Tripura’s Little-Known Battle Against Drugs Is Hotting Up
The drug menace, including cultivation, smuggling, and consumption, that was rampant in Tripura earlier is now getting a treatment by the police, as the state’s chief minister finds himself personally invested in rooting it out.
One of the most important pre-poll promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance in Tripura was to crack down on all crime syndicates operating in the state under the patronage of the then ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front. The BJP’s vision document, released before the polls, declared there would be ‘zero tolerance’ towards these crime syndicates.
Among the most powerful crime syndicates operating in the poverty-stricken, backward state with exceptionally high unemployment was the drug cartel that was allegedly patronised by the CPI(M). And true to its promise, ever since coming to power in early March this year, the BJP-Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) alliance has cracked down hard on the drug syndicates and cartels. More than one lakh kilograms of marijuana and cannabis, more than 5,000 kilos of heroin and brown sugar, nearly two lakh bottles of cough syrup, and lakhs of rupees worth of prescription drugs, including painkillers, have been seized. More than 300 persons, many of them with strong links to the CPI(M), have been arrested.
But, as Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, who also holds the Home portfolio, says, the war on drugs and drug cartels has just begun. “What has been recovered and seized so far is just the tip of the iceberg. This will be a long battle since the drug smugglers are so well entrenched. Tripura had become the nerve centre of drug trafficking and a transit point for drugs coming from Myanmar as well as prescription drugs going illegally into Bangladesh. Politicians and policemen were involved in the lucrative trade. But we are determined to exterminate the cartels and finish off this business that also funds terror outfits,” said Deb. He has taken a personal interest in rooting out the cartels and has constituted a special investigation team comprising trusted senior police officers to go after the cartels.
The drug trade in Tripura has three dimensions. The first is the widespread cultivation of ganja (cannabis) in large parts of the state. The other is the use of Tripura as a transit for transportation of heroin and other high-value drugs from Myanmar to other parts of the country. And the third is the illegal export of cough syrup, painkillers, and other prescription drugs from Tripura to Bangladesh.
According to officials of the eastern regional headquarters of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in Kolkata, cannabis worth about Rs 150 crore used to be produced in Tripura. Heroin and other derivatives of opium cultivated in Myanmar, which is the largest producer of the crop after Afghanistan, are easily smuggled into Tripura and stored there before being transported to Bangladesh for onward export to other countries by the sea and air routes. A significant part of these drugs is also transported on the land route through Assam, Bengal, and Bihar to Nepal and the rest of India. NCB experts say this trade is worth more than Rs 2,000 crore.
The third trade – supplying cough syrups and other prescription drugs that give a high and are addictive to Bangladesh – is worth an estimated Rs 600 crore to Rs 700 crore. Alcohol is banned in Bangladesh, an Islamic nation, and lakhs of young people there take recourse to cough syrups, pain killers, and other pharmaceuticals to get a high.
Chief Minister Deb says one lakh kilos of cannabis was being produced in the state till very recently. And he blames the CPI(M) for allowing and even encouraging ganja cultivation in the state. “Vast tracts of land all over the state, and even in (former Chief Minister) Manik Sarkar’s own constituency Dhanpur, were under ganja cultivation. I refuse to believe that he (Sarkar) knew nothing about it. In fact, the CPI(M) used to encourage ganja cultivation and used to benefit directly from the sale of cannabis,” said Deb (read this and this report).
The crackdown on cannabis cultivation since the present BJP-led government came to power has thrown thousands of farmers who used to cultivate hemp out of business and forced them to migrate to other states to work as daily wage earners (read this report). So grave is the crisis that the state announced support and subsidies to the farmers to cultivate other crops (read this report)! “This just goes on to show how widespread the cultivation of cannabis was. Thousands of farmers were dependent on its cultivation, and tens of thousands more on processing the harvest, transporting, and supplying cannabis to users. It was a lucrative business and the CPI(M) had encouraged and patronised it not only because it benefitted from it, but also because the illegal cultivation and trade in cannabis was a source of livelihood to the lakhs of people who the CPI(M) had dismally failed to provide honest means of livelihood and jobs to,” said state BJP spokesperson Mrinal Kanti Deb.
Deb’s assertion is true. This comprehensive report published in Swarajya last year-end on the ground situation in Tripura revealed that the CPI(M) had been encouraging poverty-stricken farmers to cultivate cannabis. To quote from that report: “Three things were achieved very diabolically by this, say opposition politicians. The impoverished villagers were happy with an increase in their earnings; a portion of the money made from the sale of cannabis started going into the ruling party’s coffers; and the CPI(M) tightened its stranglehold over the villagers by holding out the threat that it would get anyone flouting party diktats arrested by the police for growing cannabis.”
Chief Minister Deb asserts that he is determined to stamp out the cultivation of, and trade in, cannabis from Tripura. “Lakhs of youngsters had fallen prey to these drugs and our society was being gradually destroyed. The CPI(M) didn’t care at all and its only concern was to hang on to power. I have set a target that by the end of this year, not a single patch of land in Tripura should have a cannabis plant. Many, including police officers who have been involved in the illegal drug business, have been arrested and many more will be put behind bars,” said Deb.
Smuggling Drugs To Bangladesh
Most drug stores in Tripura sell three categories of prescription drugs – opioids (painkillers that have codeine and morphine), central nervous system (CNS) depressants, used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders (diazepam, alprazolam, etc), and stimulants (like dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, and the combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine), used to treat asthma, depression, narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder, and attention deficit hyperactive disorder – illegally over the counter. Taking these, individually or as a cocktail, gives a person a high and leads to drug addiction.
According to a senior police officer who is a member of the team that has been tasked with cracking down on this illicit business, most drug stores in the state sell prescription drugs on the sly (read this report). What is more, entire consignments of these drugs are illegally routed from wholesalers and stockists to smugglers who send it across the international border to Bangladesh. Tripura has a 856 km-long border with Bangladesh. Though 75 per cent of the border is fenced, it is easy to slip consignments of drugs through the barbed wire fences. Once in Bangladesh, these drugs are sold at least three times their (Indian) retail prices.
The senior police officer said most pharmaceutical companies are involved in, or are aware of, this racket and benefit from it. “Tripura’s population is about 44.5 lakh, but Indian pharma companies report sale of prescription drugs worth more than Rs 400 crore a year in this small state. Going by this figure, the per-capita consumption of prescription drugs in Tripura is more than Rs 900 a year, which is the highest in the country. And we are not including drugs procured directly and distributed by government healthcare institutions, which most people of the state depend on. This figure is inordinately high and unrealistic and it is clear that drug stores, dealers, stockists, and wholesalers get in such a huge quantity of drugs to sell them illegally over the counter and to smuggle out to Bangladesh. We estimate that another Rs 200 crore to Rs 300 crore worth of such drugs comes into the state from other parts of the country through Assam without proper documents,” the officer said.
There have been media reports in Bangladesh criticising India for not taking measures to stop the smuggling of prescription drugs. The matter has also come up during talks between leaders of the two countries. Dhaka has been demanding that Tripura state authorities and the Indian border guards (the Border Security Force) stop the exfiltration of prescription drugs from Tripura into Bangladesh.
“It is not that the earlier government was unaware of this. But they encouraged it for much the same reason they encouraged the cultivation of cannabis: this illicit trade brought money to the ruling party’s coffers and provided a means of (illegal) livelihood to men and women who the government had failed to create job and business opportunities for,” said BJP spokesperson Deb.
There have been many seizures of drugs destined for Bangladesh in recent months and, say police officers, most of these arrested have strong links with the CPI(M) or were functionaries of the party. “The reason these drug hauls that we are witnessing now didn’t take place earlier is because the police were not allowed to go after the drug cartels by CPI(M) leaders or were co-opted. Now that our CM (Biplab Deb) has issued strict instructions to the police and given them a free hand to crack down on the drug cartels, the police are busting these rackets,” claimed spokesperson Deb.
The BSF has also recorded greater success in apprehending drugs destined for Bangladesh. Though the force officially says that is because of heightened vigilance along the international border as ordered by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), senior BSF officers privately admit that they feel encouraged to go after drug smugglers due to the bold action showed by the state police now. “Earlier, we knew that the drug smugglers and consignments we would apprehend and hand over to the state police would be set free by the latter at the behest of local politicians. Now we know the smugglers will be punished severely, and so we have also become very active in checking this smuggling,” the commandant of a BSF battalion guarding the Indo-Bangladesh border in the state’s western Sipahijala district said.
CPI(M) state spokesperson Goutam Das has, however, rubbished the allegations against his party and said that successive Left Front governments had done their best to tackle the drug menace. He pointed out that even during the Left Front regimes police used to arrest drug traffickers and seize illicit drugs. “It is not as if suddenly drugs are being seized and drug traffickers being arrested now,” said Das. “The drug menace in Tripura dates back to the days when the Congress was in power. Congress leaders started patronising drug rings and cartels. Those Congressmen joined the BJP before the last assembly polls here. So the BJP has no business accusing us of involvement in the racket,” said Das.
It must, however, be mentioned that the recovery of illicit drugs was insignificant during Left Front rule in the state. In 2017, for instance, only 20 kilos of cannabis and 118 bottles of cough syrup were seized by the police and just two persons arrested. In 2016, the figures were 23 kilos of cannabis and 200 bottles of cough syrup, with eight arrests.
Drugs From Myanmar
Heroin and other opium derivatives produced in Myanmar, as well as synthetic drugs like crystal methamphetamine produced in that country, also find their way into Tripura through Mizoram and Manipur. According to NCB officers, an estimated Rs 1,000 crore worth of drugs (and this, the officers say, is a conservative estimate) from Myanmar transit through Tripura. Tripura emerged as a transit hub for drugs produced in Myanmar over the last 15 years, say the NCB officers, ever since the other routes for transporting these drugs – through Thailand and from south-western Myanmar itself – came under intensive vigilance.
“Drug traffickers now find it easier to slip their consignments into India where vigilance is lax. The densely forested international border that Manipur and Mizoram share with Myanmar, and the fact that large tracts of that territory in Myanmar is under the control of drug lords and rebels over which the Myanmarese military have little control, makes this cross-border drug trafficking easy. Once the drug consignments land in Mizoram and Manipur, they are quickly transported by the land route to Tripura where they are kept in safe houses and then smuggled into Bangladesh from where the consignments are sent by sea and air to other countries. A substantial portion of these smuggled drugs are also transported through Assam and Bengal to Nepal to cater to the local demand there and also for transportation by air to other countries. This is because both in Nepal and Bangladesh, checking of cargo (at airports in case of both countries and sea ports in case of Bangladesh) is very lax and it is easy to bribe customs and other officials,” said senior NCB officers at the Bureau’s regional office (headed by a deputy director general) in Kolkata.
Once again, this drug trade had support, if not the direct involvement, of leaders of the last ruling dispensation. “Without their (CPI(M) leaders) patronage, this drug smuggling racket could not have flourished in Tripura. And to assume that they did not gain from it would be foolish. This (the drug smuggling from Myanmar) could not have started overnight. It is only now that the lid is being blown off this racket,” said BJP spokesperson Deb.
A senior police officer who oversees the functioning of the Enforcement Branch that is tasked with busting the drug trade said that till the new government came to power, very little was done in going after high-value drugs like heroin and synthetic drugs from Myanmar till earlier this year. “It is only now that we have started seizing such drugs and arresting the traffickers,” said the police officer. He said that the Chief Minister had given them a free hand in investigating and busting the drug cartels and has set a deadline for eliminating these cartels. Hence, he said, the police zeal to go after traffickers.
According to former minister and BJP leader Ratan Chakraborty, drug traffickers are plotting to kill Chief Minister Deb for going after them (read this report). Speaking to Swarajya, Chakraborty said Home Minister Rajnath Singh has received inputs about this threat to Deb’s life. “The drug smuggling and other rackets flourished under CPI(M) rule and the Marxists had a hand in it. Often, they were the kingpins. Now that these rackets are being busted, they are threatened,” said Chakraborty, who joined the BJP from the Congress and was a minister in earlier Congress governments in the state. He said that drug smuggling and drug rackets in Tripura started ever since Manik Sarkar took over the reins of the state in 1998. “Since that time, many crime syndicates were born and the drug cartels were the most prominent and dangerous among them,” said Chakraborty.
Chief Minister Deb said he has made it his personal mission to make Tripura a state free of drugs. He has been leading the campaign against drugs and has been monitoring police investigation and action against drug cartels and traffickers (read this report). His aides say the primary reason is that the Chief Minister is a very fitness-conscious person who exercises daily and is an ardent advocate of healthy living. “Thus, this crackdown on drugs is his personal mission, one that is close to his heart,” said a close aide.
Chief Minister Deb has been talking about the menace of drugs from every available public fora and has been publicly reiterating that the fight against drugs will continue with full vigour till the menace is eliminated from Tripura. Tripura’s fight against drugs has also gotten noticed, albeit sparsely. But, as Deb says, the war on drugs shall be a long-drawn one and is not being undertaken for publicity’s sake. “This anti-drugs crusade is for the future of Tripura and for the young people of the state,” he says.
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