India’s drug traffickers are taking more risks and transporting larger quantities of narcotics into the country during the country’s COVID-19 lockdown.
In its biggest bust yet, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence’s Mumbai unit, an anti-smuggling investigative agency, seized 191 kgs of heroin worth INR 10 billion or about USD $133 million on August 10. This massive shipment, labelled “Ayurvedic” medicine, was busted at a port in the Navi Mumbai township of Maharashtra – just a month after authorities seized 1.7 kg of high-quality heroin worth INR 100 million or USD $1.3 million, at Delhi air customs in two separate cases in July. They were creatively concealed under LED lights, powder makeup, and packets of soap.
The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), India’s drug law enforcement agency said that drug busts halfway through 2020, especially those of opium and marijuana, have exceeded those of 2019.
“During the lockdown period, traffickers have increasingly resorted to moving large quantities of drugs in the guise of essential commodities like vegetables, medicines and building materials that were allowed to be transported freely across the states,” K P Malhotra, Deputy Director of the NCB, told VICE News.
While traffickers using land routes previously made multiple trips and smuggled smaller quantities, increased vigilance - especially at India’s borders - prompted smugglers to make fewer trips, but traffic larger quantities.
“Out of 907 kg of opium seized this year, only 143 kg was seized in 12 cases up to March 22, 2020. However, since the enforcement of lockdown, NCB has seized 764 kg of opium in just 16 cases,” said Malhotra.
According to NCB reports, the average quantity of opium seized per case was 12 kg before lockdown; this quantity jumped to 48 kg per case since the lockdown.
During the lockdown, dealers posed as truck drivers or even food delivery agents to transport their products. On April 28, the NCB intercepted a truck full of opium stuffed in potato sacks in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh’s Fatehpur district.
Then, the NCB seized nearly 234 kgs of opium from Rajasthan's Chittorgarh on July 19, it’s largest opium bust so far. The probe into this case found that many legal opium cultivators across Rajasthan were diverting some of their produce to illegal trade routes in the face of rising demand. This opium was often chemically processed to manufacture heroin.
Malhotra told VICE News that the supply of marijuana showed similar trends as the ones shown by opium.
On August 1, 411 kgs of cannabis worth INR 4 million or USD $53,585 concealed in 10 boxes of cashew nuts, were intercepted in a train headed to New Delhi from the Bhubaneswar district of the east Indian state Odisha. This came just a day after 1,065 kgs of cannabis, with a value of INR 5 million or USD $66,982, was caught in a truck carrying onions from Odisha to the north Indian city of Varanasi.
A month ago, in the first week of July, the NCB seized more than 5,447 kgs of cannabis from the cultivation and distribution network between the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha within a week. A shipment of 500 kgs was also seized in Mizoram on July 17, while 1,655 kg of cannabis was seized from the states of Bihar and Jharkhand in the last week of July.
“Ganja (Indian slang for marijuana) from the Andhra-Odisha border finds its way to all the major cities of India, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata,” said Malhotra. While hilly districts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir are sources of ganja cultivation, Tripura is the main source of cannabis cultivation in north eastern India, he said.
Flanked between opium-rich nations, India is caught between the Golden Crescent – the oldest route supplying drugs to Europe and North America from Asian countries including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia – as well as the Golden Triangle of opium producers like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Smuggling operations usually use the sea or land route to smuggle narcotics into India, while within India, dealers generally rely on land routes.
“Heroin produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and trafficked into India from the Pakistan border, is the main drug that came into India from March to July,” said Malhotra, who told VICE News that the highest seizures of heroin usually happen in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, which border Pakistan.
The rising number of heroin busts in India also comes three months after Asia’s biggest drug bust in Myanmar, where police seized 500 kg of crystal meth, 300 kg of heroin, and 3,750 methyl fentanyl bound for other Asia Pacific countries including India.
Aside from Asia, the crackdown has been especially tough on drugs manufactured in countries like Europe, specifically party drugs like MDMA and LSD, which are usually ordered from the dark web and smuggled into India through international post. Between March and July, the Chennai Air Customs Authority seized 11 different shipments of these drugs coming in via international mail.
“It’s been increasingly tough to source cocaine, acid and MDMA, despite the high demand in these lockdown months,” a Mumbai-based dealer, who makes their scores on the dark web, told VICE News on condition of anonymity.
“While cannabis is still the most readily available drug right now, the crackdowns have drastically reduced quantities for distribution,” the source said. According to the dealer, the crackdowns have caused the prices of cannabis to shoot up to at least double or, sometimes even triple, the average price.
India has been in various phases of lockdown since March 23. In a report on drug abuse amid the pandemic, Ghada Waly, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, wrote that the economic downturn caused by the pandemic could push people to abuse drugs, or get involved in smuggling operations.
In April, after India’s first month in a stringent lockdown, distress calls for drug and alcohol addiction across the country spiked by 200 percent. From March to June, more than half a million drug users registered in 400 rehab centres and clinics in Punjab, a state with one of the highest number of drug-related deaths in India.
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