when the insurgency-ravaged State is dotted with security establishments? It did not take us long to find the (right) answer.
After reaching Imphal in the evening when we walked out to the heart of the city, our answer stared at us squarely in the face. Amidst the bustling city at a place known as North AOC, we witnessed many drug users getting ready for their third and final dose of ‘Number 4’ for the day. Much to our surprise, the police officers present there acted as mere spectators. The gory scene of watching a bunch of drug users help push injections into each other was enough for us to pass a sleepless night.
Ride to Moreh
The local cabbie seemed relieved after being reassured about our identity. He advised us to put up a Press sticker on the windshield, but we were happy being undercover, and thus we proceeded without flaunting the media tag. The decision proved to be a difficult one to keep. Every now and then, someone would stop our van. There were even ‘parties’ who would ask for Rs 10 as road tax.
Sensing our curiosity, the smart cabbie showed us something unforgettable on the way to Moreh. There was a ‘check post’ manned by an underground outfit, just about 100 metres away from an Army check post! Is there any nexus between the rulers and rebels in Manipur? There was no doubt as to the answer now.
Sleepy Border Town or Drug Haven?
Moreh, the small border town of Manipur, is the commercial hub of the State at least on government papers. Through this strategically important place, India can trade in upto 62 goods with Myanmar. A special market at the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate is the main trade centre. Everything from garments to inverters, batteries, torches, rice, fish, vegetables, leather goods and footwear is available here at mouth-watering prices. The ‘trade hub’, however, does not see much running electricity. People cheer every time the electricity comes back after long hours of load shedding. Life comes to a halt after dusk. Even during peak business hours, the town wears a deserted look.
The local people, mostly tribals, have little knowledge about trade and commerce. Besides being jhum cultivators, they are engaged in trade as potters and labourers. And, there seems no way to reverse the trend. ‘It will take some time as the villagers who shifted to Moreh are not educated. Awareness has to be created among the local people since they are not used to trade and commerce,’ says Ginsei Lhungdim, the vice-president of Hills Tribal Council, Moreh.
But then, there are many ‘outsider’ businessmen, especially of Tamil and Punjabi origin, who have been trading in the small town after they migrated to Moreh in the early 70s. As per their admission, there is hardly any business prospect in the region. If that is the case, the question arises—what attracts them to the remotest corner of India? Nothing but illegal trade.
There are also a lot of disparities in income. The business community from outside the region is well-off compared to the locals. ‘The local tribal people have been the losers. Successive state governments have been overlooking us all the time. They don’t take our views into consideration,’ rues Om Hokip, a former minister and resident of Moreh.
‘The majority of politicians and bureaucrats in the State are from the dominant Meitei community. They are apathetic towards the problems of the tribals. On the other hand, Moreh is the ‘gateway of trade of commerce’ only on paper, Hokip resentfully explains.
On the other hand, to do business in Moreh, one has to satisfy both overground and underground elements. Earlier, the militant groups were violent and now they prefer to talk across the table for negotiating their ‘share’. Strangely, various official departments too want their cuts. ‘Unless the government addresses the situation here, I don’t think trade can improve. If the contemporary situation persists, trade is bound to die at Moreh,’ asserts Surinder Singh Patheja, secretary BTCC, Moreh.
‘We the people in the chamber of commerce want this place to be developed. We have provided so many ideas to the authorities concerned to attract new investors to Moreh, but we are not being heard,’ says Patheja.
Tablets containing acetic anhydride are smuggled to Imphal from Kolkata and then sent to Myanmar through Moreh, the porous border in Chandel district. After decomposing the pills, heinous drugs such as heroin and cocaine are manufactured in Myanmar to be sent back to India through Moreh again. Thus, the vicious cycle is complete.
Although this is the main route, small consignments of drugs also pass through Ukhrul and Senapati districts. ‘If you can contact the right person, you will find everything here. This is a paradise for drug traffickers,’ said an old shopkeeper, who migrated from Bihar 20 years ago for some construction work.
In fact, illegal cross border trade between Myanmar and India through Moreh runs into crores of rupees on a single day. ‘If you can once execute drug smuggling here, it does not matter even if you are arrested twice in the case. Money can manage everything as a parallel government is run by the drug mafia and militants under the shadow of the government,’ says a local youth.
Big Fish Netted
On 24th February 2013, a team of Thoubal police commandos led by L Dhanabir Singh intercepted a consignment of drugs worth Rs 25 crore from a convoy of vehicles led by Lt Col Ajay Chowdhury
On 25th February 2013, Seikholen Haokip, the 35-year-old son of TN Haokip (former minister and congress legislator), was arrested by the Imphal police
On 14th July 2011, Shekhar was arrested at Chennai airport by Madhya Pradesh police in connection with the alleged murder of his business associate Rajesh Dagar. He has also been charged with drugs (cocaine) smuggling. Sekhar is still the president of the Border Trade and Chamber of Commerce (BTCC) and Tamil Sangam, Moreh
In an urban fringe of Imphal, Ahmed has been eking out a living through peddling for the past 10 years. ‘There are many big businessmen from Imphal who bring drugs in bulk from Moreh, and we collect them from different locations of Imphal,’ the frail man in his 50s says.
Ahmed is one among the many peddlers in his locality who have taken to this ‘business’. ‘I generally don’t look for much profit as I’m also a user. But, generally, I earn Rs 5000 to Rs 7000 per month,’ he murmurs.
Ahmed undertakes his business from his dwelling where customers mostly in the age group of 25–40 visit him for their daily doses. ‘Seven or eight years ago, the police used to raid our locality and we would give them their share. Nowadays, they do not come for their cut here,’ he says.
Hailing from Kombo Bazar in Imphal, Niranjan Singh is a former national swimmer. He was in the CRPF and was posted in Jammu and Kashmir for four years. Last year, he was suddenly suspended from the force for his alleged link with the ultras in Manipur.
‘On the basis of a very old FIR at a local police station, the CRPF had suspended me. I subsequently went into depression and took to this route,’ says Singh in a broken voice. He had also represented the Indian contingent in Water Polo. ‘I have two sons and I’m in neck deep in debt. For the past three months, I have been seeking refuge in this escape route, but I am also trying to quit drugs,’ Singh asserts.
Singh has been trying to go back to his first love i.e. swimming. ‘I have started swimming again to kick this dreadful habit. Except that I am finding it very difficult to quit as I have been facing withdrawal symptoms,’ Singh sums up.
Road to Redemption
31-year-old Ningthoujam Roshan’s story can be an inspiration for those who have been on drugs and finding it difficult to quit. Speaking candidly to ENe, Roshan says, ‘I started popping pills when I was in the eight standard. Actually, I was very afraid of using drugs but somehow it got to me,’ adding, ‘One day, one of my classmates brought Alprazolam to our class and I was the first student to try it, just to show off in front of the others’.
Stating that there are various reasons why the youths of Manipur are getting hooked on to drugs, Roshan says, ‘We had a band at our school, and, every night, we would play music and mix it up by smoking marijuana’.
Narrating the incident when he unintentionally started using heroin, Roshan says, ‘One fine day, I had only 50 bucks in my pocket and drugs was not available in my area. I went to different spots where the peddlers were gambling and I joined them soon to lose all my money. I begged one of the peddlers for drugs and he told me that if I bring some syringes for them, they will give me a dose of heroin for free. I went to a nearby dropping centre and had my first dose of heroin in life, for free!’
Recollecting how difficult it was for him to quit drugs, he says, ‘I was on drugs for eight years. I went to rehab many times and would relapse again. Finally, my mother sent me to my maternal uncle’s place where I learnt how to shoot videos. I also started volunteering for Social Awareness Service Organization (SASO) and help them in documenting drug users’.
Now, Roshan is working with SASO as its Programme Manager and helps the organization in planning, monitoring and evaluation, supervision, coordination, and advocacy for drug users—his journey has been an incredible one so far.
Jairampur-Nampong-Pangsau Route in Arunachal
There are many open unfenced spots between Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh. They are trek routes leading through dense jungle and mountainous terrain, and it usually takes one-and-a-half to two days for one leg of the journey. The person ordering the consignment makes a trip across the border to pay an advance. The drug mules are generally the Myanmarese people who carry the consignment down to Indian soil through the aforementioned jungle treks. It has come to our attention that underground militant groups have taken to organised opium cultivation wherein they provide the resources for its cultivation and whatever security is warranted.
According to police sources, once the batch is sold, the money goes directly into their coffers. The border passes along the Patkai range are very porous and consequently have become the chosen transit routes for opium trade. Nampong was the hub of most of the drug transits and the situation threatened to go out of control. However, security forces have recently clamped down on the drug mafia forcing them to go clandestine.
Where are the Security Forces?
The question might arise as to why there aren’t stricter security measures to arrest the transit of drugs but with the wicked terrain and its dense vegetation taken into consideration, it becomes nigh impossible to man these routes.
It has been ascertained that the drug trade and the poppy fields are mostly owned and run by underground militant groups of Indian origin. Such a group, which is native to one of Arunachal’s neighbouring state, has shifted to Arunachal Pradesh. This area is home to tribes which are Naga or ethnically related to them and being of the same parent tribe, the group has started adding to their forces by recruiting people from among these Arunachali tribes.
The locals in and around Pangsau Pass are dependent on easy earnings for their livelihood. There are many settlements or bastis on this side of the border which are the major stops during the delivery transit. Some of them are Lanka, Chango, New Khamdu. The uniting factor among all these bastis is the presence of Burmese immigrants. The India Day market at Pangsau Pass gathers on the 10th, 20th and 30th of every month. Traders even from Assam travel there to sell their goods. This provides an excellent foil for any prospective drug buyer to cross the border into the Myanmar side, legally, and negotiate terms with the sellers. So, once the consignment has been ordered, the advance paid, dates agreed, and a drop-off point decided, the seller sends his men through the jungle routes to deliver to the previously fixed drop-off point from whereon, it is either brought to the godown by the buyer or the buyer guides the seller’s drug-mule with him for the final leg. There have been arrests made on this front, but very sporadic ones. One can, therefore, safely assume that the set-up for drug-trade is well-oiled and covert.
Widespread Opium Cultivation
Cloth opium is the most popular variety of opium that is pushed into India. The other forms are Maosang kani, Mishimi kani and Burma kani. It’s measured in khan and tola. Cloth opium can also be locally procured wherein an entrepreneur uses old clothes, dyes them to remove its colour and then soaks it in the opium resin which then dries off leaving a yellow-brown patch of drug-laced cloth. The price per khan is Rs 2600 on an average but the prices keep fluctuating towards the upper limit most of the time. It might even shoot up to Rs 8000 to Rs 10000 in lean season when supply is less.
A recent trend has led the new users to shift from traditional opium, (which has to be cooked, after which the residue is smeared on a ball made of shredded banana leaves and smoked through a indigenous hookah) to its synthetic variants like heroin (or the second-rung, brown sugar), morphine, codeine etc. or the medical drugs they constitute.
The Burmese settlers who dot the bastis migrated across the border owing to poor living conditions in native Myanmar. In India, they earn their keep by undertaking jhum cultivation. To earn a few extra bucks, they make a trip across the border to work in the poppy fields and carry out its harvesting. Generally, these workers are paid in kind through tolas of opium in return for their labour.
The Tricks of the Trade
The traders usually prefer dealing with the Burmese from there or non-Arunachalis. The low population density in that region leads to a scenario where everyone knows everyone, and since the use of drugs and involvement in its trade has serious societal and religious repercussions, locals are reluctant to get mixed up in the business as far as they can allow. The Burmese settled in the bastis mentioned before can speak fluent Assamese creole as well as their native tongue, Burmese. Thus, they become an important cog in the wheel by facilitating the process by acting as translators and mediators wherever necessary, thereby eliminating the need to involve local people.
Manipur has highest number of HIV infected persons among Northeastern states. As per a recent report of the Department of AIDS Control, Manipur has shown the highest estimated adult HIV prevalence of 1.22 per cent followed by Mizoram (0.74 per cent) and Nagaland (0.73 per cent).
The Northeastern states have an estimated total of 63,049 HIV infections, the highest being in the states of Manipur (25,369) and the lowest in Sikkim (593). The annual new infections have increased from 5,549 in 2001 to 6,460 in 2011. This is quite contrary to the national trend where an overall decline of 57 per cent has been recorded in the same period and is therefore a cause for great alarm in the region.
Essentially the result of widespread use of drugs in the Northeastern region, the efforts of the government authorities have also been lackadaisical, further escalating the issue. Last year, the custom department of Imphal made only two seizures—while in August they had seized tablets worth Rs 20, 61,000—they had seized 107 kg Ganja worth Rs 5, 35,000 in September. While asked why they have only managed a miniscule seizure of drugs, one of the custom department officials, under the condition of anonymity, says, ‘The border between India and Myanmar is porous. There is also involvement of underground elements in drug trafficking. It’s really difficult for us to keep a tab on them’.
It looks like there is a chink in the armour of the authorities concerned and the nexus between them and the ultras is very strong. Unless this unholy connection is axed at the root, Northeast India will continue to suffer.
Words: Dhiraj Kumar Sarma and Hengul Dutta
(This story was published in Eclectic Northeast print edition of July 2014)