Ahead of New Year’s Eve, Pakistan’s customs agency organised a ceremony to torch a vast collection of smuggled liquor, narcotics and contraband worth a whopping $13.9 million.
Although seized contraband items are typically destroyed across South Asia, in Pakistan they are theatrical displays of patriotism and morality, celebrated with official pomp and pageantry.
Recitations of the Qur’an and the national anthem echoed at the event before customs officials and their influential guests started throwing liquor bottles onto the piles of contraband laid out for a gigantic bonfire.
The highly publicised destruction ceremony on Dec. 29 in Karachi city was conducted to “rid society of the narcotics menace and to remain vigilant of the ever changing trends of smuggling,” the agency said in a statement.
In videos shared by the customs authorities with VICE World News, officials in green uniforms can be seen flinging and shattering expensive bottles of alcohol onto an expansive heap of liquor bottles, drugs and other items in a quarry. In another video, a steamroller can be seen crushing a sea of banned items, while officials and guests looked on with glee.
Pakistan is a crucial transit hub of drug trafficking, given its porous border with Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of heroin. Alcohol consumption is largely prohibited for Muslims in Pakistan, but a black market for liquor thrives, sustaining local demand. Hence, the government’s penchant for elaborate production numbers making a wreckage of liquor and other shunned vices.
“We have a ceremony every year in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Peshawar, with giant ceremonies in Quetta and Karachi. Whenever we have a considerable quantity of narcotics and alcohol, we have them destroyed,” Mohammad Samiullah, assistant director of Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), told VICE World News.
“We invite celebrities, civil society representatives, people of government sectors, the ministry of health and spokespersons of social welfare organisations.”
A contraband destruction ceremony organized by Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force on Nov. 24, 2021 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo: ANF
The goal, he said, is to spread awareness about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, and about the country’s efforts in dismantling their influence.
The ANF shared a video with VICE World News of a ceremony in November. In it, a tent housing contraband is seen inscribed with the word “drugs” and flanked by Pakistani flags. As the tent is set on fire, the event host asks a large crowd to chant, “long live the ANF and Pakistan” as patriotic music blares on loudspeakers. The fire then engulfs the contraband tent, forming pillars of thick, black smoke.
Like the event on Dec. 29, it was attended by the press, celebrities, government officials, diplomats, and business executives.
So far, a total of 16,732 bottles, 742 tins and 38,000 cans of liquor including whiskey, wine and beer were wasted in the Dec. 29 ceremony alone, according to official data. Besides those, 249 kg of narcotics and 191,642 counterfeit cigarettes, tobacco and shisha products were destroyed, along with expired food items, cosmetics, confiscated mobile phones, betel nuts, and medicines.
Videos and images of the ceremony have gone viral, sparking debates about whether these mass destruction ceremonies actually achieve their objective of countering vice. The ceremony has even inspired its fair share of hilarious memes. A selfie of the burning ceremony snapped by popular actor Adnan Siddiqui has launched memes comparing the actor with the famous “disaster girl” meme.
“I only heard about the destruction ceremony now. It was amusing to see such a large amount of goods being turned to trash. At the same time, I think and this is solely my own opinion that instead of destroying it like this, it should be used to generate money which can later be used for the welfare of people,” Siddiqui told VICE World News.
While some have lauded the customs enforcement agency’s efforts, others have raised concerns about the environmental and health impacts of all that burning.
A Lahore city study on the effects of burning hashish at high temperatures revealed that it did not completely destroy the drug. Instead, it released large quantities of chemicals such as pain killers, silicon and psychoactive compounds into the environment, putting nearby communities at risk. Experts have urged local authorities to dispose of narcotics through alternative methods.
“The fact that they are burning such massive quantities of drugs and booze and glorifying the act instead of actively looking for other solutions speaks volumes about their priorities in terms of public welfare and environmental safety,” Islamabad-based environmental activist Fairuz Bhatti told VICE World News.
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