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India’s growing problem with illicit drugs February 18, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

Readers of reports on the Pune bombing of the German Bakery will have noted that the venue was an alleged source of illicit drugs for foreigners. This is nothing new for India: the country has long been at the crossroads of drugs supply between the sources in South East and South West Asia and consuming foreign adventurers – once know as ‘hippies’, now called ‘backpackers’.  It seems, however, that India’s crime problem with drugs may be taking on a new, more sinister dimension.

Crime statistics in India, such as they are, do not tell the whole story concerning governance, crime and violence.  There is evidence that India’s crime problem is seriously under-reported, and worse, that this under-reporting occurs in part due to a loss of faith in policing in India.

It is impossible to know the extent of under-reporting of crime in any country, but there are ways we can explore the data to give an indication of the dimension of the problem.  Crime victim surveys are a useful tool in this regard, but are not sufficiently developed in the Indian context to enable us to draw country-wide conclusions.  One survey of four major cities in Tamil Nadu (notably a state with more effective policing than many others) found that “many crimes occurring in India are not reported and that police [crime] figures are only the tip of the iceberg.” (K. Chockalingham, ‘Criminal Victimization in Four Major Cities in Southern India’, Forum on Crime and Society, Vol. 3, Nos. 1 and 2, December 2003, p. 125). A victimisation survey of Rajasthan conducted by MIT on behalf of the Rajasthan Police found that only 29 per cent of crimes were ever reported, and that, of those that were, only 72 per cent received a First Information Report (FIR – the vehicle for setting the legal process in motion). Nevertheless, we need also to note that the more serious the crime (such as murder) the more likely it is to be reported.

Serious under-reporting is also typical of drugs crime, wherever it may occur.  This is especially so since such crimes are frequently regarded as ‘victimless’.  Drug seizure rates are also poor indicators of illicit drugs crime.  Law enforcement officials typically note that only 10 per cent of illicit drugs are seized, but this figure is, at best, a guess and in some cases seizure rates could be far worse.

It is worth exploring the illicit drugs problem in a little detail, because serious drugs crime is usually associated with high levels of organised crime and corruption.  Drugs crime and associated criminality in turn typically mount major, long-term challenges to legal structures, particularly when they become entangled with the so-called problem of ‘narco-terrorism’.

The Indian Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) reports a virtually flat pattern of opiates seizures (at about one tonne of heroin annually and two tonnes of opium), suggesting India’s trafficking in and use of this class of drugs is not rising markedly, or that interdiction has fallen markedly (Narcotics Control Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, Annual Report 2009, Annexure A, p 65, with an update for 2009).  But drugs use data are very poorly understood in India.  The only national household survey was conducted in 2000 and reported by The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in a 2005 report drawing on triangulation between this survey and other data.  In this survey the UNODC found that “In 2004 the number of chronic substance-dependent individuals were as follows: 10 million (alcohol), 2.3 million (cannabis) and 0.5 million (opiates) [emphasis added].” The report continued: “The survey not only points to the problem of India’s population having twice the global (and Asian) average prevalence of illicit opiate consumption, but also shows that the treatment resources available are not commensurate with the ‘burden of work’ (number of dependent drug users) requiring immediate treatment”.  A national ‘habit’ of half a million chronic (highly addicted) users is indicative of consumption of massive quantities of illicit drugs, even allowing for the presumed lower levels of purity in India.  This is in turn indicative of high levels of criminality.

The US State Department in its 2007 report also designated India as a major ‘hub’ for illicit drugs.  The State Department was concerned at the possibility of diversion of India’s substantial licit opiate production and noted, as reported in the Economic Times, the sudden surge in discoveries in illicit growing in 2007. The Indian NCB notes of that year: “It was decided to conduct an intensive survey of the probable areas [of cultivation] involving NCB, state authorities and other central authorities.” Eight thousand hectares of illicit poppy were destroyed in that year compared with 218 hectares in 2006 and 623 hectares in 2008. (See NCB reference above). Illicit harvesting of at least 8000 hectares (the amount discovered and destroyed) suggests major criminal involvement in purchase, consolidation and processing of the opium gum.  For example, according to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2008, this area (which would be by no means the total area illicitly grown) constitutes nearly one third of the estimated total illicit cultivation in Burma (the major grower in South East Asia) in the same year.

The concerns of the US State Department were reflected by findings of the Australian Crime Commission (ACC). Australia has reported an increasing quantity of South West Asian origin heroin (mainly from Afghanistan) with India supplying in the 2007-08 reporting year “the largest number of detections [as a global source of origin] over 500 grams.” This indicates that India is a major source of heroin transhipment from the Golden Crescent – reporting that is simply not consonant with the Indian Government’s view of its illicit drug problem and the criminality involved with it.

Just recently, The Hindu reported that a gang of West Africans allegedly transhipping heroin from India to Australia was interdicted in Chennai. This points to a much larger problem with West African organised crime groups in India.  Such gangs not only sell drugs locally but also tranship from India to destinations like Europe and Australia.  According to NCB data, 52 Nigerians were arrested on drug related offices in 2007.  In 2006, 200 kg of cocaine was seized in Mumbai from a vessel out of South Africa, a large seizure by any standard and one that seems to contradict an assertion of a senior police officer that cocaine use in India is minor.  The South Africa route is a classic transhipment route for cocaine trafficked by West African organised crime groups.

India also has plenty of indigenous criminals involved in the illicit drug trade, including, allegedly, the notorious Dawood Ibrahim, who is on the US hit list of drug ‘king pins’ along with his alleged henchman, Iqbal Mirchi.  Half of the opiate drugs seized in India are now of ‘unknown’ origin, a rapid rise that corresponds with the fall in origin from Burma and South West Asia.  This suggests (but certainly does not prove) what the US has long feared – that a significant proportion of India’s 1000 tonne supply of licit opiat production is being diverted.  Another reason for suspecting that this is the case is that a high proportion of India’s opiate seizures are made  contiguous with the licit growing regions in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.  The issue of alleged diversion of licit supplies is highly sensitive in India, since opium poppy is a lucrative crop for thousands of farmers.  Elaborate controls have been put in place, including ‘smart cards’ for growers.  But the fact that illicit prices are typically from 2.5 to 10 times that of the official price (depending on the season) means that temptation is always present.

Unites States authorities also express concern about India’s capacity to deal with money laundering – a problem closely related to drug trafficking.  Although India passed legislation in 2005 and 2009 that beefs up its anti-money laundering regime, the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs found in its 2009 report (issued annually through the State Department) that India was still falling well short of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.  The report noted that illicit hawala transfers for incoming remittances amounted to US$13-17 billion alone, leaving aside the fact that the majority of hawala dealings relate to criminality and tax evasion rather than remittances.

The first step in overcoming a problem is to understand it.  India has not conducted a household survey of illicit drug use since 2000.  It urgently needs to do so, so it can at least be aware of the extent of its drugs problem.  As well as the problem of addiction itself, it is likely to find it faces a substantial burden of associated criminality and corruption.  This was the experience of East Asia as its economies began to grow rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s.  In such ‘24/7’ economic booms as were experienced by East Asia, and now India, stimulant-type drugs are likely to loom large in the emerging problem.  But India also finds itself sandwiched between the two great opium-growing regions of the world and is also likely to find a substantial, and increasing, problem with opiates.


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