Narcotics: Make (Drugs) in India

Published: Mon, 08/01/2016 - 11:07

The drug problem in Punjab that has taken the media by storm is a hydra-headed monster and, contrary to perceptions, very much born and raised in the country rather than across the border

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

A social media question-answer website, Quora, where users wrestle with thousands of complex issues every day, has an easy explanation for the question, “How did the youth of Punjab get addicted to drugs and alcohol?”

“It is due to show-off culture and misinterpretation of masculinity,” claims someone who is born in the land of five rivers.

Scrolling down the page, one finds statistics plucked from an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) study, which shows that nearly 2.3 lakh people in the state are opioid dependent, but the number of casual users is estimated to be 8.6% of the total population. The study, however, is restricted to adults. Those between the ages of 18 and 35 constitute only 75 percent of the state’s addicts. If the net is cast wider by reducing the lower age limit, the percentage will surely hit double digits.

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In a state that has a population of around three crore, lakhs of hardy Punjabi youngsters smoke, snort or intravenously shoot their poison of choice. Udta Punjab may have succeeded in highlighting the extensive drug abuse in the state, but the controversy around how many drug addicts there are in Punjab may have taken the attention away from the fact that this militancy-ravaged province is slowly turning into a drug-based economy.

Quora also answers how the opium is supplied to these drug users. According to one of the posts on this website, drugs move from Afghanistan to Pakistan and are finally thrown in packets across the 553-km-long border to India. This, too, is another facile explanation of a many-layered problem that only serves as criminal obfuscation. The drug smuggling across the border may be rampant, but the opium/heroin that comes from Afghanistan is still less than what originates domestically – a fact the Indian government is not ready to own up to. Besides opium, there is a thriving narcotics industry in the state, as seen in the dramatic case of Sarabjit Bhola and the Chahal brothers, who were allegedly found to be synthesising methamphetamine, or what is popularly called ‘speed’ or ‘ice’, in the border areas between Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. What the police unearthed with their arrest was a syndicate so large that it even had connections in Canada and Europe. 

In many ways the spike in drug habits that Punjab and the rest of the country has witnessed in the past decade has to do with corruption, poor governance and the inability of successive governments to provide alternatives to sectors that have ceased to be viable job providers to lakhs of youth. Jonathan Spence, a social scientist who studied the opium-addicted economy of China after the two Opium Wars, had noted that in a stagnating economy, opium supplied fluid capital and created new sources of cash so that smugglers, farmers, coolies, retail merchants and officials all ended up depending on it for their livelihood. In Punjab, where agriculture has ceased to be productive and there has been a steady collapse in manufacturing, it is drugs that fuel the parallel economy. This economy cannot survive without the support of some senior politicians and bureaucrats. The Chahal case again provides evidence of linkages with the government. The state’s revenue minister, Bikram Majithia, who is the brother-in-law of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, was allegedly complicit in this synthetic drug enterprise.

To reiterate, this case also helps in debunking the assertion of the Indian authorities that Pakistan or Afghanistan is responsible for the flow of drugs into our country as it absolves them of blame for a mess that is their own creation. As early as 1902, most of the country was afflicted by rampant cocaine addiction. A similar narrative was used by the colonial government then, which sought to source the cocaine epidemic to imports, rather than their own inefficiency.

In short, India has always been on drugs.

Expectedly, 80 percent of the country’s 10.7 million drug addicts (2013) use cannabis, while the rest, about two million-odd, use opiate variants. Opium and its derivatives have little economic justification to travel from Afghanistan to India as the price at street level is far less than what they fetch in any Western capital. In India, the price of heroin is barely `500-800 per gramme, but it reaches $806 per gm in New Zealand, $228 per gm in the US, $90 per gm in China and $441 per gm in Japan. Why would any heroin smuggler throw packets over the fenced border to India for literally nothing? Predictably, the contraband drugs that are seized in India are mostly in transit and seem to be heading to some other country. Very little of Afghan heroin is meant for Indian consumption, except in the case of high-end parties that take place in Mumbai or on the beaches of Goa. Figures reveal that 55 percent of the drugs are of domestic origin and only 45 percent come from
south-west Asia.

If that is the case then how much is needed to keep the addicts in Punjab – which is home to 56 percent of the country’s opium addicts – and elsewhere on a high? Supplies during the Opium Wars provide some rough estimates. To serve some five to 12 million addicts in China, imports from India and Persia had reached some 4,500 tonnes, which had helped in wiping out all the East India Company’s debt and turned it into the world’s most profitable company. In Punjab the consumption may be less in comparison to post-Opium War China, but the quantum needed would still be considerable.

Since the mid-Sixties, the farmers of Punjab have been feeding the farm workers raw opium in the belief that their addiction will ensure efficiency with fewer complaints. Most of this opium was sourced from areas of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh where licit cultivation takes place. That practice continues. India is the only importer of raw opium in the world. A study titled “The Global Diversion of Pharmaceutical Drugs. India: The Third Largest Illicit Opium Producer?”, jointly written by Letzia Paoli, Viktoria Greenfield, Molly Charles and Peter Reuter, shows 30 percent or more of its 1,200 tonnes of opium produce (approximately) leaking into the market. This is an underestimation. There are many mobile heroin labs that use precursor chemicals like acetic anhydride to convert opium from illicit cultivation to heroin and move it where the demand is. This is a far bigger racket than is acknowledged. Needless to say, this operation has political and administrative protection and is the new provider of cash for expensive elections.

There are many areas in the country that grow opium illegally, such as Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and even parts of southern India. This writer visited the poppy fields of Uttar Pradesh, where international drug agents control the produce and not the government of India. As the manufacturing and agriculture sectors collapse, only “made in India” heroin and amphetamines will have the ability to provide jobs for the young.

The drug problem in Punjab that has taken the media by storm is a hydra-headed monster and, contrary to perceptions, very much born and raised in the country rather than across the border
Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

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